Empowerment with a beat

Twin Cities-based music camp encourages girls and nonbinary youth to find their voices

By Chris Shea

Music has always been an important part of Jenny Case’s life. For the longest time, her dream was to be in an all-female band, but had little luck finding others to join. It was while she was giving a guitar lesson to an 11-year-old Sam Stahlmann that inspiration struck. Much like Case, Stahlmann also struggled to find girls her age to jam with. It was after reading an article about girls’ rock camps in Portland, Ore. that Case realized this would be how she could help girls in the Twin Cities to find their musical voices—with the Girls Rock n Roll Retreat (GRRR).

Since the camp’s founding in 2007, it’s operated with the mission that girls should feel more confident, empowered, speak their minds, and connect with others—all through music.

“It’s just not on the radar of these young folks,” Case says. “We’re just putting it on their radar.”

According to Case, the primary reason for rock music is typically not on the radar of young women is because of how dominated the field is by men. This was especially noticeable during her time as an instructor at a co-ed camp. There, Case saw that co-ed really meant “mostly boys” and that when genders were mixed, girls were often too shy to participate and share ideas. It was after girls were given their own space that they became more enthusiastic.

To those involved with GRRR, representation in any form of media is important, as it greatly influences our cultural identity and values. When half the population isn’t represented, then there is a problem. This is why it’s so important for the organization to get more women involved early on.

The retreats and camps are taught by local female musicians. No experience is necessary, and instruments are available for those who need them. Campers write their own songs, form bands, and perform at local music venues in front of hundreds of people—letting their voices be heard through microphones and PA systems.

Twelve years later, GRRR is just one of many programs done through She Rock She Rock, Case’s nonprofit dedicated to empowerment through the art of music. Now, there are classes on electronic music production called “Beats by Girlz,” retreats for adults, and jam sessions that even include the song “Kiss” by Prince.

“There’s not a lot of Prince songs that are easy to play and have safe lyrics,” Case jokes.

The organization’s mission also expanded to include nonbinary and transgender people.

“It gives them new ideas about what they can accomplish and what they can do in life,” Case says.

The evolution and addition of new programs also means an increase in staff, including the very student that inspired the camp, Stahlmann. Once one of the very first campers at GRRR, she then helped out as an intern and teacher. Now, Stahlmann is the co-executive director along with Case.

For Stahlmann, that first camp was life-changing. She was able to see mentors who not only looked like they were having fun sparking musical passion into these young girls, but they also looked like her. After that camp, she wanted to continue to make sure there were role models for aspiring female musicians in the Twin Cities.

“I think it’s important to give them a platform to be loud and express their viewpoints,” Stahlmann says. “What better way to do that than through music?”

Camps are not limited solely to developing one’s musical skills. Along with learning songwriting skills, there are also workshops on self-defense, anti-oppression training, media literacy and gender identity. According to Case, these workshops often have an influence on the music aspects of camp, as many of the songs written by campers have a feminst slant.

This expansion is also reflected in the camp’s definition of the word “rock.” At GRRR, it means that girls and trans youth are awesome and can accomplish whatever they want in life. This is reinforced in the rule to not apologize for making mistakes. Instead, campers are encouraged to simply say “I rock” when messing up chords or accidentally playing the wrong note.

“It just makes me realize how much you apologize for the silliest things,” Stahlmann says. She adds that at a basic level, you’re going to make mistakes—that’s how you grow as a musician. “You rock, you’re fine.”

Wake Mag