A northern music program that empowers women, girls, and non-binary people to take up space and make some noise is on its way to the Northwest Territories.
Rock the North was founded in 2014 in Dawson City. Then named Yukon Girls Rock Camp, it began as a local manifestation of a larger international campaign – launched in Portland, Oregon in 2001 – that seeks to address gender imbalance in the music industry.
The camp begins with mentors handing youth an instrument and ends with a showcase where participants perform original music at the Dawson City Music Festival.
Lana Welchman, vice-president of the organization’s board, says participants end up empowered to “do whatever they want within our lives, with ourselves, in spaces that are often not welcoming or not accessible to women and girls.”
Group president Sarah Frey said the camps are “this really safe space for gender and sexuality expression, especially with young folks.”
Frey added: “It’s also just a space to make noise and learn about the power of their voice and the power of making music, and hopefully fall in love with an instrument and themselves.”
Frey herself participated in the camp. She had worked in the cultural industry at the Yukon Arts Centre for years, and says she struggled to find her voice and confidence in her work.
It wasn’t until joining the adult version of Girls Rock Camp – where she picked up drumsticks for the first time, aged 28 – that Frey started to feel comfortable speaking up and confronting her anxieties through performance.
“I don’t have to know absolutely everything, but I can have fun doing it and play,” she says of the drums. “It’s a lot of healing for us who have experienced what it means to be a woman in music, as well.”
She sees the exact same transformation within camp participants each year.
“On day one in the drum room, they’re fairly quiet and really timid to hit it too hard or make too much noise. By day two, we have to have them put their sticks away, because they’re just so excited to light up the room.”
Empowering by example
Welchman describes Rock the North as an anti-oppression organization, using music to achieve its goals.
“We can build new systems, we can create a new normal and a new way of interacting for our campers and our youth – without preaching at them as to what it is we’re trying to combat,” Welchman explains.
She uses the example of consent. At the camp, kids are taught to respect personal space and ask before touching instruments and equipment.
“We really aim to organically make these practices normal for our campers without necessarily explaining what we’re trying to do,” she says.
Now, Rock the North is looking to extend past its Yukon roots and bring programming to the other two territories.
It could come to the NWT as soon as next summer. The organization is teaming up with Yellowknife music festival Folk on the Rocks.
Carly McFadden, executive director of Folk on the Rocks, said a partnership with Rock the North feels “very natural.”
“Their mission is quite similar to ours,” McFadden says. “The whole foundation of our organization is that music and culture are really important to our community, and we definitely see that Rock the North is interested in furthering that.”
Folk on the Rocks will help with marketing and setting aside time for performances on-stage. Rock the North will help the festival highlight and encourage diversity.
“That’s what folk music is always supposed to have been – giving a voice to the people,” says McFadden. “It’s literally called folk music. I think this is an obvious sign of what our mission will be.”
Arctic Inspiration hopefuls?
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Rock the North team did not offer programming in the Yukon this year.
However, as both Welchman and Frey enthusiastically point out, they’ve instead used the time to submit a “killer application” for the 2020 Arctic Inspiration Prize. If chosen, they could stand to win nearly $1 million of the total $3 million available.
Winning the prize could be the difference between making it as an organization or potentially having to shut down, according to Welchman.
“We have a five-year plan and a five-year vision. If we got that Arctic Inspiration Prize, pretty-much that vision could happen,” she says. “Building relationships and rolling out programs, hiring staff, all the things needed to support our vision would be doable.
“Not winning that prize means we’re going to be on the struggle bus a little bit, trying to piece together funding, piece together support.”
A shortlist of candidates will be published in January 2021, with final winners announced in February.
If Rock the North wins, Frey says she will “cry many tears of joy.”
“The areas that we serve, in terms of our priorities of increasing equality amongst young people, in addressing the mental health and the suicide crisis in the North… we’re hoping the judges really see the broadness and the long-term impact,” she said.
“We’re much more than making a bunch of noise with some kids – although that’s a lot of fun.”