Themes of racist, classist, and sexist oppression have been central to hip-hop since its conception, but MC Kalyn Heffernan of Denver-based outfit Wheelchair Sports Camp rolls it out even further.
“I grew up in kind of a strange environment,” says Heffernan, who lives with a brittle-bone disease and makes use of a wheelchair to get around. “Obviously, being disabled, female, and growing up in borderline poverty has made an impression, but I also had privilege, being white and having a dad who continued to support me even though my parents were separated since I can remember. So there was always this strange battle between troubles but also recognizing privilege. I think just being a fan of hip-hop since such a young age, since I was like five, I was always drawn to racial inequality and a lot of the artists I was into were pretty female oriented. TLC was my first love, Salt-N-Pepa and stuff. Overcoming sexism is always part of their early ’90s stuff. I’ve always been drawn to social movements and the idea of overcoming inequality. I feel like more recently my music has brought me closer to that. It was always something I cared about, but then I started writing about it and it gave me more reason to rap. It’s not just rapping to be funny or rapping to be good or whatever. That’s cool, but the more that I was aware of what was going on, the more I felt compelled to write about it. It would drive me fucking crazy if I didn’t write about it.”
One particularly significant event that moved Heffernan to write about injustice was the execution of Troy Davis in 2011.
“I wrote ‘Justicen’t Right’ the night Troy Davis was executed,” she relates. “I shut myself in for a week or two, educating myself on the prison industrial scheme. I was really depressed and went down a long rabbit hole of research and documentaries and then I wrote that song. I listed every name I could find of people who were similarly oppressed and tried to name them off with intention, like a mantra. It was exhausting. And for every Troy Davis there are a thousand other people that go unnoticed. It’s still relevant to this day.”
More recently, Heffernan has been incorporating disability justice into her heady rhymes.
“I’ve always been surrounded by able-bodied people, so for me I’d always try to rise above my disability, do my thing, and not let it get to me. But now I’m plugged into so many things that I wasn’t aware of. Police brutality in the disabled community, for example. Music has given me this opportunity to speak about it and realize the intersectionality between disability and all the other marginalized groups of people. It’s been surreal to me how easily dismissed we are, even for me. I was quick to dismiss it for a long time. You don’t hear Bernie Sanders talking much about disability justice, but he talks about everything else. Disabled people are systematically oppressed as much if not more than anybody else.”
One of her most recent tunes, “Hard Out Here For a Gimp,” is a hard-hitting anthem for disability justice that includes the refrain, “There’s a stairway to heaven/ So tell me how the hell we gonna get in?/ Lord knows where, I’m heading/ It’s hard out here for a gimp.”
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Wheelchair Sports Camp recently released a physical copy only collaboration with GirlGrabbers in anticipation of their first full-length LP titled No Big Deal, produced by the late Ikey Owens (Mars Volta).
Wheelchair Sports Camp rolls into Kava Lounge on Monday, March 14, with support from local hip-hop staples Parker & the Numberman, TheLIEshow, and Ego War, feat. Oroosoo Gahbda.