Rock Roulette

On a typical Saturday night on the rock club stages of Columbia, you’re likely to see bands composed of mostly straight white men. And even in bands that feature female-led acts, there’s not much diversity in the backline. Behind the scenes it isn’t much better. A show requires a whole mess of people, but by and large sound engineers, photographers, and (ahem) music journalists tend to be white men. At best, this lack of representation is indicative of willful ignorance, and at worst it’s evidence of calculated misogyny.  

It’s not exactly Columbia’s fault, but it is proof of how women, trans folk and non-white people, either implicitly or explicitly, are marginalized in this community. 

This trend is shifting. Already this year, Columbia has hosted a number of diversity-forward initiatives like Girls Block, She Festival and Indie Grits. But there’s still work left to be done. 

Jess Oliver is helping spearhead the shift with Girls Rock Columbia. Since joining Girls Rock Charleston eight years ago as a drum teacher, Oliver has helped grow this city’s chapter into an institution. She took the reins as executive director in 2017.

With its annual camp, Girls Rock assembles a diverse group of young non-males, empowering them by teaching them to play music.

“It’s a little intimidating, maybe — you show up with this roomful of strangers and you’re expected to make friends,” Oliver says. “And we’re asking a lot of them to come in and, like, pick up a bass. And they’ve never held a bass before.” 

But it’s not just kids who can benefit from the empowering exercise of learning a new instrument and starting a band. Thus, for the past two years, Girls Rock has hosted the Rock Roulette Showcase — to raise funds for campers to receive free or partial tuition, but also to give older people an opportunity to embrace the process. 

The showcase gathers women and gender-variant adults into never-before-seen bands, loaning them gear and giving them six weeks to rehearse, write and learn their instrument. 

“I like Rock Roulette because I think every adult participating gets something different out of it. For some, it’s overcoming the fear of getting onstage and performing,” offers Kayla Machado, who will play with Hartley & the Honeybees, one of the seven Rock Roulette bands that will perform at this year.

“For others, it’s overcoming the social anxiety of quickly getting to know a group of women well enough to be vulnerable in front of each other,” she continues via Facebook, “doing our best on instruments we just picked up for the first time that week.” 

For Oliver, seeing so many people getting to express themselves in fresh ways harkens back to why Girls Rock Columbia was formed. 

“We weren’t seeing ourselves represented on stage in the local music scene,” the executive director recalls. “When we would go to shows and see bands it was mostly men on stage.”

Switching things up, this year’s Rock Roulette will conclude with two sets by artists well-known to the local scene — popular rapper LaLisa will headline, with support coming from The Long Con, a newer project featuring indie/punk fixture and frequent Girls Rock volunteer Ony Ratsimbaharison.

“I don’t know that it was a conscious decision to add ‘bigger’ headliners necessarily,” Oliver tells Free Times. “We just always like to end the night with something fun and celebrate the folks doing amazing stuff in our community. We’ve had some really awesome bands play these events for us, and we like to showcase artists we have relationships with.”

Oliver adds that she and LaLisa became fast friends through previous Girls Rock events. 

“When she talks about her experiences as a woman in a local hip-hop scene, she’s describing the reason Girls Rock Columbia was formed seven years ago,” Oliver explains. “Lack of representation on stage and folks having preconceived ideas about you solely based on your gender. Feeling like you have to try twice as hard to be taken seriously.”

Bigger acts with robust draws should generate more funds for Girls Rock. Tuition to attend the Girl’s Rock Camp starts at $350. Buying a ticket to the Roulette helps offset that cost. 

“About 68 percent of our campers last year attended on free or reduced tuition thanks to the financial support of our amazing community,” Oliver says. “Money raised through Rock Roulette and all of our other fundraisers go directly to offset the costs of our programming and operations so that we are able to make our camp accessible to campers from all backgrounds.”  

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