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Girls Rock campers get a crash course in music and social justice

Notes of Empowerment

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The Carolina Youth Action Project (CYAP) hosts the seventh-annual Girls Rock Charleston Camp Showcase this week. This year's concert welcomes 12 bands comprised of Girls Rock campers performing original music. The rundown for the typical Girls Rock summer camp is a week of songwriting workshops, music education, and band practices, culminating in a concert at the Camp Showcase. The yearly program is open to all young women and transgender youth between the ages of 9 and 17. Although there have been some new additions to the 2017 camp, it remains a week-long crash course in music and political education.

"Definitely a lot happens in this one week," says camp organizer Jen Stevens. In those seven days, the campers are expected to write an original song for the performance, in addition to the classes and practices. "I think a lot of adults who are in bands find it hard to write a song in a week." Despite the challenge, Stevens asserts that no band in all seven years has failed to write a new tune for the show.

That won't surprise anyone who's familiar with the other organizers and workshop teachers who guide the campers through the week. Often, organizers will bring in local talent to operate classes. Emily Connor and Kim Larson from post-punk band Southern Femisphere have contributed and taught courses since the beginning, with Larson serving as Girls Rock's Co-Director of Programming.

Loni Lewis, better known as middle-school prom queen DJ Lanatron, has worn a few hats at Girls Rock. She's run a DJ workshop, performed at one of the first year's camp lunches, and is currently an organizer. "My favorite role is band coach," says Lewis. "It is so great facilitating the youth in the songwriting process."

The curriculum throughout the week focuses on the basics of songwriting, stage presence, and music history, often with a feminist and socio-political twist. "Feminism is this intersectional thing, so it's not just women and music," says Stevens. "We also talk about gender and racial justice and economic justice." Girls Rock often looks at the musical aspects through a social justice lens. In the example of their music history class, Stevens mentions how they dive into rock music's past and the massive role black men and women, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, played in its development.

In some cases, they direct much more attention to the political side of things with workshops on subjects that affect the youth. The school-to-prison pipeline, or the track that schools put many black and Latino youths on that leads them to juvenile detention and prison, is often a point of discussion for campers.

As Girls Rock has grown, the group has added a new teen leader program, which comes into effect this year. Teen leaders range from ages 14 to 17 and are typically campers who have participated in years past. They take on added responsibilities like leading workshops of their own on a variety of topics such as intersectional feminism and radical self-love, according to Co-Director of Development Rachel Trueblood.

Teen leader Afeni Laws first attended the 2011 camp at the age of 10, playing bass. As a camper, Laws says that she found a sense of empowerment in the Girls Rock community and programs. "I've been more open towards speaking out about things that people particularly don't speak out about," says Laws. Now as a teen leader, she tries to instill the values she's learned over the years in the new group of campers. "You just act as an example to the younger kids, and just show them that it's OK to totally be yourself."

This is the first year that Girls Rock Charleston has been named the CYAP. While Girls Rock is an international set of independent camps, and the Charleston branch has been active since 2011, organizers of the local Girls Rock chapter changed the name just last month. And, although Girls Rock was a springboard for the Carolina Youth Action Project, they currently operate the Girls Rock summer program under the CYAP. "We realized that our programming goes beyond just having a summer camp, like most Girls Rock organizations have, so we wanted to have this name change," says Stevens. The nifty new name is an opportunity for this program to distinguish itself from others that Girls Rock has operated for years, like the Youth Artists in Action and the Leaders United for New Alternatives.

The camp program and mission statement remain unaltered in the transition, and both profess similar ideals of feminism, gender expression, racial justice, and empowerment through the arts. "A lot of musicians use music as a way to talk about major issues that are happening in their communities," says Stevens. "So, we also encourage the campers to use music as their voice."

You can support CYAP with a recurring donation by visiting girlsrockcharleston.org.

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