In a small but mighty office space in the historic district of Westminster Street, you will find the walls lined with anything but traditional office supplies: guitars from all decades, amps, gig-flyers, and every kind of cable you can plug into something and send music through. The carpets are wide and open to musicians of all expertise, and can support sometimes nearly up to six complete drum sets at one time. Sometimes you will hear melodic voices, sometimes you will hear powerful screams, and sometimes you’ll hear nothing but the buzz from a monitor – welcome to Girls Rock! Rhode Island.
In 2001, founding Executive Director Hilary Jones first heard of Girls Rock! while attending college in Portland, Oregon. She had always taken a liking to youth development and leadership programs, but never saw it combined with the same passion for music until she saw the non-profit organization on MTV (back when MTV was cool). Six years later, when Jones moved to the East Coast for graduate school, there were only a handful of Girls Rock! bases throughout the whole country. After volunteering with the organization for the first time in Brooklyn, she knew that it was exactly what Providence was missing.
Girls Rock! Rhode Island first opened its doors in 2009, and since then has served over 1,000 participants through their flagship programs and thousands more through their events, performances, and with support from the community. “When we say ‘Girls Rock,’ it’s with a wink and a nod,” Jones says. Welcoming all female, trans, and non-binary individuals, GR!RI invites anyone with the slightest interest in music to exist in a space where a sense-of-self can thrive – and rock.
Jones is no stranger to musicianship, having played an instrument for more years of her life than not. Through experiences with traditional lessons (shout-out to the middle school clarinet players) and her own bands, she knew that Girls Rock! offered something that wasn’t necessarily offered to her as a growing musician. “When I first picked up the guitar, I realized I could sing and write the songs I wanted to,” she says. With that same notion, Jones has organized a series of camps, discussion groups, drop-ins, and workshops all designed to develop one’s identity through the power of music.
The non-profit organization, celebrating a decade in Rhode Island within the year, offers just about any form of music experience from age 11 and above. There’s Girls Rock Camp, which is an intensive one-week day camp that will allow young participants to learn an instrument, form a band, write an original song, and perform it in front of an audience. Ladies Rock Camp takes a similar structure and offers it to the “grown-up rocker” during a long-weekend of lessons, songwriting, band practice, and workshops; you can see the Ladies Rock Camp showcase on November 11 at Askew on Chestnut Street. Each session invites anyone – no prior musical experience necessary – to step out of their comfort zone and into a space that allows them to use music as a vehicle for empowerment.
“Empowerment is a weird, fraught word,” Jones says. “When you empower yourself through music, you can use it as a tool. That’s when empowerment can mean for the individual – creating a voice and advocating yourself or for the community – making change in the world around you.”
Outside of their camps, Girls Rock! Rhode Island offers a series of other individual- and community-centered programs. Gear Share & Show & Tell is a weekly discussion where participants have a chance to learn all about wobblily sounding guitars, looping petals, and all the spices found in a musical soup. There’s Youth Drop-In, where youth ages 11-18 can meet up with peers, talk about relevant issues and try out instruments they may have never picked up before. There’s even a Gear Loan program that allows campers and volunteers to borrow music equipment throughout the year.
“We’re constantly seeing returning alum take on leadership positions and organize their own workshops,” Jones explains, “which is what Girls Rock is all about.”
An example of this can be their weekly youth-led Gender Discussion Group. Open to all female, trans, and gender non-conforming participants at the high school level, these discussions are curated by the group, for the group. One week there might be a conversation about healthy relationships and self-expression, while the next week might be entirely dictated by what the Kardashians are up to. Limitless beyond the musical realm, Jones explains that these sessions at GR!RI are about “creating a space where empowerment can thrive through self-expression and connection to the world around you.”
So what exactly does the future look like after Girls Rock? For some, it’s opening for national acts – as the GR!RI band Wavelength did this past summer at Burnside Park. For others, it may look like stepping in on a Monday afternoon for a Group Lesson on an instrument they’ve never played before. Someone may decide that they want to take a non-music perspective, but still be involved in Girls Rock! experience by becoming a volunteer, running social media, or even just being a helping hand with equipment – let’s be honest, when you’re a rock star, there’s nothing better than a good roadie.
Jones says that the creation of a band at the end of a week-long session is merely a fraction of the Girls Rock! experience. She says, “If our participants can accomplish things that they once thought they couldn’t do, then we’ve done our job.”