Kalyn Heffernan was nominated this year for Best Female MC in Denver’s Westword. Some people questioned why the best-of category was restricted by gender, but Heffernan wasn’t ruffled because she’s confident in her skills. “I feel like could compete with all the male MCs in that category too,” she tells me by phone. “I think I approach the mic with just as much talent as the majority of rappers that I appreciate. Like, I wouldn’t be putting myself out if I wasn’t confident enough about it—that it’s just as good, or close to as good, as the people that I think are good.”
The group she fronts, Wheelchair Sports Camp, drew a huge crowd at SXSW this year. The Boston Phoenix listed them as one of the 25 hip-hop acts to catch at the Austin music festival. Heffernan says she was even approached by a rep from a major label after the show, although the band is still unsigned. Along for the Wheelchair ride are drummer Isaac McGaha Miller, saxophonist Abi McGaha Miller (the two are siblings) and DJ B*Money, who get down while Heffernan’s articulate voice flows over it all. The sound is progressive hip-hop—inclusive of other genres, including a big chunk of funk.
The group is about to embark on its second tour, and Heffernan says she’s excited and nervous. At the same time, she’s direct, open and extremely self-confident. It’s severely overused and near meaningless, but there’s another adjective that truly belongs next to Heffernan’s name: unique. That’s because she’s a white, female, gay, disabled, wheelchair-bound rapper and DJ.
It’s difficult deciding which pieces of that description are important enough to include when writing about Heffernan. My instinct is to leave out any physical descriptor. What’s essential is that she’s a talented performer. But even the name of her group comments on her disability. So I ask Heffernan if she thinks it’s important that articles about her include the fact that she’s disabled and in a wheel chair. She says yes and no.
“It doesn’t offend me because I’m very confident about who I am, and it is a big part of me,” she says. “I can’t be disabled and 3-foot-6 and not be disabled and 3-foot-6.” She says she understands that the media might see her’s as a “human interest” story. “It’s just also very important for me to have music to back that up instead of it just be about my disability.” Heffernan has her bar set high. She says that perhaps because she’s disabled and a woman, she feels like she has to prove herself more. She works hard. Going to the mic with mediocre rhymes is not an option.
Heffernan found hip-hop by flipping through the radio dial as a kid. She taught herself to rap and make beats. Eventually she went to college for recording engineering. She took piano and other music classes along the way, but says she doesn’t really play anything. “It’s hard for me to put that much time into an instrument when I know I can make, like, a full song on my computer in, like, half the time.”
Heffernan gets inspiration from everything around her, including all genres of music, but it wasn’t always that way. “When I was younger, I was really one-track-minded about hip-hop and only hip-hop, and the majority of it was mainstream,” she says. “If it wasn’t on the radio, I didn’t want anything to do with it.” Toward the end of high school and early college, Heffernan got into her parents’ old records—all the stuff she hated as a kid. She says there are good bits in everything that can be sampled and woven into hip-hop. These days her favorite band is Radiohead.
Wheelchair Sports Camp came through Albuquerque on its first tour, where the group played at Warehouse 508. Heffernan says it was cool to do an all-ages gig because she’s always had a strong connection to kids. There were some 10-year-olds in the audience that had watched the band on YouTube before coming to the show, and they were some of the most exuberant fans. Heffernan says another highlight of the show was the quality of the supporting acts, which is in her mind is evidence of a great music scene. She says she can’t wait to see what else Albuquerque has in store. “Every single person that opened for us was awesome,” she says. “I was completely blown away.”