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Girls Rock! DC Empowers Our Community with Accessible Music Education for Youth and Adults

Girls Rock! DC is a music and social justice education program in Washington, DC for young people and adults that centers and uplifts marginalized identities in music.

Girls Rock! DC campers performing at the 2016 Summer Camp Showcase at 9:30 Club
Girls Rock! DC campers performing at the 2016 Summer Camp Showcase at 9:30 Club / photo courtesy of Girls Rock! DC

Girls Rock! DC is a music and social justice education program in Washington, DC for young people between the ages of eight and 18 that centers and uplifts marginalized identities in music – women, queer, nonbinary, and transgender musicians, especially those who are people of color. I sat down with Girls Rock! DC’s co-executive director Shady Rose – artist, educator, activist, and DC native – who discussed why the nonprofit’s mission is so imperative, and how the organization commits to putting it in action by providing a safe space for these groups, while spreading awareness of the social imbalances in our music world.

Girls Rock! DC came to fruition over 15 years ago in 2007 by an all-volunteer collective of DMV area musicians, teachers, artists, and community organizers after groups of women, queer, POC, and otherwise marginalized artists noticed that the music industry was not making a space for them, especially in positions of leadership. The nonprofit was formed to “use music as a form of expression, a form of amplifying the voices of those marginalized young people and giving young folks in DC the opportunity to use art as a vehicle not just for their own creativity, but to amplify their voices about the issues that face their communities,” Rose explains.

Handmade sign by GR!DC campers
Girls Rock! DC poster made by campers / Photo Courtesy of Girls Rock! DC

Each year, GR!DC’s programs serve more than 100 youths and 20 adults, including after-school programs and both youth and adult camps. Participants are given instruction on one of five instruments (electric guitar, electric bass, keyboard, drum kit, or microphone) and form bands with one another. Those bands write their own original song and perform it at the end of the program at one of DC’s most prominent venues, such as 9:30 Club, Black Cat, and Union Stage. However, learning an instrument is only one aspect of the program, as they also attend workshops on lesser-told histories of the music industry (Black Women in Music, etc.), as well as workshops on community injustice issues such as food sovereignty and transportation justice in Washington, DC, how to achieve running for office, or body positivity. 

“Those are interwoven into the program so that young people in our programs are making art and learning that confidence to express themselves,” Rose says. “They’re also engaging with these issues that directly affect them as individuals, as members of certain marginalized communities, but also that affect their specific community in DC, and allow them to blend that arts experience with the justice experience and put some thought into that and engage with both in a way that’s meaningful for them.”

A band performing onstage under blue light
Campers performing at the We Rock! Showcase at The Pocket March 26 / Photo Courtesy of Girls Rock! DC

Shady Rose has worked for GR!DC for a little over three years, but their involvement with the nonprofit goes much further back. Their first encounter with the program was when their little sister was a camper: “She was really shy and didn’t put herself out there that much. Then she took part in the Girls Rock! DC Summer Camp, and there was just such a huge turnaround in her confidence and her ability to express her ideas and engage with life and with her community,” they told me. “And I feel like it was a great spark for her to start those years of developing her identity to grow as a person, to connect with people.” 

After that, they became involved by volunteering for GR!DC teaching vocals, then taking on the role of communications coordinator. Around the same time, their former band Lightmare was formed as a “hat band” at a GR!DC fundraiser – an event that GR!DC puts on every year where an adult (of any gender) can put their name into a digital hat and is assigned to a group of strangers who want to play music together, later performing original songs at a showcase to raise money for the organization. The next hat band showcase is May 20! “You find that Girls Rock! DC is really embedded in a lot of different corners of the community,” Rose says. 

As the organization was expanding, the opportunity to become one of the co-executive directors felt like the natural next step for them. “I think that speaks to Girls Rock! DC’s impact – it’s not just a job that you find on LinkedIn and you apply to. It’s more like you’re already involved as soon as you’re a part of the community, and natural growth through that community and becoming involved in the organization feels really organic.”

Shady Rose performing onstage with Lightmare
Shady Rose performing with their band Lightmare / Photo by Aysha Scott

A certain highlight for the organization was winning the “Do Good” Award at this year’s 2023 Wammie Awards. “We were so pleased and honored to receive that award,” Rose says. “It really validated all of the things that we’ve been doing to grow the organization the last year or so to reach more and more young folks.” This is especially validating, they describe, because of the way the program is run – to offer access to music programming for young people that would/might not normally have had it.

“For example, we provide all of the instruments, we provide all of the materials, so no one has to have their own at home. Our program is offered on a sliding scale starting at $0 with no means testing, which means that there’s no barrier to participation based on ability to pay.” 

GR!DC also strives to have their staff and volunteers be from the communities that the campers are from to avoid any sense of disconnect, and also so they can see themselves reflected in leadership roles within exciting parts of the community.

Members of GR!C accepting their Wammie Award
Shady (holding the award) and members of the GR!DC team at the 2023 Wammie Awards / Photo Courtesy of Girls Rock! DC

Volunteering is one of the best ways for people in the community to get involved, Rose says, which includes multiple different kinds of roles: “There are some of the more camp-involved volunteer roles, like instructing instruments or coaching one of the kids’ bands, or offering a workshop … All of our camper-facing volunteer roles are meant to be members of the community who either are musically inclined and have something to offer to teach about that, or are community and justice-oriented, community leaders, or participants in certain movements.” 

A volunteer could also just be there to work on activities with campers and offer the encouraging mentorship to be more confident and use the power of their voices, Rose explains, or simply to help carry heavy instruments. “There’s no role too small that isn’t helpful.” People can also volunteer at a GR!DC’s showcase, such as at their most recent one at The Pocket on March 26.

For anyone who is a part of a marginalized group that wants to pursue music, Rose says: “I wish I had learned younger as a Black person, as a queer nonbinary person, as someone from a lower income background, and all of these things that were kind of causing me to be pushed to the margins by the biases of greater society, that it is okay to take up space.” 

It is more than necessary to speak loudly and share your experience, they say, no matter how many people or institutions try to tell you to remain small and be quiet. “That’s a huge part of our camp too … If, at any moment, you feel like, ‘Maybe I’m taking up too much space as a woman, as a nonbinary person, as a Black person’ …. take up twice as much,” because there’s no such thing as taking up too much, in any aspect of life.

Particpants onstage in front of a poster that says they love the crowd
2016 Summer Camp Showcase participants / Photo Courtesy of Girls Rock! DC

Visit Girls Rock! DC’s website to learn how you can get involved, whether participating, volunteering, attending a showcase, or donating to a good cause. Also follow them on socials and sign up for their newsletter to see what exciting events are coming up, such as clothes swaps, gear sales, and ice cream socials.

A show benefitting the organization will be held on May 1 at Union Stage!

Girls Rock! DC Benefit Concert Poster at Union Stage on May 1, 2023.
Alchemical Records contributor Emma Page

Emma Page

Emma Page, a recent Journalism graduate of The George Washington University, possesses a passion for music journalism and storytelling in all its forms. Originally from Baltimore, MD, when she is not writing, she can be found at a local concert or making music of her own.

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