When Amelia Shull moved to Carrboro midway through high school, she met a friend who changed her musical outlook. Shull had been into Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure, nothing that unusual or adventurous for an 11th grader in 1992. But this new friend, Nora Rogers, gave her mix tapes of riot grrrl bands. Shull was hooked.
Shull had been in a car crash before 10th grade, one that temporarily put her in a wheelchair. It was a marginalizing experience, not being able to fit through doors or get the help she needed. After experiencing such vulnerability, and changing towns and schools, she was ready for a dose of empowerment. The feminist punk of bands such as Bikini Kill, captured on those tapes, changed her life.
“I met Nora Rogers in high school, and she was my first friend,” Shull recalls from a shady picnic table at Carolina Friends School, where she now teaches art. Many of the students walking by are the age she was at the time. “She introduced me to this whole other level of powerful women musicians.”
Today, Rogers’ haunted vocals and powerful, Zeppelin-descended guitar style front the local heavy trio Solar Halos. And Shull, who founded Girls Rock NC 10 years ago, is the co-chair of the organization’s board of directors. Saturday, the organization celebrates its first decade with an all-day rally that starts at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro and culminates with DJ sets at The Station. Between those ends, Girls Rock NC hosts an eight-band spectacular in both rooms of the Cat’s Cradle.
It’s a celebration, too, of the Girls Rock mission—that is, combating negative self-image and feelings of marginalization, all through the vehicle of music. They’re not necessarily trying to train musicians, Shull says, but raise confident, empowered women. The organization is trying to give to girls what Shull didn’t find until she was in 11th grade.
“I wish that this was around when I was a kid,” Girls Rock NC treasurer and Pink Flag guitarist and songwriter Betsy Shane says, expressing a sentiment echoed by several of her colleagues. There’s still the idea of the “boys club” in rock music, she explains. When she first learned to play, it was with a group of older boys. She turned out OK, as that forced her to step up her game, she says. Shane now loves seeing girls of all backgrounds and abilities come into Girls Rock—some whose indie-rocker parents have introduced them to assorted obscure acts and others who love Taylor Swift, some who are already accomplished drummers and others who have to play guitar one finger at a time, one string at a time.
Again, it’s not only the tunes: Girls Rock campers look at how women in music are portrayed in popular media—such as Rolling Stone‘s recent Swift-in-a-wet-T-shirt cover—and learn confidence through cooperation, rather than competition. “Historically speaking, not all forms of expression have been open to everyone,” Shull says.
There may be more women taken seriously in the music world, coming to shows and writing about music, says esteemed punk singer Kathleen Hanna, but there’s still a good distance to go.
“Writers always ask me if I think other female performers are feminist or not, like Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, etc., to try and start some kind of catfight or make me seem like the feminist police or something,” Hanna says. “Why don’t you go ask Justin Timberlake if he thinks Robin Thicke is a feminist? Seriously, ask Wilco why they think there aren’t as many women in music.”
In the early ’90s, Hanna fronted Bikini Kill, one of those bands that inspired the young Shull. She’s a powerful performer, but a protracted struggle with Lyme disease has largely kept her from playing live very much since 2005. It’s the reason her latest band, The Julie Ruin, had to cancel its 2014 tour. Health issues be damned, The Julie Ruin will headline the Cat’s Cradle rally on Saturday. “Even though my health is still a bit shaky, I plan to dig out everything I have for this show,” Hanna offers.
The larger Girls Rock program is important to her, too; she’s active with the Brooklyn equivalent, Willie Mae Rock Camp For Girls. It was there that she met Julie Ruin guitarist Sara Landeau, when the two coached a band together. Seeing young girls work out songwriting disagreements using skills Hanna didn’t possess until she was 30 buoyed her spirit.
“The showcases remain some of the best shows I’ve ever attended,” Hanna says. “I actually watch clips of various rock camp showcases on YouTube when I’m feeling down—way better than kitten videos.”
Girls Rock has had the same effect on Heather McEntire, program director at Girls Rock NC and the songwriter behind local country-rock group Mount Moriah. Seven years ago, McEntire was asked to come play at lunch. At the time, the program was still based at its original home, Carolina Friends School. Soon, she was teaching guitar, and then she was hired.
“You can’t help but think that when you walk into a room, a theater full of girls who are empowered and who are confident and who are so alive with possibility, you can’t help but think about yourself at that age and try to compare it,” she says.
McEntire wants Saturday’s event to be empowering for kids and adults—it’s a rally and a fundraiser. Going forward, Girls Rock is lifting a page from the NPR model and launching a sustainer program, McEntire says. It’s a complex nonprofit with several employees, and it largely exists hand-to-mouth, with the money from the camps going directly into other camps or programs. With a little more security, Girls Rock NC could grow.
“We wish we had our own building and space,” Shull says.
McEntire agrees: “I think it would be very symbolic for us, having a brick and mortar, having a place near a bus line where we are more visible and reachable.”
Kids are smart and are getting smarter, Shane says, and Girls Rock NC has evolved. There’s a new gender policy, for example, where campers now declare which pronoun they prefer.
“I think social justice is a learning field,” Shane says. “The world will never be perfect. Your work is never done.”
Tickets for the Girls Rock NC Rally Saturday, Oct. 4, are available for $27–$29.