Rock on, Black Girls!: How One Organization is Dismantling Stereotypes

by Iris Perkins

“I love rock camp because I can be myself here,” said Terri, a camper at Bay Area Girls Rock Camp (BAGRC) who is finishing her sixth year in the program. BAGRC is a nonprofit organization where all girls can rock. It’s an important organization that encourages and empowers youth in and around the Bay Area in California. 70% of the campers are girls of color and of those girls of color a vast majority of them are black girls. BAGRC also has a significant number of campers who identify as LGBTQ. This space is special to black females in particular because of the all-inclusive atmosphere as well as the organization being built on a foundation of acceptance. The mission of the program is to empower youth through music and creativity. BAGRC promotes positive phrases and language like, “You rock,” “Yes but...” instead of saying “No,” and “One Diva, One mic” in hopes that they utilize encouraging language in their daily lives. Another core agreement at camp is respect—for each other, ourselves, the equipment, and the space.

In a weeklong camp the girls collaborate with other campers to form a band, play instruments, write a song, and perform at a showcase for their family, friends and community. During the week the campers participate in music lessons, instrument instruction, group activities, and workshops that provide skills the girls take with them throughout their lives. BAGRC strives to build confidence, provide youth with positive role models, celebrate the difference in everyone, sustain an environment of diversity, and encourage self-discovery.

When I asked camper Terri, a 15 year old who self-identifies as a Black Feminist, what her favorite part about rock camp is, she told me it’s the feeling of being a part of the group. Terri gets to focus on music and be surrounded by “people like me.” This is a common response from the other campers I interviewed. Kahlia, an 11 year old Afro-Latina, told me she loves rock camp because she isn’t judged and is surrounded by other girls like her. “I’m not told here that I can’t do something because I’m black. Like other places I hear, ‘You can’t do this because you’re black,’ or whatever. I can be myself here and that’s why I love camp.” From my conversations with campers, I got the sense that there is a significant amount of behavioral code switching for our girls of color from their lives at home, school, and with friends. The campers expressed the underlying difficulty to be themselves in other areas of their lives outside of camp. For campers, rock camp is the place and space where they don’t have to work on countering the expectations of other people on themselves. At camp, they get to be who they are which makes them feel good about themselves.

“Camp feels like home to me. I’m safe in this environment and I get to identify however I want and that’s cool,” said Terri. She shared with me the experience of being the only black student at a high school she attended in a small suburban community south of San Francisco. “At a school of 500 people I was the only black person. These kids at this school didn’t know how to be around people of color.” Terri shared situations where she was told she was trying to be white because she likes certain activities such as playing drums and rock music. “Music is a universal language and speaks to everyone. That’s what’s so great about music; it’s not white or black. But if they [the kids at this all white school] want to make it about race then I’m like maybe I should remind them that rock music is black music. I mean Chuck Berry and other black artist were the ones that started rock music.” She laughed to herself at this. “It’s just funny, you know.” I do know because I was once Terri. I was a black girl into punk, ska, and alternative music in the late 90s, which was considered unusual for girls who look like me.

The girls are encouraged to break these racial, gender, and social boundaries that exist for them in their everyday lives. Black girls and all the girls at camp are empowered to believe in themselves and be who they are; in whatever context that may exist within them. Terri elaborated more on the idea of being a stereotype, “I’m not a stereotype. That’s why I love camp because those stereotypes don’t exist here so I can embrace my culture. Here I can absolutely embrace all the things that make me, me.”

The girls I interviewed agree that they don’t see their face in the music they love and it doesn’t feel good to have that exclusion be so apparent. However, they don’t ignore the presence of those black female musicians who are in the industry making music that’s daring, innovative and honest like Erykah Badu, Nicki Minaj, and camp favorite Janelle Monae. Girls like Terri, Joyous, Téa, and Kahlia believe they are part of changing the perception of black girls in rock music and more importantly they are excited, eager even, to break systemic views of this white male, dominated culture. BAGRC is here to help inspire and motivate them to make those changes in music with music.

I talked with BAGRC’s Outreach and Program Coordinator Shawna Scroggins, an Oakland resident and musician. She shared that her favorite part about rock camp is that 70% of the campers are from Oakland. Oakland is experiencing a rapid change in its population especially in neighborhoods where deep rooted POC communities are being displaced. This gentrification comes as a result of rent inflation in San Francisco and the tech boom throughout the Bay Area. “I heard a parent say the other day that she doesn’t go below 58th Street. We have people in our own community that don’t want to or have to interact with populations of people from different social classes, and without question are not interested in interacting with communities of color.”

Shawna continues saying, “Camp disrupts a lot of stereotypes campers learn either from lack of exposure to different races and social classes or ignorance at home.” Shawn reaffirms the experience of being a black girl into sub-genres like punk. “I got a lot of teasing and harassment back in the day. Kids telling me I wanna be white but really I just wanna be me.” She is beside herself with joy that camp establishes a space for girls of color to connect and collaborate with one another. “It’s amazing how fast the campers make friends here,” she adds. Shawna reflects on the racial demographic of campers, and she is delighted to be role model for campers from marginalized backgrounds.

Shawna, Voula o’Grady, and the other two members of staff operate as a collective. The staff has operated as such since its conception in 2008. Voula points out that BAGRC is dedicated to fostering allyship and solidarity in our community. “As an ally, you should be centering the voices of marginalized groups and people most impacted by the issue at hand. This is vital for organizations like Girls Rock Camp, which bring together people from many different backgrounds and communities." Volunteers attend a training workshop that reviews the importance of allyship and community with regards to race, gender, and class to support the camp’s mission of promoting an environment of tolerance and partnership. I asked the staff if cultural appropriation and topics about transgender communities is something that comes up at camp, and how these conversations are handled. Shawna stated “Absolutely. We can talk about those things and generally they come up in a causal manner. The campers engage in those conversations too, which is cool.”

Summer Camp has just wrapped up its last session for 2015 with a bittersweet farewell party for the program’s founder Carey Fay-Horowitz who is going back to school to be an elementary school teacher. Next on the BAGRC agenda will be getting ready for their ten week Girls Rock Afterschool Program (GRASP). This program reaches girls who might not flourish in traditional music programs. With the diminishing access for arts education in public schools, rock camp is providing opportunities for creative skill-building for our forgotten youth of color and all girls. For more information on how to donate, volunteer and other programs offered at Bay Area Girls Rock Camp visit Bay Area Girls Rock Camp is part of an international coalition and network of over 60 independent organizations that share resources and best practices called Girls Rock Camp Alliance.

Photo: Courtesy of Girls Rock Camp

Iris Perkins is an Afro-Latina womanist who is a graduate student in San Francisco. She is interested in performance as a coping strategy for girls of color who experience daily verbal and stereotypical transgressions. On her twelfth birthday her mother purchased two CDs as her birthday gift, Brandy self-titled debut and Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy which explains Iris as a person, in a nutshell. Iris can be reached at and is reluctantly on Twitter @browngirldance.