I WANNA ROCK! (And Not be Limited by My Gender)
Feminist Rock Camp Empowers Young Women and Gender Nonconforming Youth
In case it isn’t apparent from the name, Rock Camp For Girls and Gender Nonconforming Youth is a rock camp like no other.
On the surface it may seem like any ordinary band camp. The kids are taught how to use equipment and play an instrument, and over the course of a week they form a band, write a song, shoot a video clip in badass rockstar get ups.
They finish off the program by performing onstage at their graduation party.
But at RCFG*, they make sure the kids know that rock music, like anything else, doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Between the music, gear lessons, and band practices are workshops and group circles that are designed to get the campers thinking about a wide array of social issues.
Rooted in feminism and anti-oppression, the workshops educate kids about sexism, racism, classism, mental health awareness, and more to help them use their music as an outlet for their experiences. They’re encouraged to incorporate what they learn into their songs.
“Feminism, of course, was the founding value and principle of rock camp,” says Taharima Habib, outreach and media coordinator on the camp’s board of directors.
Indeed, the camp takes a distinctly feminist position on rock music, and uses it as a means to instill female empowerment into the kids who attend.
“Rock camp was actually started by a couple of Concordia students who strongly believed that there was just not a very safe space made in the music scene in Montreal for women, or just anybody different from a white, cis man,” Habib explains.
“The music industry is so male dominated, as are many industries, but the music industry in particular,” adds Emma Bronson, current board member and former camper of five years.
RCFG* remedies that, according to Bronson. “I felt like I could take up as much space as I wanted to.”
Created in 2009, the camp takes place over one week in late July and it is open to kids aged 10 to 17.
On top of the yearly summer camp, this year is the first they’ve been able to offer Rockademia, an extracurricular activity that takes place once a week for eight weeks throughout the fall. It’s offered to girls, women, and gender nonconforming individuals aged 10 to 25, and their hope for next year is that they can include a 25-and-over age group as well.
Habib says that there’s been a need in their community for programming for adults for a long time now.
“Every time we do any kind of outreach, [I’ve] always had people coming up to me, like ‘What about us? What about the moms? Can’t we be a part of this, too?’”
So, why rock music?
“We’ve been asked so many times why rock music, or why not pop music. Because we’re not trying to please anybody,” Habib explains.
“Because it’s loud,” Bronson says. “I think women are taught to be quiet, and taught to be small and not take up a lot of room, and here you are learning to play the drums. The drums are made to be loud, the drums are made to be hit, and [girls are] just so not used to doing that.”
Habib explains that rock music gives the kids an opportunity to speak their minds in a way that is loud, rebellious, and bound to garner attention, which can be difficult for girls and gender nonconforming individuals.
“That mic gives you so much power and that’s something that these young kids, these young, beautiful, marginalized kids have never had before, or are struggling to get in an otherwise male-dominated place,” she says.
The participants choose between vocals, guitar, bass, keyboard or drums, and are urged to choose an instrument they have never played before—after all, learning new things and stepping out of your comfort zone is what RCFG* is all about.
Then, they form their bands, and with the help of their band coach and the music instructors, they write their songs.
“They sing about different things, but mostly they sing about feminism and cats,” Bronson laughs. “That’s the two main things.”
Lydia Bhattacharya, who attended the first session of Rockademia in the 18 to 25 age group, had never played rock music before then.
“I played the piano and the flute, in the way that all elementary school kids do. But not a bass or anything close to it,” she recalls.
The learning process with the volunteers was casual and interactive, she explains. “A lot of them were in bands and they had learned from their own teaching so there wasn’t this weird pressure of formal [training],” says Bhattacharya. “My first day, I learned how to play ‘Smoke on the Water.’”
“I think women are taught to be quiet, and taught to be small and not take up a lot of room, and here you are learning to play the drums. The drums are made to be loud, the drums are made to be hit, and [girls are] just so not used to doing that.” —Emily Bronson
For Bronson, RCFG* is the place where she says she blossomed. “You can go there with no musical experience at all and they’ll make you feel like you’re the most amazing musician in the world, and that’s what young girls need to boost up their confidence.”
After five years as a camper and one summer volunteering as a band coach, Bronson was elected onto their board of directors in September.
The board is largely made up of women of colour, but Habib admits it hasn’t always been that way for the camp.
“We’ve been called out before, before my tenure at rock camp, that rock camp has been known to be very anglo, very exclusive, very cliquey, and very white.”
As a camper who started attending the program in its second year, Bronson agrees that diversity was not very present in the first few years.
“I ended up being one of the only people of colour at camp, and that posed a huge issue,” she says. “It wasn’t that it was majoritarily white, it was that we were preaching diversity and empowerment for everybody, and that wasn’t represented.”
Bronson felt that they had difficulty properly teaching the kids about the politics of intersectional feminism and race. “We were kind of stuck on the term ‘equality’ [when] we don’t have that.”
As a woman of colour, it was important to Habib when she joined the board that they find ways to make their camp more open and inclusive. They’ve reached out to various organizations in the city that focus on issues of race, looking for opportunities to collaborate on projects.
They’ve since been working with Native Montreal to start an art and music therapy workshop for women and children who have experienced sexual violence, which they hope they can start offering as of March 2018.
“More and more when I go out and I meet all these people [to do outreach], the first face they see of the camp is my face—my brown face,” she chuckles.
Bronson and Habib agree that the last few years have seen more diversity at the camp and on the board. “We’re really proud of where we are now,” says Habib.
Phoebe Pannier, another Rockademia attendee alongside Bhattacharya, had never been in a rock band before. After completing the program, she’s thinking of continuing with the bass and starting a band with a friend.
“It’s not so hard as it seems to get started on an instrument. If you have a couple hours a week, you can start.”
Habib can see the effect the camp has on kids. “These kids become militant. They go and study social justice, Indigenous peoples studies, they go into women’s studies, […] they go to workshops outside of camp,” she says. “When they come back next year, they have more information for us.”
For Bronson, one of the most important things she picked up at RCFG* was the ability to identify and subsequently deal with injustices, like “how to handle myself in toxic environments and having that vocabulary, being equipped with that vocabulary to deal with those situations.”
Equipped with an understanding of social justice issues and a rebel rocker attitude, the kids have what it takes to set out in the world and bring change.
“Rock music is exactly what’s going to let you do that,” Habib says. “Because you’re going to dress up really weird, you’re going to sing really, really intense songs, you’re going to scream into that mic and people will listen to you, and you deserve to be heard.”