I was born with music in my blood.
I was raised in Athens, Georgia, a city known for a bustling music scene that produced REM, the B-52s, the Drive-by Truckers, of Montreal, Kishi Bashi, Monsoon, and Modern Skirts. My father, his father, and his stepmother had all been in bands since youth, releasing albums and performing everywhere from New York to Florida. My earliest memories are saturated in guitar solos and soul; vintage Beatles concert posters and a photo of Jerry Garcia hung in our basement above an army of instruments, old and new. There’s always music playing somewhere, from obscure 1940s blues to Bjork, from Phish to today’s unknown indie.
At the age of 10, I was heading into the sixth grade at a private school across town where I didn’t know anybody. I hadn’t tapped into my musical roots yet, though I wanted to be a singer. I wrote my own songs despite my lack of singing ability, but by the time I turned nine, I had identified longer writing as my passion and had handwritten two feminist “novels” of 150 pages or more. Being a musician, however, was still one of my primary goals in life.
My parents, looking for ways to fill my summer free time, came across an ad for Girls Rock Athens, a nonprofit organization that was just a year old at the time and offered a summer day camp. The five-day, intersectional feminist-based camp serves girls between the ages of 9-15 and focuses on music education and the empowerment of marginalized identities, especially the female identity.
Students select an instrument — usually vocals, guitar, bass, drums, or keys — and spend the week learning the basics of that instrument from a local female musician, forming a band with other girls, and working to create at least one original song that they perform at a showcase at the end of the week in an Athens venue. Each day during lunch, a local female-fronted band or other female artist performs for the kids in hopes of helping them identify positive female role models in an industry so often considered male.
Throughout the week, kids design band logos, learn to screenprint, form and work with a band, take photos with a professional photographer, record in a studio to create a compilation CD, and more, as well as attend workshops focused on other aspects of music or life as a woman in our society.
A little nervous, but mostly thrilled to finally become a “real” musician, I signed up and headed in as a singer in early August of 2010.
I was immediately enamored with the creative process. My band of five middle-school aged girls came to be called the Social Butterflies and wrote a song inspired by my nerves regarding my new school. A social butterfly I was not, and never have been, but writing about my new-school blues exposed me to the true purpose of music and other art forms: a creative outlet to harness and deal with negative emotions, turning them into something tangible, beautiful, and purely your own. I wasn’t able to put it into words then, and our music skills were definitely lacking, but it was the beginning of a deeper relationship with music that has pervaded my life ever since.
I participated in GRA for 3 years, discovering in my second year that my true talent and passion lies not with my voice but with the bass guitar. By the time I was 16, I had performed around 20 times in local venues. Music, as cliché as it may sound, gave me the confidence I needed to overcome barriers that surfaced in my teenage life, from my mental health challenges to stress, school, and family drama. My strongest, longest, and most meaningful personal relationships are those that I formed within the music community.
This year, at the age of 17, I’m heading into my freshman year of college at a private school across the state where I don’t know anybody. Having tapped into my musical potential, I feel equipped to handle it. Reflecting on how much music has given me prompted me to spend one of my last weeks at home giving back to the organization that started it all: from July 31 to August 6, 2017, I had the opportunity to volunteer with GRA.
The structure of camp this year is similar to how it was when I was a camper myself but with the addition of more workshops that promote the organization’s mission: broadly, providing female empowerment and fostering conversations about inequality in an attempt to shape future leaders in change.
I worked as a bass instructor in the mornings, an assistant band coach in the afternoons, and a daily blogger in the evenings while doing anything I could in between to help camp run smoothly. I helped other volunteers move and set up gear, worked the front desk for sign-in and sign-out, supervised during workshops and free time, and even performed for the kids with a band comprised of other campers-turned-volunteers.
On Monday morning, we greeted our campers and gathered in our main room to set the Group Agreements for the week. Not only do instructors work to empower kids of all identities, we also try to dismantle adult supremacy and challenge authoritarianism. For that reason, rather than establish arbitrary rules such as “raise your hand before you speak” or the dreaded “just be quiet,” — though we make exceptions for rules against bullying, harassment, and intolerance — we prefer the kids work together to come up with agreements that they all feel will provide them with the best experience.
After agreeing on the ground rules, campers assembled for instrument instruction. They chose from guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, and rap. This is the first year we have offered rap, which was part of our effort to make camp more welcoming towards different genres and tastes as well as expose campers to diverse cultures (especially after being told that we come off as a “white” organization.)
Then they headed for the first workshop of the week. The week’s topics included body image and media literacy, the herstory of women who rock and rap, poetry and other creative outlets, gender roles, and more conversations to help advance a progressive society with strong, independent, empowered women leading the way.
One of the highlights of the entire week was the three-day Hip Hop Workshop. Activist, dancer, and community leader Mokah Jasmine Johnson, along with two students from her VIP (Virtuous Intelligent Phenomenal) Girlz Dance and Leadership Program, led the workshop and taught dance routines to the campers. VIP Girlz’s messages also align with those of GRA; it’s “designed to develop future leaders by encouraging students to use their voices and/or their bodies to make a positive impact in society” with aims to “build self-confidence, encourage teamwork and … [help students] identify their purpose and develop lifelong skills needed to succeed in today’s society.”
Mokah herself “is a notable entrepreneur, educator, activist and mother; she’s currently the President and co-founder of Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, an organization designed to combat discrimination through education and activism. Mokah is also the VP and co-owner of “United Group of Artists” (UGA Live) a grassroots event promotions company; the founder and program director of VIP Girlz Dance and Leadership program, the Hip Hop Director for Girls Rock Athens; an experienced adult educator and a civil rights advocate whom aims to uplift and inspire others.”
Having a prominent civil-rights leader on our team helped the girls in more ways than one. Mokah advocates for equality, acceptance, leadership, and self-confidence — exactly the kind of role model and teacher that represents GRA’s mission.
Finally, the campers picked their bandmates and headed to their band rooms to work with experienced female musicians in getting started in the collaborative process. They ended the day hand-making zines, short magazines based on self-expression and creativity.
We started off Tuesday with a workshop called “Don’t Box Me In,” which is more of a group conversation about what we are generally expected to consider “for boys” or “for girls” and why it’s okay to break out of that “box” we create for ourselves. What amazed me was how many of the kids already seem to be feminists. We asked them which activities were “for boys” vs. “for girls” in an attempt to dismantle what we assumed would be internalized gender roles, but they came back with shrugs and declarations that “they can do whatever they want.”
Wednesday‘s workshops were open mic — a confidence-boosting, support-oriented time for them to “put themselves out there” and cheer on one another — and the second installments of both poetry and hip-hop. During band practice, they took a break for a photoshoot with a professional photographer:
Thursday morning opened with a workshop on body image and media literacy. Campers discussed how women are portrayed in advertisements, movies, and other media, and the group thought about society’s expectations for how women and girls “should” look as well as why some of those expectations are extremely unrealistic. As they discussed media literacy, they also identified areas where different identities aren’t represented in society. One camper then started a hashtag campaign, #represent, and many of them participated to show what they want to see better represented in the media we consume:
As one instructor said, participating in Girls Rock Camp is like experiencing a three-year band relationship in just five short days. It can be exhausting and stressful at the same time as empowering and inspiring, and I was amazed to watch the campers work together, support one another, and ultimately overcome the challenges that inevitably surface when navigating the creative process.
Instructing at camp provided me the opportunity to help other young girls have the experience that helped me build my confidence and learn to love myself in a society that frowns upon and even punishes the women who do. By engaging young people in conversations about social inequity and positive change as well as equipping them with creative outlets, we hope that they will come away from camp with a strong foundation for self-acceptance and personal development as they grow up and make a mark on the world. They are smart, impassioned kids.
Many of them are already feminists, and not only do they know where our society is lacking in terms of representation and acceptance, but they’re also ready to fight to make it right.