The most immediately noticeable thing about Kalyn Heffernan is that she's in a wheelchair. What takes a little more time to absorb and appreciate is that the petite Irish woman in the Timbaland boots and paint-covered electric chair (she's also a sometime graffiti artist) fashions herself as the real deal on the microphone and is revolutionizing the image of the female rapper.
The frontwoman for hip-hop outfit Wheelchair Sports Camp (along with DJ Whitelabel, Isaac on live drums and Abi, who plays the Saxophone), Heffernan does not come from a typical hip-hop background. Diagnosed with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) as an infant, Heffernan has been in a wheelchair her whole life.
Undeterred, however, she has led her life with a feisty spirit for just as long. She has "crip life" tattooed on her stomach, which is as much a throw to Tupac Shakur's "Thug Life" tat as it is to her existence in the handicap community. Heffernan makes no excuses and pulls no punches. She is, at the core, a rapper first and foremost. She uses her rhymes and affliction together in a way that challenges the status quo.
The Wheelchair Sports Camp album The Mainstream Cannot Spearhead Change is not all full of warm stories about overcoming trials and tribulations; rather, Heffernan uses humor to offer thoughtful accounts of her experiences. We caught up with Heffernan recently and chopped it up with her over breakfast about everything from her life as a "crip," as she puts it, to her determination to make things happen on her terms.
Westword: So, who is Kalyn Heffernan?
Kalyn Heffernan: Well, you know, I'm a crip. I was born a crip.
Really? Like a gang member?
[laughs] No, I mean a cripple, but I do have "crip life" tatted on my stomach. It's kind of one of those uncomfortable things that took me a while to embrace. It wasn't probably until middle school when I became really comfortable with myself and would crack a midget joke or a handicap joke at myself. Before that, I was really affected by anyone who said "midget" instead of "little person." There's not enough time to be mad at everyone, so I figure it's easier to laugh at everyone.
To be specific, what is your affliction?
Osteogenesis Imperfecta. I was born with it. Neither of my parents have it. It's never shown anywhere in my family. I have brittle bones. I'm not as brittle as I used to be. As a baby, I'd break in my crib. My mom didn't know that I had this disability when I was born, so she had a natural birth. By the time I was six months old, she took me to the hospital because we were at breakfast and I moved my arm, and she heard a snap, and I started crying. She took me to the hospital, and we did X-rays, and sure enough, there were 25 fractures. I was in the hospital for eighteen hours, and they finally diagnosed me. That's basically it: I have brittle bones.
And that's why you're in a wheelchair?
Yeah, there are people who are different sizes with OI that can walk and are regular size, and there are people who are half my size, if not smaller, and are also super-brittle. I think I have it pretty good. It helps if I don't get drunk and fall out of my chair.
How old are you?
I'm 23. Through OI, I have scoliosis as well. It's something that's very common with this disability. My teeth are brittle, but I've met kids who eat a piece of toast and their teeth crumble.
So do you have one of those "hip-hop saved my life" stories?
Yes and no. My parents always listened to the Grateful Dead and that kind of stuff, and one morning me and my dad were driving down the freeway in California, where I grew up -- I moved back here when I was nine -- and I ran into Power 106, and I started hearing hip-hop and wanting to hear this station. It was like some bad song, and he said, "Turn that shit off."
Ever since then, I've been like addicted to hip-hop. I really got into TLC, too. They are the "hip-hop saved my life" example. They were just these three awesome women. Left Eye always had the dopest rhymes, plus they had catchy hooks and condoms all over the place. I was like five or seven listening to "Oooh on the TLC Tip" and singing about safe sex, not knowing what it was. I also got into Salt-n-Pepa a lot.
So I see the paint on your arms and all over your wheelchair -- you're a painter, too?
My senior year of college, I had to take an art class, and it was drawing. At the end of the semester, we learned how to paint and stretch canvases, so I painted a police shirt. I painted in the N.W.A. sign so that it said "Fuck the police." It's good.
What did you do with it?
It was actually the shirt I was wearing when I fell outta my chair and broke my head. I was bleeding outta my ears and they had to cut it off of me, so I was like, "Oh man, I love this shirt!" That's what I decided to do with it.
When you decided you wanted to become an MC, was it before or after you became more acquainted with your disability?
If was definitely before. I started rapping when I was twelve, in the sixth grade. I listened to all mainstream. It wasn't until senior year of high school and freshman year of college that I became acclimated with underground and conscious hip-hop, even the old-school stuff.
I knew about TLC and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and stuff like that, but I was really educated on KRS ONE and things like that. I started rapping, and it was more of a for-fun type of thing, but I continued that, and in high school, I was good friends with this guy who was a part of Wheelchair Sports Camp.
He was really talented, as well, and we did a couple things in the studio, and it was really awful. Listening back, it wasn't bad for the state of mind we were in and our maturity level, but it was pretty awful. We were in the studio and would pay $25 an hour, and I'd sit in the studio and try and make a beat or pay for a beat, and I realized I couldn't afford $250.
I started saving up and got a job working at Elitch's. That was my first job, and I just saved every check. I bought my first beat machine when I was sixteen or seventeen and started making my own beats. Again, it was pretty awful.
What is it like to be a woman who also has these triple obstacles you have to get over?
Definitely. Not just being a woman, but being a handicapped woman, being a lesbian woman, there's always obstacles, but I think I get treated equally very well. I think I have to go out of my way to do it. I'm assertive and up front. I think I do a pretty good job at throwing myself out there. People wouldn't come up and talk to me because I'm in a wheelchair. I have to go outside of my comfort zone a little bit to get noticed.
And by doing so, you challenge the comfort zones of others.
Exactly. I think hip-hop is a great way to do that. I get on stage and people see Wheelchair Sports Camp and wonder what's going to happen, and I start to rhyme, and then it goes from there.
What's the purpose of the band? Is it to be an advocate for the handicap, or is it to spread the message of hip-hop?
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I'm not really focused on being signed or getting a deal. That was something I was really concerned about as a kid, but now, as long as I know I've reached enough people to maybe think twice about something... They hear my song, and they might take things differently because of it. I do it because I love it, and not because of what people are going to think of it. I do it because of what I believe in.
When I first saw you perform, you did a song you called your one-and-only dis track. How was that born?
That was my point to make it general, but the people who know the situation know who it is. It really is about the guy who I started the band with. He had abuse problems, and every time he would get upset, he would quit the band. I told him, this is the last time you're quitting, and then he put out a freestyle on his MySpace called "Fuck Handicapped People." The album title was Wheelchairs Are for Retards. Instead of writing a dis track, I wrote a dis blog and tried to be funny. I thought about it forever and then felt like I HAD to come correct.