At Willie Mae Rock Camp, Kids Create the Sounds of the Future: NPR
LaFrae Sci/Willie Mae Rock Camp
In 2000, a student project in Portland, Oregon led to the formation of rock camps around the world, providing mentorship opportunities for girls to learn all aspects of writing and performing music. . Founded in 2004, Willie Mae Rock Camp in Brooklyn was one of the first.
Executive Director LaFrae Sci, who has worked with Willie Mae since the beginning, explains that teaching begins with the sounds of children’s everyday lives. “Their Abuela turning on the oven in the morning to make tortillas, or the sound of their father’s keys in their pocket when he gets up to go to work… we put that to music and we also teach them to listen to their voices at inside that helps them develop the voice they use outside the world.”
Kids here as young as 5 learn to bang drums and shred guitars, as well as work with electronic instruments and music technology, like synths, samples and the coding app that Oonagh Wickens, 10, has used to create a multimedia piece she calls “Kuro Neko.” “My sounds and my project – they’re synth sounds,” she explains. “And when I couldn’t find the right one, or when I couldn’t get something I liked, there were tons of people here to support me and help me.”
STEM concepts, which illuminate how musical instruments and technology produce distant sounds, are integrated into Willie Mae’s programming. “Everything is applied” explains Izzy Greene, who is one of the mentors.
In addition to its home base, Willie Mae operates in more than a dozen schools and community partnerships in New York City. Unlike tuition-based music programs or those offered on a sliding scale based on need, Willie Mae’s year-round instruction is offered free of charge to girls and gender-broad youth. The majority of students identify as BIPOC, as do the instructors.
By blazing new creative trails, they are following in the footsteps of the real Willie Mae, says cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon. “Willie Mae Thornton was born in Alabama and at an early age she hit the road as a blues singer. She was 14 and she really never looked back.”
Along with sister Rosetta Tharpe and LaVern Baker, Mahon says Thornton was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s forbears. “When rock ‘n’ roll was invented a few years after she got her first record deal, she didn’t affiliate with that form. She thought rock ‘n’ roll was just sped up blues , but what is interesting is that the thought rock’n’rollers she was interesting. She laid down a model for a sound and an attitude.”
Thornton recorded “Hound Dog” in 1952, four years before Elvis, and she wrote “Ball ‘n’ Chain,” which became a big hit for Janis Joplin in 1968. Mahon says Thornton carried the torch of the blues throughout refusing to darken it. light. “She was a person who was just herself, unapologetically. The idea of self-expression is so crucial.”
This has remained true as new musical styles have emerged. Nona Hendryx was a teenager when she embarked on her recording career in the early 1960s, but she says her first love was science. “My older brother was a ‘home-made’ mechanic, and I watched him investigate things, examine things, look underneath, take things apart and see what was inside.”
When her band The Bluebelles morphed into Labelle in the 70s, Hendryx became curious about how her musical ideas could be translated into sound – the art and science of recording. “A woman named Roberta Grace – who was the only female engineer I had come across – she started showing me how to work with the electronics that were under the board, how they were soldered together, how to put a table together mixing.”
As a solo artist and producer, Hendryx has continued to explore how technology can be used to communicate and connect with audiences. She says access to tools and mentorship is essential. “If a young woman learns to fish, she will fish for herself. She will not wait for someone to bring her fish.”
According to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, women are underrepresented as artists and songwriters and make up less than 3% of credited music producers. For women of color, that number is even lower. Hendryx says that’s why Willie Mae is so important. “Seeing these young girls take toys apart and use the circuits inside them to learn circuit bending, to jump to where you’re dealing with frequencies and generate sound, turn that into rhythm, turn that into melodies , turn that into a beat, turn that into a song.”
Nine-year-old Kendal Ryant, who used a synthesizer to compose a song about the climate crisis called ‘Earth Needs Help’, says the best thing about Willie Mae is that she can experiment rather than just follow a list of rules. “When I first started playing with it, I kept bothering to turn it into, for example, different sounds.”
Some of these children may pursue careers as artists, producers and engineers, others in science and technology. LaFrae Sci says the main goal is to support them as creators. “I’ve always really felt that music can bring us together, build community, heal and empower. I call what I do being imaginative.”