On a cold Saturday morning at the end of December, Kalyn Heffernan is huddled just inside the door of Swift’s Breakfast House in the Santa Fe Arts District in Denver. It’s a somewhat cramped storefront — a “grab a seat by the door because you can’t wheel in much further than that” joint. It’s clearly a local favorite, with a diverse blue-collar clientele cycling through. And it’s just the kind of place you’d expect to find Heffernan.
Thirty-one years old and a Denver native, Heffernan is a female rapper and the front person of Wheelchair Sports Camp, a band she co-founded, which has made its mark by showcasing both live and electronic instruments in a noisy, jazzy, experimental — but otherwise traditional — hip-hop group. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, Heffernan’s slight stature only amplifies her impactful presence as someone who clearly has a lot to say and isn’t afraid to deliver it straight.
Those same qualities that helped make her a thought-provoking, witty and insightful rapper are now assets as she pursues a new goal: becoming Denver’s mayor. Having authored songs like “Hard Out Here for a Gimp” and “Dolphins are Whores,” she doesn’t fit the traditional politico persona and could be dismissed by some as a joke. But watching her converse with staff and customers over her usual late morning breakfast order, “Kalyn for Mayor” doesn’t seem far-fetched. Denverites clearly know and love her. She has an easy way with people and a measured thoughtfulness. Her cool demeanor, musician’s intellect, and activist passion all converge to make her a formidable candidate. And like all great candidates, she has a compelling backstory.
From Camper to Rapper
Heffernan doesn’t fit into any mold and doesn’t try to. She’s lived outside the box from an early age, growing up as the only child of two “nutty” parents. “I didn’t have too much time to worry about my disability because there was so much other shit going on in my life. My parents were like, ‘It is what it is.’” She points out that being small made it easy for people to involve her. “As someone with brittle bones, you kind of have to let go.”
Heffernan embraced rap music with the same abandon as she approached life. “I have a vivid memory of finding it when I was 5, and being like, ‘Dad, this is awesome! Turn this on!’ And him being like, ‘Turn that shit off!’” Despite the complete absence of rap artists who looked or sounded like her, the art form reached her immediately. “I feel like rap was my first identity, before I identified with anything. And it was like, yes, this is mine.”
She surmises that being young and having a disability gave her just enough distance from rap content that she could listen without anyone giving her grief. “I could listen to gangster rap, and you know, I’m probably not going to join a gang. I was 5 listening to sex rap, but I wasn’t at all sexually active. I didn’t know half the stuff they were talking about.”
Aspiring to be like the artists in her favorite band, TLC, Heffernan wrote her first rap for a sixth-grade talent show, then honed her craft through high school, working at a local amusement park to save up for a beat machine. She didn’t plan on going to college but ended up with a scholarship to University of Colorado-Denver, where she learned the engineering aspects of recording.
It was also in college that she reconnected with an old friend from middle and high school, the future co-founder of Wheelchair Sports Camp. They chose the band name as a semi-sarcastic shout-out to an actual summer camp Heffernan had attended as a youngster. “I felt like a lot of the kids lived for it, that was their favorite week of the year,” she says. “I was more of a kid that was too cool for everything. I didn’t want to follow my group to the different activities, yet I still had a blast. But a lot of that was me bringing my friends and finding the rebels and saying, ‘Fuck this, let’s get out of here and smoke pot.’ Just being bad. We got in a lot of trouble.”
Heffernan feels the band name allows them to acknowledge her disability and move on to more important topics. But she admits it can also be complex. “If some people don’t know I have a disability, they may think it’s offensive. Which I kind of like. I’m pretty offensive sometimes. But, it runs the risk of being a gimmick, which I hope it never is too much.
“We still play with the imagery of Wheelchair Sports Camp and identifying with my disability. But the music has always been first.”
Finding Her Voice
While the two friends appreciated political and conscious rap, they initially strove for humor and silliness. “It was very sarcastic, anti-establishment, just rage against everything — rage against Denver, rage against ourselves, really,” says Heffernan.
The band gained followers and started including live musicians. A busy touring schedule combined with a minimal budget and sometimes questionable venues made life on the road unpredictable. “We kind of joke that a tour is like Wheelchair Death Camp. Sometimes the venues are accessible, but the stage usually isn’t.”
Alongside the power that comes with performing, Heffernan battles with the psychological complexity of being onstage. “It’s hard to get out of my head,” she remarks. “Putting yourself out there, and then using a wheelchair, and then you’re saying some vulnerable piece of music or talking about real shit.”
She is highly aware of how she is perceived by her audience. “As a rapper with a disability, it’s always gonna fall on me, like, ‘Oh a disabled rapper.’ I’m not going to ever really outlive that, even though I gotta rap because I love rap, not because I’m disabled.”
She constantly works at balancing her aspirations to be better with not debilitating herself through self-criticism. “I usually have that ‘fuck it’ mentality,” she says. “Which is how I’ve been able to do as much as I have, just by letting go. And remembering it’s not all about me.”
Becoming aware of global politics had a profound impact on Heffernan and her music. “I got pretty messed up about world affairs and our country, and history, relearning the actual history, and starting to care. I felt so let down, like I’d been lied to,” she says. “After going into two wars, there was nothing you could tell me to make this OK in my heart or my head.”
Her “mostly kitschy, sarcastic” takes on disability gave way to more political and personal lyrics:
I might drown if I settle down in this town till the end of my days
What I’ve learned is that getting burned is the only way to change your ways
Life feels dire, down to the wire, can’t inspire, got nothing else left to give
Why worry, what’s your hurry, life is blurry, this is where we all live
— Where We All Live, 2012
She grew more conscientious of her lyrical content and not going against the system just for the sake of it. This included her awareness as a queer and disabled person about how sexuality functions in her identity. As Heffernan has developed her awareness of her own social identities, she’s discovered the power and privileges that come along with them. “I have an opportunity to say a lot more than most people can because of my disability, because of my gender, because of my stature. I’m physically not a threat, and because I’m white, and a woman, and small, I have the privilege of getting through doors where other marginalized people can’t, and then I can say whatever I want.”
they’re like Kalyn you talk too much
shut up you walk too much
“is the sex still the same” I’m like “nah boo hush”
gave me a little confidence now I got too much
inspirational porn star
ahh “my cute wheelchair?” cost as much your sports car
look we got enough problems
no need for you to call a cop who can’t solve one
— Hard Out Here for a Gimp, 2015
Now in the process of writing a new album that focuses more on relationships, love and heartbreak, Heffernan feels like her rapping is digging into personal topics and vulnerability like never before. “The more personal I get, I hope the better it’s gonna get,” she says. “I can easily tell other people’s stories. … Rapping about myself is twice the vulnerability.”
Into the Fire
Beyond the music, Heffernan had her own unexpected personal awakening around her disability identity. She became more active in all types of social protests and movements, attending marches and rallies like Denver’s MLK Marade (a mash-up of “march” and “parade”), Occupy Denver and the 2016 Standing Rock protest against the oil pipeline on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. She started to notice that at many of the activist events, she was the only person with a visible disability. “The last few years, ‘intersectionality’ is such a hot topic and buzz word, and yet, disabled people are left out or last on the list. And they represent such a huge population, and they intersect with all these other marginalized groups.”
Feeling left out of the conversation, and aware of her inclination to blame everyone else, she instead started examining her own culpability in the problem. “I thought, what’s your connection to the disability community outside of starting shit at wheelchair sports camp? I started having to unpack my own ableism and realize that I haven’t really done my work for the disability community.”
Getting involved with longtime disability activists at Denver’s ADAPT and boning up on disability history made Heffernan more aware of the depth of the issues facing people with disabilities. “I’ve been really checking myself on how much I’ve stood up for disability,” she says. “It’s not just getting me backstage at a concert.”
Heffernan is committed to holding others in the disability community accountable and advocating for a more representative movement.
“Inclusion is something everybody loves to throw around these days … but I mean the Women’s March is SO not inclusive,” she says. “There are people of color movements that really left out a lot of people with disabilities, and there’s the disability movement that’s still leaving out people of color.
“It’s just selfish. It always ends up going back to that person who can’t take a check, they can’t take hearing about their own privilege. We all have privilege.”
Yet, Heffernan doesn’t consider it an obligation for people with disabilities to be disability rights activists. “It’s not easy to advocate for yourself when you’re marginalized every day, and pitied and patronized and discriminated against, and you add all these other marginalized identities — queer, people of color, indigenous folks — it’s nonstop,” she says. “There’s so much more to deal with — just the survival of it.
“It’s not anybody’s responsibility or obligation to do anything except for themselves. But if you do survive and you are doing shit for yourself, then eventually the movement will get stronger.”
Denver State of Mind
Heffernan is embracing her responsibility by running or, as she describes it, “sitting for mayor” of Denver in the May election. Her platform revolves around access, in more than just a physical sense.
“It’s about access in the shelters, access to education, access to safety, access to wealth and power,” she says. “All these stories are being told about Denver and how attractive it is, and how cool and hip, and those aren’t the stories of this community. … Denver has a really cool, resisting, movement-based community. We’ve always pushed hard and fought hard for our rights, and for access.”
“It’s ironic that I jumped into this on the 40th anniversary of the Gang of 19,” says Heffernan, referring to the 1978 disability rights protesters who achieved landmark accessibility overhauls with Denver’s public transportation. “Denver was kind of this epicenter for disability rights, and to me it should be the most accessible city in the country, and it’s not. And the way that we treat our homeless people is a clear indication of how inaccessible it is.”
Accordingly, Heffernan’s first goal as mayor would be to end the urban camping ban. “We’ve lost more homeless people last year than ever before, and as we all know, most homeless people have some type of disability and have been marginalized and experience a lot of trauma, so the more that we criminalize our homeless people, the more that we’re oppressing marginalized folks.”
While excited to be a candidate, her candidacy has revealed what she thinks is an unfortunate truth about mainstream society. “They don’t want us [marginalized people] to do this, they’re not expecting people like us to show up.” She consequently harbors another ironic concern: “I’m afraid of being mayor because I don’t want to lose my Medicaid.”
Heffernan has seen enough to know that change is hard. People in positions of power get comfortable. “I stayed in a resort for one night, and I was like oh no wonder rich people don’t give a fuck. It’s so external to people in positions of wealth and power. It’s easy to lose touch with reality. And this disparity keeps growing and growing.”
As someone who embodies everything BUT the monotony of normalcy, Heffernan thinks there is hope by way of the “normal” people. “If we elected actual people, and not just people who are doing this for their career move, just real-ass people. …”
As she sits in the small diner, a female rapper mayoral candidate who is unlike any other in the history of … probably just about any city, she runs into a friend who has recently been part of the successful effort to have slavery language removed from the state constitution. Sounding more and more like a candidate for mayor, she congratulates him, and remarks that they should get together for lunch soon.
Heffernan is a woman of the people. She means every word — she’s as real as they come.