Mare Ralph, board member at Girls Rock! Chicago

Chicago native Mare Ralph has been a board member at Girls Rock! Chicago since 2021 and a camp organizer since 2019. From 2014 till 2018 they lived in Louisville, where in 2015 they began working with Rockshops, a weekend-long music camp that had launched the year before as part of the festival Louisville Outskirts. In 2016 the camp expanded to a week and became Girls Rock Louisville, which last year changed its name to Out Loud Louisville to better welcome trans and gender-expansive youth. 

Ralph is also a guitarist, and they’ve played in several Chicago bands—most famously Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, which they joined in 2006. A tour-van accident in 2009 (which Ralph describes as “life-changing”) stole the group’s momentum and led it to dissolve in 2012, but it also spurred Ralph to return to school. They’ve since finished a bachelor’s in education and a master’s in urban planning and policy, and today they work as a housing policy organizer for Chicago-based nonprofit Housing Action Illinois. 

Girls Rock! Chicago runs a weekend-long adult camp called Let’s Rock! (formerly Ladies Rock!), and this month it returns in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic. (The kids’ summer camp came back in person in 2022.) It runs Friday, February 17, through Monday, February 20, at First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, 6400 S. Kimbark. Applications for Let’s Rock! will be accepted until Sunday, February 12.

As told to Philip Montoro

I was aware of Girls Rock! Chicago existing when I was playing in bands—I think one of my bands played an afternoon concert for the campers the first year of camp [in 2006]. But I’m a self-taught guitarist. Imposter syndrome made me believe that I didn’t have anything of value to share. Because I’m not a technical guitarist and have what I consider to be a host of bad habits related to playing, I was hesitant to volunteer.

What really got me involved when I was in Louisville was coming to understand the radical politics that are also a major part of Girls Rock Camps and Queer Rock Camps. And part of that is an idea of taking up space and recognizing that the music that you create has value—even when and sometimes because it does not conform to the highest technical standards. 

I recognized that not only could I be a part of this camp, but that many of my experiences allowed me to be uniquely helpful—growing up as a queer person in a small town and being able to reflect on my own ability to use music to help me through tough times. 

Camp also provided a space for me where I began to recognize that I identify as nonbinary. Often it was campers that I saw being out and being themselves and openly talking about their identities and who they are—that experience was really inspiring and helped me to recognize that about myself. 

My feeling is that young people are in a process of figuring themselves out and figuring out who they are. And ultimately, what our camp strives to be is a safe place to do that. 

Sometimes we’ll see a returning camper from the previous year, and they’re coming in with different pronouns, a different name, and different ideas about who they are. That’s really rewarding, that young people feel like this is still a place for them. 

And that’s also true on the side of organizers and volunteers. To put it frankly, going from being someone who identified as a woman while playing in bands, to then being someone who identifies as transmasculine or nonbinary, it’s not as if the patriarchy opens its doors. I’ve been really grateful for trans boys who come to camp and still feel like it’s a place where they belong. 

A couple years ago, I remember a friend asking, “This is something you’re super involved in, and I know that in your personal life you’re striving to be seen and have your identity affirmed by the outside world. Is it annoying to be wearing a Girls Rock! Chicago shirt?”

And at the time, I was like, “You know what, I think the ‘rock’ is almost as ill-fitting as ‘girls.’” Because we welcome and encourage any form of music that our campers want to play. Girls Rock! Chicago has a DJ track. 

Campers sing the Girls Rock! Chicago theme song at an end-of-camp showcase in 2017.

I’ve been an instrument instructor, a guitar instructor, a band coach. I usually end up being around for showcase and for the recording. I was laughing this summer that our operations manager, Madeline [Leahy], is always like, “Mare, you’re going to be at the studio, can you be in the live room with the bands?” I’ve explained what scratch vocals are to nine-year-olds dozens of times. “Well, it’s sort of like practice or pretend—it’s really there to help you keep your place on the song. But we’re going to do the vocals separate afterwards.” 

That first weekend camp, I remember we were hanging out before the concert, and I was with another volunteer who’s a drum instructor and a band coach. One of the campers—a maybe ten-year-old drummer—turned to her and said, “Are there more boys in bands than there are girls?” 

The volunteer and I just looked at each other. The recognition of the years of being asked if you’re the merch girl, or just shitty comments from sound dudes or whatever—that sort of recognition, in the look that we shared. But also, how amazing to be learning an instrument without any knowledge of that sort of added pressure or baggage! To just be choosing an instrument, thinking this is what I want to play, this is what I want to explore. It’s pretty awesome.

Being the person who’s helping everybody get their instruments on before they go onstage is so rewarding. And again, this 13-year-old doesn’t care how many records my band sold 15 years ago. They don’t care who we played with, or who our booking agent was, or all that stuff that seems so important and so necessary and infiltrated my mind during so many years of playing in a band. 

I’m talking to this kid and saying, “You’re gonna get up there. It’ll probably sound a little different than when we were playing in the classroom,” just reminding a kid of the chord changes in their song. Just saying, like, “You’re gonna be great, and everyone is going to be so excited to see you and celebrate you.”

That’s such an accomplishment, for a kid to be able to get onstage and perform something that they’ve created—a song that they’ve created with other campers that they maybe didn’t even know a week ago. And I’m able to say, like, “I’ve been there. I get nervous too before going onstage. But remember, you can look out into the crowd and see your band coach and your guitar instructor. Everyone’s gonna be cheering for you.” 

It’s a great reminder to me as a 41-year-old—yeah, I can make something up, and that can be something that stays in your head and you’re singing to yourself. Maybe the first three years in Louisville, every year, there was at least one cat-themed song. Which were really awesome!

Campers can come into camp without the framework of “I’m going against the grain, and I’m gonna be in a band,” but even if that’s not present, there’s definitely awareness of societal expectations. And so there are these little feminist anthems that always end up coming out at camp. 

Like Chicago, Louisville is a very segregated city. The “Ninth Street Divide” is what people call it—the West End of Louisville is historically Black. And we had campers coming from very different socioeconomic backgrounds. Sometimes you’re not sure, musically, what people’s backgrounds are—one camper can be coming to learn their third instrument, while someone else has never held a drumstick. 

We began to more directly confront the divide that was being reflected in our camp—of having volunteers that were mostly white and mostly coming from a rock background—and really working to decenter whiteness and build leadership among our volunteers and musicians that were people of color and specifically Black women. Louisville has a badass history of Black feminism, as the world has come to see in the past few years.

One thing we started thinking about is, while it’s awesome that this 12-year-old is really obsessed with Queen and might hear a Queen song at camp, it shouldn’t only be that kid who has that moment of recognition. And so as part of our applications, we started asking all our campers their three favorite songs at the moment, and then we put together a playlist that we would play during lunch. So that every person had that moment of hearing a song. The campers were not aware that was the reason we were asking for these songs, but we just wanted to make it clear that whatever your jam is, it’s welcome. 

Stage fright is always something that we’re dealing with. Something that we stumbled upon as a really good, low-key way to introduce performing was karaoke. Thank God for YouTube—you can just look up “Losing My Religion karaoke,” and there’s a video that has all the lyrics.

We started doing this every day after lunch. So we’re doing karaoke, and one camper chose the Adele song “Rolling in the Deep.” It starts off, she’s singing, and slowly, everybody that’s hanging out in the gym just starts clapping along to the beat. And then the chorus starts up, and it’s a very powerful song—you know, what a crescendo—and every single camper, people who went to school right down the street in the West End and kids who were coming from the suburbs, everyone knew this song and was sharing this and just singing along as loud as they could. Those moments of pure joy and fun, and singing along with your friends to a song that you love—you can’t plan that.

The camp that happened just after the Parkland school shooting, a group of maybe 14- or 15-year-olds ended up writing a song calling for gun control. And you had people who were coming from a perspective of thinking about school shootings and not feeling safe in school, and also people who have gun violence as a part of their daily lived experiences in these historically neglected redlined communities. 

This didn’t come from the organizers. It didn’t come from us pushing campers to write about anything. I mentioned those songs about cats—those were really awesome songs! I could sing you bits of them right now. Sometimes it’s with our older campers that you have more social awareness present in the music, but there have definitely been nine- or ten-year-olds who are singing, like, “Don’t tell me what I can do. I can do whatever I want.” 

Sarah Moshman made this short documentary on Girls Rock! Chicago in 2010.

I really loved being a band coach for Let’s Rock! in fall 2019. One of the members in the band I coached is now a regular volunteer and organizer with Girls Rock! Chicago. I keep saying I’m going to do Let’s Rock! Camp and learn to play the drums finally. It’s open to women, trans folks of any identity, and gender-expansive, gender-nonconforming people. 

[Let’s Rock!] is taking place at First Presbyterian Church of Chicago. That church is really doing a lot of awesome things for the community—it has a great history of organizing. Gwendolyn Brooks taught writing classes there. In the late 60s, the church organized with the Blackstone Rangers in workforce development programs. 

All the restrooms are all-gender restrooms, so it’s a very welcoming space as well. And huge and beautiful—the first time I took a tour of it, we’re on the third floor, and I was like, “Is that a basketball court?” It has a full basketball court on the third floor! 

[Let’s Rock!] is a really good way to get to know more people and to make friends. We don’t often have opportunities as adults. Our campers often are, like, this is a stop on their summer of basketball camp or ballet or whatever. 

The first year we had an adult camp in Louisville, we were warned by our friends at the Nashville camp that there was a high proportion of divorces coming out of the Ladies Rock Camp—an indication of how empowering the experience was! It resulted in people prioritizing their own well-being and their own mental health and making positive choices in their lives, and in some cases leaving marriages that they weren’t happy in. I can’t guarantee that that will result—I mean, we won’t put it in the marketing materials, maybe just to reassure any spouses or long-term partners. . . . 

The other thing that’s really been cool is getting to know people who have bands and play regularly. I hate to say it, but I am not scouring the Reader for Early Warnings every week the way I was 20 years ago. And so it’s been great to learn about cool bands that are women or gender-nonconforming or trans folks. Through the rock-camp ecosystem, people have been able to plan tours and find couches to sleep on. It’s a really special supportive environment of musicians.

[What drew me to Girls Rock] was joining together with women and gender-nonconforming and trans people to recognize each other and just acknowledge—we’ve all had experiences of not feeling like we quite belonged in the music scene. We’re able to come together and share what we know with young people. 

That was, for me, the beginning of returning to playing music for the reason I started when I was a sad teenager—trying to express how I felt about the world around me.

Correction: The print version of this story misstates the closing day of Let’s Rock! as Sunday, February 20. The correct date is Monday, February 20.

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