Wheelchair Sports Camp's Crip Life
Jason Paul Roberts
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.
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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."
Abi laughs. "Right? Tie my saxophone to myself and hope no one steals it while I'm sleeping?" Instead, they're staying 45 minutes away and commuting with a rental car—a motel in Whippany, New Jersey, offered the cheapest locked room they could find on short notice.
You can understand why Abi and Isaac were hesitant to pursue Kalyn's reckless road schemes: The last time they did, the brother and sister ended up with their mugshots on the Internet. Driving through Texas to this year's South by Southwest, Wheelchair Sports Camp jumped onto a last-minute show in Denton, a hugely successful opening slot for activist rapper B. Dolan that closed with the crowd chanting in unison. Back then, there'd been a fourth member, Chris Behm-Meyer, a turntablist who adopted the persona DJ B*Money—he recently just stopped returning calls, as DJs sometimes do. Kalyn and B*Money decided to celebrate their tremendous reception by spray-painting "crappy tags" (Kalyn's words) right outside the venue, in the middle of the town.
"I have a really bad idea of consequences," Kalyn admits. "I don't really think of it a lot because I'm in a wheelchair, and I get off so often?" Kalyn has a medical marijuana card in Colorado; the Texas cops found weed on the crew. Kalyn and B*Money got off. Taking a vandalism rap when she hadn't been painting at all, Jennah spent two nights in jail.
But Jennah is used to Kalyn's antics. Once in 2009, the night Abi first joined Wheelchair Sports Camp live, Kalyn called for a ride from Boulder: She'd had some drinks, fallen off a curb in her wheelchair ("I never wear my seat belt as much as I should"), puked on Scribble Jam founder Mr. Dibbs, and broken her face. "I loved it!" Kalyn squeaks. "When I break an arm and a leg, I'm out for six to eight weeks. So when I break my face and my head, it's only gonna put me out for a couple days." (Her disability causes her bones to break so easily that a former friend once foolishly tried to touch Kalyn's toe to her face and shattered her femur.)
Kalyn has always exhibited a mischievous streak—that's what made her love rap music in the first place. "When I realized how rebellious it was and that my parents hated it, I stuck with it," she says. She was five or six. Her first time rhyming in public was at age 12, at a school talent show, where she rattled off stanzas about the Denver Broncos she'd written with friends. Her first job was in the Looney Tunes store at a Rocky Mountain amusement park; she saved all her earnings to buy a beat machine. For her high school senior portrait, Kalyn posed with a microphone.
Music was such a big deal that her Make-a-Wish Foundation request was to meet all-female R&B trio TLC. The organization flew Kalyn to Atlanta, where she rode around in a Bentley with singer Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins. "My doctor even lied to them and told them I was dying so that I could do that—which I wasn't aware of at the time," Kalyn snickers. "I milk my disability." Like at venues, where her wheelchair became an all-access pass. "Once I found out how to take advantage of it, I wouldn't even watch concerts, honestly. I'd go to all these shows and wait backstage to meet all these people." Performers like Xzibit, Ludacris, Bubba Sparxxx, Erykah Badu, and Eminem. "I was such an Eminem kid."
That's why it's a huge deal that we're all squished into a freight elevator ascending to the downtown headquarters of Shady Records, Eminem's 12-year-old label, which has been recently rejuvenated with the 2011 signings of Southern staccato beanpole Yelawolf and verse-volley super-crew Slaughterhouse. It's Thursday, the third of WSC's four days in New York, and the Shady employee who has come to fetch us through the back entrance is a bodyguard-type with darting eyes and He-Man's ripped physique who's barking Spanish into a cell phone. Later, we'll be asked to use discretion with the office's address. "Nobody knows where we're at," we'll be informed, followed with the anecdotal information that when 50 Cent's career first blew up, Shady Records employees had to wear bulletproof vests to work.
Our escort deposits us outside the office of Shady artist and recording director Rigo "Riggs" Morales. His doorway offers a quick peek at a majestic platinum-gilded plaque celebrating 16 million units sold of 2000's The Marshall Mathers LP, along with a daunting display of Em-related trophies and victory-lap hardware that represent a nearly extinct level of music-business success. "How you doing, little lady?" Riggs asks Kalyn, who is wearing sunglasses, children's size-13 Timberlands, and a Roger Waters shirt.
Riggs shepherds us to a conference room, past a sprawled pile of Eminem-addressed fan mail and the receptionist, whom he introduces. "I met Kalyn at South by Southwest," Riggs explains. "She's a rap artist—and she's pretty fucking dope."
The office assistant is gracious. "You have to be something special because he doesn't take many calls!"
This isn't bullshit. Having received co-credit for signing 50 Cent along with a litany of other rap-music achievements, Riggs occupies an enviable place in the talent-scout pantheon. Somehow, miraculously, he stumbled upon Wheelchair Sports Camp when they played this year's South by Southwest. "I hear the sax, over, like, boom-bap beats—that really attracted my ear," he explains after we plop down in comfy chairs underneath a framed copy of 50 Cent's 2002 Rolling Stone cover and a reverent painting of a much scrawnier Slim Shady. "Then I hear somebody rapping; I just can't see who it is. I'm like, 'Oh, shit, I'm not familiar,' but I thought 'This is cool.' Finally when the [crowd] split, I'm like, 'Oh, shit, that's her!'" You can imagine his surprise. "It was a mixture of me doing my job, but also, I was personally interested in what the hell was going on: When you hear a boom-bap and a sax—that's not common. I'm a big fan of the sax. And then the voice."
Again, that voice. It's so high, so childlike that someone on Facebook recently accused her of pitch-shifting the vocals. When her parents moved her to Burbank as a child, strangers approached her for voiceover work on Sesame Street and Bobby's World. You can easily imagine someone trying to conjure the eerie gloom of Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life" for the new millennium and looping Kalyn's voice into the chorus.
Even as a sidekick, the contrast is entirely plausible. "I got onstage with Obie Trice once," as Kalyn tells Riggs. "I knew every word to every song: Cheers was like my album of high school. His bodyguard scoped me. And they're like, 'Hey, this girl over here knows all the words!' So he came over. . . . They literally picked me up, put me on this stool, and I rapped the chorus of 'Cheers' with him. I still have people recognize me from that." After the show, she went backstage to hang out.
"That's cool that people fuck with you like that," Riggs says.
"It's the wheelchair, man," Kalyn says.
Riggs pauses hard. "That's the thing. . . ." he stops. Rap music isn't known for exalting the weak. "Fine, it's the wheelchair. But you have a really cool thing. I can kick it with you guys."
Kalyn hands over her iPhone to play him the demo of "Justicesntright," a scathing radical indictment of the prison system, Obama, and the September execution of death-row inmate Troy Davis. The track begins with a shrill elephantine trumpet squeal that leads into a creeping bass-line attack that builds momentum like a chopped-and-screwed robo-apocalyptic Jaws Theme. There's something off with the sequencing—a xylophone tone floats into the mix, barging in like a doorbell; a sample of Neil Diamond bidding "play it now" from "Cracklin' Rosie" pops up like a Whac-a-Mole head—and Kalyn explains sheepishly that the track's mix isn't finished. But Riggs keeps listening as Kalyn's recorded voice rattles off breathless references to oppression, tyrants, courts, Wall Street investors, and corporations (Target, Microsoft, Macy's, Motorola). Her phone craps out right after Hewlett-Packard.
"There's an enormous amount of potential in what you guys are doing," Riggs offers. "What you guys are doing is really fucking special. The entire setup: the sound, all the way down to the looks." It should be noted that Isaac is wearing calf-length shorts, a Green Hornet T-shirt, and a Jets hat, while Jennah has on red pants. "It is a process; it's not going to happen overnight. You've already come a long way from SXSW—SXSW led to this. Pretty interesting."
Riggs pauses. "I'd like to take a crack at producing something for you guys," he says. But he clarifies, gently, that he'd like to experiment with something more accessible, more deliberate than the patchwork of samples and underground tics they've been playing with, something more, to put it bluntly, radio-friendly. "It's finding that left-fieldness, but in some ways—I hate to say this—dumbing it down to a point where people can get it for a second."
Riggs has gotta dig through his stack for the right beats. "Today's generation? They need something different. It takes a lot to get their attention." In other words, if there were ever a time for a queer, disabled girl with a love for pot, rap, and revolution, it just might be now.
The next day, on the way to Kenny's Castaways, the Bleecker Street bar Wheelchair Sports Camp was chosen to play for CMJ, someone mentions Halloween. "I'm running out of midgets to be," Kalyn declares blithely. No one blinks. In 2010, she explains, Jennah dressed up as Dr. Evil, and Kalyn was Mini-Me; Jennah carried Kalyn in a tailored backpack strapped to her front. Over the years, they've been Yoda and Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO. Kalyn has also separately dressed up like Pebbles from The Flintstones, Chucky, the murderous doll from slasher-film series Child's Play, and Timmy Burch, the handicapped fourth-grader from South Park.
We arrive at the West Village venue two hours before sound check. "Wheelchair Sports Camp" is scrawled outside on the chalkboard, and Kalyn takes a photo. We settle in the back by the stage. Jennah unpacks T-shirts to sell. Eventually, the soundman arrives. Kalyn pulls out her equipment and suddenly realizes that she has forgotten an essential cord.
It's 7 p.m. In less than 60 minutes, they're supposed to perform in New York City for the first time. This is, officially, the reason they've flown more than 1,800 miles, solicited more than a $1,000 in donations, paid for a room in New Jersey. "Oh, well, the show's canceled," Jennah jokes. No one laughs.
A frantic iPhone powwow ensues, everyone searching for a nearby Radio Shack. Kalyn and Jennah roll off an 11th-hour pilgrimage in a city where they don't live, to a street they've never been, to a retailer who might or might not be open, to find a cord that might or might not be in stock.
Abi and Isaac shrug. It's all they can do, really. "You'd think we'd be freaking out, like, 'Oh, my God! She lost a cord!'" Abi says, seated next to her brother in front of the sound booth. "But I feel like it's pretty typical."
This is Kalyn's modus operandi. It isn't that she's scatterbrained; it's that she prefers grandiose thinking to the banality and boundaries of logistics. The definition of disability is limitation—and if a young woman who can't walk focused on practicality, she wouldn't be making vagina jokes in front of audiences, fronting a band, and flying by the seat of her child-size pants. Mechanics have failed her from the start—why let them dictate any other aspect of her life? Despite the occasional hiccup, this outlook has served her magnificently.
"It's weird to me, having been in so many other bands," Isaac says. His other longest-term projects were Whelk, a prog-rock trio that lasted about five years, and Lungs They Burn, a blues/experimental band formed with a college buddy and a rotating cast of bassists. "We really cared about little shit. Like, 'Make sure all your equipment's at the show! Show up to the show in time! Don't get in trouble!' That stuff Kalyn doesn't give much of a fuck about." Then again, none of his other bands ever played CMJ or SXSW. Lungs They Burn actually applied to both, but didn't make the cut. (Isaac actually spent six weeks earlier this year living in Brooklyn, trying to sell a novel he wrote, and scoping out his long-term prospects. But then SXSW happened and they met Riggs. "Add to that the whole mess with the arrest; it was a pretty easy decision to come back to Colorado and give WSC a real shot.")
"Like with this gig today," Abi says. "Last night, she was asking us if we would do [Public Enemy's] 'Fight the Power.' None of us have done it all together, she barely knows the words, and we're like, 'Not for CMJ.' Our gigs at home? All the sudden, we're doing a cover that we didn't even know about."
It's 7:22. "OK, now is when I get concerned," Abi says, shifting.
It's 7:25. Still no sign of Kalyn. The room is otherwise empty.
It's 7:28. Tick . . . tick.
It's 7:29. Kalyn and Jennah roll in, hooting. "We got it!"
It's 8 p.m. Kalyn begins the set with the beatboxed blues number, "Harmonica Jones." At first, besides the Voice, there's only one other girl seated in the room and snapping along. Kalyn, outfitted in a "FREE MUMIA ABU-JAMAL" tee underneath a Boy Scout uniform shirt, barely notices—she's laser-focused on her laptop. A male companion comes with beers to join the woman in the back.
They blow through "Cans" from WSC's 2010 release Mainstream Cannot Spearhead Change, a smooth-jazz soul-hop song in which Kalyn turns the short-man chorus of 1995 Skee-Lo hit "I Wish" into a personal queer jam: "I wish I was a little bit taller/I wish I was a baller/I wish I had a girl/Oh, I do/I should call her." They do the J. Dilla–driven "Cold Steel," in which she twists Big Pun's "You Ain't A Killer" into a self-referential nod ("I ain't a killa tho/I'm still learning how to walk") and "Party Song," a wiggly groove anthem that samples Notorious B.I.G.'s "Party & Bullshit" and functions as Kalyn's unofficial mission statement ("The party starts when I arrive") and beckons "Rock with the midget."
Over the course of their 45-minute set, bemused gawkers in the front of Kenny's drift back curiously but apprehensively—like cats sniffing out a new kitten. At the 37-minute mark, a couple starts dancing wildly stage right. When Kalyn introduces "Still Night," a track about graffiti, the self-professed trash-talker gets a little sentimental. "We've traveled 1,800 billion light-years to be here," she proclaims. "I love New York. So fucking much. Because it's where graffiti started. And it's where hip-hop started. And it's where everything great started. We're really honored to be here."
A guy in the back of the bar keeps standing up between tunes and serenading Kalyn with a standing ovation. "You don't have to stand up," she insists. He claps even louder. "Thank you. I appreciate it." He's still standing. "OK, now you're just rubbing it in. That I can't stand up." He sits down quickly.
"I'm so rude," Kalyn says, somewhat proudly.
His name is Ryan Finger, and he works at JobPath on 38th Street, where he helps people with developmental disabilities find employment. He came to the show randomly with his JobPath co-worker, Erica Esper. "We saw the band name—Wheelchair Sports Camp—and we were like, 'That's fucked up.'" But it got them inside. "Then we saw them, and we were like, 'Oh, OK.'"
They loved Wheelchair Sports Camp. "The music has to speak for itself," Ryan gushes. "The draw can't be, 'Oh, I feel bad for her.' But the music is awesome, she was jamming, it was sooooo awesome!"
On next is Esnavi, a shapely Milwaukee-bred soul singer wearing gloves and a vat of facial moisturizer. Backed by an acoustic guitarist with a tall forehead and a soul patch, she overemotes as if this were a Glee audition, promises (more like threatens) that someday, we'd brag about witnessing her greatness in such an intimate room, patronizes the people who were in the audience by talking down to them, and deigns to thank her opener, "Wheelchair Sports Champs." Kalyn, Abi, and Jennah take turns rolling their eyes.
Meanwhile, in the back, Kalyn explains why she uses words like "crippled" and "midget" onstage. "I feel like I have every right to say that," she says. "I deal with it on a daily basis. As much as I joke about it, I still know how serious it is: Obviously, like, when I'm the hospital. But I could be upset about that my whole life, be sheltered, and be in my room, and focus on the fact that people stare at me. A lot of [disabled] people do. But the way I was able to overcome all that was just to make fun of it. And cuss a lot!"
On the way out, Esnavi pushes a promotional flyer with her head on it at Abi, who politely declines, saying she'd already picked up one. Outside, Kalyn fantasizes about what she would have said. "'I'll take one," she snickers. "So I can WIPE MY ASS with it!"
It's now December. Miley Cyrus has released a video in support of Occupy Wall Street. SXSW has confirmed Wheelchair Sports Camp for 2012. Kalyn started writing an Esnavi diss track. Riggs sent Kalyn some beats. Last week, Kalyn and Jennah flew to Los Angeles on a friend's buddy pass, visited Occupy LA, and within 10 minutes, Kalyn found herself being interviewed three times. If there were ever a time for a disabled rapper with a love for trash-talking, jokes, and revolution to be a star, that time just might be now.
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