Girls Rock! Camp builds music skills and confidence for local youth
By Jessica Arends
On a hot August day, I climb the steep steps of a bright yellow building on D.C.’s North Capitol Street, greeted by cheerful rainbow flags in each window. In the lobby, a humble piano, sparkly drum set and green velvet chairs make up a modest seating area. A glass jar of neon yellow earplugs sits at the receptionist desk.
A line of chatty campers streams down the stairs and out to the back patio. A band coach claps her hands and corrals a few 8-year-olds into a tiny brick practice room to rehearse an original song. One starts a cadence on the drums, another in red sequins fingers a melody from the keyboard, the other is barely visible behind a six-string bass and curtain of hair. The rhythm catches, the singing starts and the campers bounce in time — the self-assurance is palpable. This energetic and creative force is the product of Girls Rock! DC.
Each year, Girls Rock! DC serves about 100 youths and 20 adults through summer camps and after-school programs throughout the DMV area. Inspired by the 1990s Riot Grrrl movement, the program started in Portland, Ore., in 2001. It quickly spread, and now there are over 230 camps around the world which remain connected through the international Girls Rock! Camp Alliance. The Washington, D.C., chapter opened in 2007.
During each one-week summer session, campers learn a new instrument, play with a band, attend life skills workshops and write an original song to perform at a local venue like the Black Cat or 9:30 Club.
Fifteen-year-old Hyattsville resident and camper AG Higgins described the pleasure of playing and collaborating with other campers in the band Potential Dreams: “When I picked up the guitar and started playing it, I just had this look of awe on my face. That’s what this camp is about — this joy of music and connecting with other people.” Higgins now wears a guitar pick found in his practice room on a chain around his neck — just in case he comes across a guitar.
Girls Rock! DC program coordinator and Mount Rainier resident Frankie Hellfire is proud to work for the camp as it embodies the values of equity and equality. Instructors include those who identify as ”Black, queer artists, and myself as a trans person from a lower-class immigrant family,” said Hellfire. “We all come to each session with our full selves and really live and teach by example.”
The summer camp life skills workshops explore topics such as housing and transit justice, creating podcasts, running for public office, and setting personal boundaries in relationships. In the songwriting workshop, campers see that their everyday lives and experiences matter and are “worthy of expressing,” Hellfire said. Female musicians can find asserting themselves in a male-dominated industry intimidating, according to Hellfire. “The workshops teach campers how to speak up to say, ‘This isn’t right’ or ‘This is how the song should sound.’”
Indeed, 64% of female musicians cite discrimination and sexual harassment as barriers to success in the music industry, according to a 2021 Forbes article. Girls Rock! DC aims to change this — through music instruction and self-esteem workshops, those of marginalized genders literally use their voice for change.
One of the bands of 8-year-olds, The Soundtrack Breakers, wrote a song about feeling empowered after being hurt or bullied: “We are the soundtrack breakers / The record makers. / Say what you want / You ain’t gonna fake us / Let alone break us. I’m braver than the people who hurt me. / I’m kinder than the people who desert me. / I deserve better than that. / I am better than that.”
Each summer, two youth sessions are offered with sliding-scale tuition. Campers are ages 8 to 18. Adults, ages 19 and up, can participate in the adult camp to learn a new instrument, lead a youth workshop, volunteer or make a donation. More information can be found on the Girls Rock! DC website, girlsrockdc.org.