Dancing was the only way I could stop my knees from shaking. So backstage, drumsticks in hand, I broke it down with my bandmates while we waited to perform to a packed house at Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe in Adams Morgan. Our vocalist put the guitar player’s hand on her chest. “You feel that?” I felt it, too—her heart was racing.
Right before we went on, the five of us circled up, put our hands together, and said our band name in unison: “Super Bad… and the Goods.” Super Bad, like the funky James Brown song. And the Goods: our all female band.
We were the last group of five to play at the Sunday afternoon showcase of We Rock! DC, the adult version of Girls Rock! DC—an organization described to me as “an empowerment program secretly disguised as a music education program.” Every summer since 2008, girls ages eight to 18 come to camp to learn an instrument, form bands, and perform an original song at the 9:30 Club in less than a week. It teaches girls how to be loud and build self-esteem through music, and teaching female empowerment in the process.
That’s what the adult camp does, except it’s condensed into three days. It also helps raise money for the girls camp, which tries to waive tuition fees for campers who can’t afford it. Michelle Rush, one of the founders of Girls Rock! DC, says both camps are built on the same mission: “We’re trying to create this space where folks can truly be free.” When Rush was in fifth grade, her band coach told her she couldn’t play drums because “girls don’t have mathematical minds.” She’s been fighting against that type of attitude ever since.
In its second year, the adult We Rock! Camp—originally called Ladies Rock!—brought a group of more than 20 women ages 23 to 56 to the SEED charter school in Fort Dupont in mid-February. We were supposed to perform our songs at Songbyrd on the third day of camp, but because of snow, the showcase was rescheduled for almost a month later.
Most of us had never played an instrument before. We weren’t songwriters or performers. None of us knew each other. Basically, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. But that was the point. And as several of the camp organizers told me, “It always works.”
I showed up to the SEED cafeteria (aka the “hall of sisterhood”) on a snowy Saturday morning to meet Olya Oliker and Annie Lipsitz, two of the women on the leadership team, giving a rundown of the weekend. After, all the campers circled up and introduced ourselves to each other with a scream circle (it’s exactly what it sounds like—each of us taking turns screaming our fears and anxieties away).
Jenn Fox-Thomas, with her blonde dreads and bell-bottom jeans, immediately stood out to me. I’d later learn that she was one of Girls Rock! DC’s founders and a veteran D.C. musician with ties to Dischord Records. She decided to be a camper this year to “step out of a leadership role and feel the camp from the inside out.” She also wanted to learn guitar, which scared her. “Bravery isn’t not feeling fear; it’s being petrified and doing it anyway,” she says.
Fox-Thomas told me about how hard it was being woman in the D.C. punk scene in the 1980s. Although D.C. was relatively progressive when it came to female musicianship, fostering the Riot Grrrl scene in the ’90s and bringing up feminist punk bands like Bratmobile, it still had its fair share of blatant sexism. When Fox-Thomas brought her drum kit into music venues, men would tell her how nice it was that she was helping her boyfriend. At one show, a bunch of guys started messing with the knobs on her all-female band’s amps. “I saw lots of women say, ‘Fuck this, I’m not doing this anymore,’” she said. “But my personality is: If you piss me off, I go harder.”
After going over the schedule, which had a black Rosie the Riveter holding a pair of drumsticks on the cover, we went out into the hallway to form bands. Taped up on the walls were the names of various musical genres: metal, go-go, soul, punk, hip-hop, indie rock, pop. Because I’d been listening to a lot of India Arie and because my older sister is a soul-pop singer, I found myself under the soul sign alongside SEED employees Leah Joy Hillard, Sharron Alexander, Indian Brown, and Jasmine Johnson—all in their 30s and 40s.
I’m 23 and moved to D.C. last May after I graduated from college to work in journalism. I didn’t know anyone when I moved here, but I tried to immerse myself in the city and latch onto its good parts. So that’s what I did—until I was hit with a pretty crippling bout of anxiety. While I eventually came out of it after some therapy and down time, I knew I had to find a way to channel my anxiety into something creative. So I started taking drum lessons. I immediately fell in love with it, and when I heard about We Rock!, I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity to play in a band.
Those are some of the things I told my bandmates when we were trying to write a song in a classroom, which doubled as a practice space, later in the day. In response, Joy, a singer and performer who wanted to learn how to play the keys, threw out some lyrics and a pretty melody. She jotted them on the whiteboard, and we started piecing a song together.
“All I got in my head is: I love my hips,” Brown, our guitar player, said with a chuckle. She would end up playing just one guitar chord in the song we wrote. She stuck to what she knew, cracking goofy one-liners and reminding us not to take ourselves so seriously, something Julie Yoder, another Girls Rock! organizer and drummer in the local band Hemlines, talked about in her workshop about overcoming perfectionism.
Back in the hall of sisterhood, Yoder told us it was never too late to learn an instrument. “I hope that for those of you who didn’t have the opportunity to play when you were younger, this weekend instills in you that this is always there for you,” she said.
On my way back to our band practice room, I started to worry that our band wasn’t going to pull our half-written song together in time. I overheard Fox-Thomas describing that one moment when it just works. “When you start playing notes together, it’s indescribable,” she said. “It’s almost like sex.”
I woke up on Sunday sore from hours of drumming and mentally drained from process overload. In the cafeteria, everyone’s eyes looked slightly glazed over. Doing the same thing all over again seemed overwhelming to me, but another morning scream circle gave me enough energy to push through and head to a second round of drum lessons.
With six drum kits playing various beats and rhythms simultaneously, the classroom turned into a loud, cacophonous chamber. Lisa Van Arsdale, our drum coach, brought us through basic beats. She has us play along to “Billy Jean,” “Seven Nation Army,” and Alabama Shakes’ “Hold On.” After about an hour, we started to sound more in sync.
Since we only had a few more hours left to finish our songs, my band just went with what we had: an upbeat soul song with a spirited chorus and a rap as our bridge. Johnson had written it the night before. “Oh you want a little Lauryn Hill in here?” Joy said, making fun of her. We never named the song, but we finally settled on a band name: Super Bad and the Goods.
Nearly a month later, we were all back together, this time at Songbyrd to finish what we’d started. The energy in the dimly lit basement venue was surprisingly low-key. It seemed like everyone was more excited than nervous, which started to flip as the performance edged closer.
Georgia O’Kweefz were up first, followed by Stress Dreams, Unseemly Unseen, Louder Messy, and us. The lead singer and guitarist of Stress Dreams sang about how she’d taken guitar lessons in college, but gave it up too soon: “Growin’ up I left my dreams aside/ I watched my boyfriend in a band and stood in line.” Then came a satisfying, loud, and repetitious anthem: “NOW….I’M…READY!”
Our band was ready, too. Our patient and encouraging band coach, Bunny Blake, introduced us and we went out on stage. The actual performance was kind of a blur, but the feeling of pride that I had after it was over told me that it went alright. The audience loved the last few lines of Jasmine’s rap:
Girls are supposed to be seen not heard
But girl powers comin like a thunderin herd
Yeah I said it: we’re cute and intelligent
And if you don’t know you must be irrelevant
I know that I want to keep playing the drums, and I can already tell the experience of performing with a band is an addictive one. Hitting things with wooden sticks and making music has definitely helped with my anxiety, and going through the experience with such a diverse group of cool, strong women hit home something Fox-Thomas told me: “Women are one of the pistons popping away, and you can’t put us out. Our spark plugs are firing.”
Due to a reporting error, this article originally misspelled Bunny Blake’s name as Bunny Clarke.