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Kalyn Heffernan is 24 years old, weighs 53 pounds, and measures three feet, six inches tall. She's light enough to carry, compact enough to hide under a winter coat, and is sometimes mistaken for a child. But Kalyn, who has the brittle-bone disability osteogenesis imperfecta, is hardly innocent, precious, or inconspicuous: The Colorado native dabbles in graffiti, cusses gloriously, and has a septum piercing. She raps, scribbles rhymes, and has been known to cover the viral YouTube video "My Vagina Ain't Handicapped." If you ask—and even if you don't—she'll eagerly lift her shirt to show off the words "CRIP LIFE" inked on her stomach, an homage to Tupac Shakur's THUG LIFE tattoo.
Kalyn is the founding member of Wheelchair Sports Camp, a fledgling jazz-hop trio cheekily named after a week-long youth-disability program she attended growing up and, by her own admission, "corrupted." The Denver-based band consists of Kalyn and two able-bodied friends from college, Abigail "Abi" McGaha Miller, a towering, talented 22-year-old saxophonist/vocalist, and Abi's Marvel Comics–nerd older brother, a 25-year-old mountain of a drummer named Isaac. Although both siblings are far more experienced musicians than Kalyn, they will comfortably concede that this project is "Kalyn's show."
On a wet Wednesday evening in October, Kalyn's show is 1,800 miles, $1,323, and one important record-label meeting away from home. All three bandmates huddle in Zuccotti Park, on the soggy outskirts of an Occupy Wall Street General Assembly, with Kalyn's girlfriend of five years, 26-year-old Jennah Black, who multitasks as WSC's merch girl and surrogate roadie. In the distance, British comedy wank Russell Brand ducks into the Sanitation Tent, followed by a cameraman.
Wheelchair Sports Camp has traveled to New York City for CMJ, the annual five-day music festival that once functioned as an unofficial kingmaking ceremony but now serves predominantly as a reluctant excuse for networking, binging, blog-hating, Tweet-spying, and babysitter-finding among, for lack of a better term, music people. Kalyn and Jennah had already planned a trip to the city this week, paid flights to Syracuse University for a Saturday-afternoon panel about disability and hip-hop—“krip-hop” spelled with a “k,” so as not to be confused with the West Coast gang. Hoping to parlay the chance timing into something heftier, Kalyn applied to play CMJ.
The band was accepted, but they have no money. Kalyn is unemployed—she relies on $650 a month from the Supplemental Security Income program. Isaac offsets broadcasting classes with a telemarketing job, and Abi works at a local HoneyBaked Ham, but they both live at home. Kalyn hatched a plan to defray costs: They could stay at Occupy Wall Street! Not only did they all deeply believe in the cause—Wheelchair Sports Camp had already performed at Occupy Denver, with Isaac in a Guy Fawkes mask—but OWS also served meals, so they'd save money on food, too.
Simultaneously, in a last-ditch effort, Wheelchair Sports Camp launched a Kickstarter campaign, an increasingly common online mechanism for crowdsourcing creative-pursuit funds. Their Kickstarter pitch, paraphrased: Be a part of Wheelchair Sports Camp's first show in New York City! The underlying message: Help the Little Band That Could! The fantasy-league version: CMJ was a Big-Time audition! As Abi and Isaac's father adorably urged on Facebook, "It could be a really big opportunity for the kids finally turning them into full-time, professional musicians."
CMJ is hardly the career catapult it once (if ever) was. But for three earnest kids with no resources from the Rockies, the footnote affiliation wields influence back home. "Regardless of how well or bad the shows do, the fact that you're getting out of state? Everybody at home is like"—Kalyn gasps, by way of demonstration—"'You went to Texas! And New York!'"
Besides, even from the most cynical perspective, all an act needs to jockey forward in this moment is one trigger: one substantiative interaction, one show, one song, one viral video. Never mind that as an emcee, Kalyn sounds like grime-shorty Lady Sovereign sucking helium, spitting vocabulary strings with the cadence of somersaults, or Animaniacs' character Dot rhyming "disagree" with "suck a titty." Sure, the live band could use a little practice, but add a compelling human-interest narrative, hook up with the right mentor or coach, and you might just have a future. Or at least, a bed on tour.
Ten days before their CMJ show, Wheelchair Sports Camp not only met their $1,200 financial goal, but also surpassed it. And that's how a shambling outfit of exuberant underdogs with no revenue stream, no out-of-state fan base, no publicist, no critical adoration, no technical preparation, and no connections quietly became the de facto Mighty Ducks of CMJ: All it took was stubborn idealism, fearlessness, and a quixotic little leader with a willingness to curl up in the rain.
Wheelchair Sports Camp didn't sleep at Occupy Wall Street. Isaac and Abi chickened out. "Kalyn's like, 'Do we reaaaalllllllly need to get a hotel room?'" Isaac recounts. "We're like, 'Yeahhhh.' I'm not gonna try to huddle up with my gear in a sleeping bag."