When schools suck (unless you’re rich) and public arts funding dwindles, non-profits take over the massive job of teaching our kids how to think and be in the world. In outside-of-school programming devoted to things like film and coding, fundamental questions of identity (race, gender, everything in between) and conversations about income and gender disparity aren’t just hashtags: they’re actually happening.
For over ten years, the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls has been catapulting women and girls into conversations about power and gender through music (for a more mainstream example of where their work has brought us, see: Jaden Smith in a skirt.) Every summer kids ages 8-18, mentors, volunteers, and musicians meet for week-long sessions of band practice, workshops, snacks, and performances. All the campers self-identify as female (transgender or cisgender) or gender-nonconforming (non-binary) and most volunteers and mentors land in the same categories, but the camp welcomes “male-identified allies” to volunteer, noting on their site that these allies are expected to “respect the importance of leadership by women.”
At the camp-closing concert this past Saturday at Roulette, in downtown Brooklyn, a packed house of parents and friends yelled and moshed while one camper sang about what it’s like to be a lesbian; DJs played over lyrics about slut shaming. A band named Tommy and the Blobfish performed, and when the emcees introduced them, one said, “The blobfish is actually one of the ugliest creatures in the world,” and the other responded, “I like to think of it as one of the oddest-looking animals in the world.”
When a girl apologized on stage for breaking a string of her guitar, the audience yelled “ROCK OUT!”—a great way to stop campers from saying “I’m sorry” whenever anything goes wrong; the rest of the world should take a cue.
One volunteer, Betsy Grether, led workshops that focused on group harmony and learning how consensus works. She organized skits about being passive-aggressive and asked campers to recognize what that means. Last year, Grether was working at a brain research foundation but quit her job to volunteer for the second week of camp. “I’ve met so many amazing people through Willie Mae,” she told me. “I can confidently say it has changed my life.”
An auxiliary program to Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls is the Arts & Activism fellowship, where three fellows are chosen to work through the spring learning how to DJ and record podcasts. Laina Dawes, who starts her PhD in Ethnomusicology at Colombia this fall, runs that program. Her focus is on reaching young women of color from marginalized, lower-income communities where services for women are lacking. She says, “I believe we’re filling a gap in two ways. There’s the overall music component, but we’re focusing on the music industry and music journalism; it’s a very male-centric industry, and we’re working to change that. Second, our focus is on activism as a whole. It’s impossible to find another program like ours.”
Last night, the three Arts & Activism fellows presented their podcast work at Interference Archive, the final event in the Willie Mae Rock Camp series. One fellow, Marie Damus, was involved last year and made this podcast, which gives an overview of all the music inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement (listen to it). This year, Damus’ podcast talks about depression in the African-American community. Another fellow, Katia Katsnelson, a 17-year-old Russian Jewish girl, titled her podcast “It isn’t Jazz, It isn’t Blues, it’s Klezmer”.
“There’s a stigma that girls aren’t supposed to be doing this,” says Dawes. “But we’re providing a sense of empowerment.”