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Girls Rock! Des Moines provides space for youth to be themselves

Emma Snowden sings her song, "Psych ward" onstage at xBk in Des Moines at a Girls Rock event in March.
Catherine Wheeler
Iowa Public Radio
Emma Snowden sings her song, "Psych ward" onstage at xBk in Des Moines at a Girls Rock! event in March.

Daphne Simmons is 10 years old and wrote a song on a Saturday. The next day, she walked up on stage at the Des Moines music venue xBk to perform it.

"It's about how when people get up on stage before they perform, they get nervous, and it's called 'I'm Nervous,'" Simmons said.

Her song details worries of getting kicked off stage and letting her nerves overcome her. But Simmons, in song, is unwilling to give into fear.

Daphne Simmons sings her song, "I'm Nervous" at xBK in Des Moines following the Girls Rock songwriters' retreat.
Catherine Wheeler
Daphne Simmons sings her song, "I'm Nervous" at xBK in Des Moines following the Girls Rock! songwriters' retreat.

Girls Rock! Des Moines is for girls, non-binary, transgender and gender expansive youth ages 8 to 18. The nonprofit focuses on music education and performance, Executive Director Rachel Gulick said. It started in 2013 as a two-week summer camp.

"They learn a cover song that we curate from, you know, a selected group of artists that are either female fronted or non binary.  And at the end of these two weeks, we have this awesome showcase at one of the larger venues in Des Moines," they said.

The songwriter’s retreat is just one of the newer camps Girls Rock! has added to the mix to give youth more chances to learn about music and music production. Gulick said they want to create opportunities for youth to be involved in all components that make up the music scene. Girls Rock! has created its own label called GR!T Records to produce the music rockers make, including a new camp focused on that.

Gulick said they also recently added an educational component to Girls Rock! about different genres of music, which includes live performances and lessons in playing in that specific genre, like rock or punk.

"What we're doing is bringing in a local band, that is again female, nonbinary fronted. And then we're digging into the roots of that genre that they identify with," they said.

But Gulick said Girls Rock's mission goes beyond these things.

"One of the biggest things we hear from young people and guardians is that they see and experience like this metamorphosis in themselves. And the number one word that people talk about or use to describe it is confidence," Gulick said.

Emma Snowden has been through that. She started going to Girls Rock! camps when she was around 13 years old. Now, Snowden is 18.

"I literally was afraid to do like chorus concerts when I was younger," she said. "Then, as soon as I started going to Girls Rock! I performed on stage as the lead singer the first year, and my parents were like, 'What happened to you? You are a different person now than you were literally two weeks ago.'" 

Snowden said she grew more confident as a musician and in other parts of her life, and now she’s showing younger kids how to play music.

"I remember being at that age being like, 'I can never do this. I'll never make it.' And then, six or seven years later, I'm getting up and doing stuff on the stage really easily. And I'm not afraid to do it anymore," she said.

Gulick said youth don’t have many opportunities to share their creative work—or their feelings. They said that’s why Girls Rock! started open mic events specifically for youth. They say as far as they can find, it’s the only one in the state right now.

All the instruments and gear are provided. There’s no prerequisites or requirements. Participants can share songs, poetry, comedy, or just talk for a bit.

Girls Rock campers perform at their showcase in June 2019
Madeleine King
IPR file
Girls Rock! campers perform at their showcase in June 2019

"We need more safe spaces for youth to be able to express themselves and share their truths. And to be heard, not just listened to. I think there's a big difference there," Gulick said.

So far there have been discussions about bullying, gender identity and painful experiences, they said. Gulick said call those moments of the kids opening up big shares.

At the February open mic, one rocker shared a poem about their gender identity and how it’s changed over time but all of their experiences have shaped them into who they are now.

"It just it really brought home why you know Girls Rock! exists, why it exists to serve cis girls, nonbinary and trans youth because this entity was created to foster a space where courageous confidence could be facilitated," Gulick said.

Gulick said when young people are in charge of creating these spaces, that’s when real systemic change can start to happen.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.