by Nick Jones
Kalyn Heffernan, or MC T-minus Kalyn. is perhaps not who would expect to be taking the stage at Cervantes Ballroom for a typical Friday night hip-hop show. Even amongst the fellow underground acts that filled out the bill, Heffernan's local band Wheelchair Sports Camp stood out as unique. The only female-fronted group of the evening, they opened it up with blisteringly fast flows and infectious retro beats. The short set not only succeeded in getting the crowd dancing enthusiastically, but also challenged the gender expectations of modern hip-hop. While Wheelchair Sports Camp may sound like a tasteless joke, it is worth noting that Heffernan herself is confined to a wheelchair due to a rare birth defect, Osteogenesis Imperfecta. In a genre sorely lacking feminism, this 3' 6” lesbian is using her passion and talent to challenge stereotypes that have long been ingrained in hip-hop.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that hip-hop has perpetuated hegemonic masculinity, and often put female performers into strict molds. While underground artists make a point to be subversive of the status quo, mainstream chart-toppers demonstrate that heteronormative behavior is what sells best. This week, for example, places male performers in the top 4 spots of Billboard's Top Hip-hop/R&B Songs charti. Even Beyonce's song “Party”, number 5 on the charts, demonstrates cartoon-like gender relations. Belting out lines like, “I’ll give it all away/Just don’t tell nobody tomorrow/So tonight/I’ll do it every way,”ii she sings a total of 201 words in her most feminine voice, while her male guest stars rap 258 lyrics in lazy, masculine vocal timbres. Yet this single is the only of the top 10 attributed to a female performer. Of the other 9 tracks, women are rarely mentioned outside of connection to sex or their physical appearance.
Female vocalists and rappers aiming for the top spots are placed at the mercy of the gender conventions installed by their male peers. As Helen Kolawole observes, “A female rapper must be seen as conventionally attractive, and maintain an accepted degree of sex appeal, in order to avoid being branded a man-hater or lesbian.”iii Even when female lyricists address sexism, it is commercial disadvantageous to, “Cross the threshold into full-blown feminism, as their sexuality always remains their major selling point.”iv. Obviously, this cycle has created a stagnate view of gender relations, that hasn't changed much since the early 1990's.
Luckily, the diverse and progressive world of underground hip-hop has responded to this with heart-felt performers who sharply contrast the sexualized commercialism seen elsewhere. Wheelchair Sports Camp is a prime example, as Kalyn Heffernan has embraced her own individuality and received national recognition for her unique music. They have been noted by The Boston Pheonix as one of 25 hip-hop acts not to be missed at the 2011 SXSW music festivalv, and featured as a rising artist by Spin Magazinevi. Heffernan and her accomplices' talents and originality have routinely impressed those who come across their music. Her lyrics range in topics from social issues to poking fun of people's reactions to her wheelchair. As Westword Magazine has noted, “She is, at the core, a rapper first and foremost. She uses her rhymes and affliction together in a way that challenges the status quo”vii. Writing rhymes ever since she was 12, Heffernan has defined a musical style and social identity unlike anyone else, lending a unique perspective to her music. “I've been like addicted to hip-hop,”viii she told Westword, despite the prejudices she has confronted along the way:
“Not just being a woman, but being a handicapped woman, being a lesbian woman, there's always obstacles, but I think I get treated equally very well. I think I have to go out of my way to do it. I'm assertive and up front.”ix
“When rap first appeared on the music scene, it was hailed... as a vehicle or social comment,” states Helen Kolawolex, and thus underground rappers like Kalyn Heffernan have risen to critique views of gender and sexuality. Dubbed queer-hop or homo-hop, a growing number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered hip-hop artists have become increasingly popular in cities across the country. The magazine Colorlines described this trend as, “Crop of openly queer rappers who have been making music for years. They’re talented, proud, but when it comes to mainstream media, they’re often ignored.”xi However, now these artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve and bringing an alternative attitude into hip-hop that doesn't rely on hegemonic masculinity as its central pillar. These performers are opening, or sometimes re-opening, avenues for musical artists of different sexualities, genders, and body-types. Much of what makes Wheelchair Sports Camp so refreshing, along with many other acts in this sub-genre, is that they offer the possibility of hip-hop coexisting with feminism. Perhaps some day soon, this grass-roots movement will influence mainstream media to adjust its heteronormativity and finally catch up with the times.
i "Top Hip Hop and R&B Songs." Billboard.com. Billboard, n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.
ii West, Kanye, Bhasker, Jeff , Knowles, Beyoncé, Benjamin, André Lauren , Mills, Dexter, Davis, Douglas, and Walters, Ricky. “Party.”Lyrics. 4. Columbia, 2010.
iii Kolawole, Helen. "Sisters Take the Rap... But Talk Back.." Girls! Girls! Girls!: essays on women and music. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 8. Print.
v Heffernan, Kalyn . "SXSW Travelogue: Wheelchair Sports Camp ." The Denver Westword Blogs. Denver Westword, 19 Mar. 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.
vi Dodero, Camille. "Wheelchair-Assisted MC: 3 Feet High & Rising." SPIN.com. SPIN Media, 18 July 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.
vii Johnson, Ru. "Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp on rockin' the mike and making people think twice." The Denver Westword Blogs. Denver Westword, 30 Nov. 2010. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.
x Kolawole, Helen. "Sisters Take the Rap... But Talk Back.." Girls! Girls! Girls!: essays on women and music. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 8. Print.
xi King, Jamilah. "Eight Openly Queer Rappers Worth Your Headphones." COLORLINES. ARC, 11 May 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.