Girls (and other gender identities) Rock!

Jul 31, 2022, 10:42 PM | Updated: 11:30 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — This summer, some kids are going to camp to paddle canoes and explore the outdoors. 15-year-old Saerichai Baker-Rajsavong, who also goes by the names Jedi and Arson, is learning how to rock a bass line.

Baker-Rajsavong is on the campus of Salt Lake’s Hollywood High at Rock Camp SLC.

The camp has its roots on a college campus in Portland, where, more than 20 years ago, women’s studies major Misty McElroy worked on a school project that eventually became that city’s Rock ‘n Roll Camp for Girls. The idea caught on and similar camps sprang up from Omaha to Helsinki, and, in 2016,  to Salt Lake City.

“It’s an empowerment camp,” said musician and outgoing music director Talia Keys. “But we use music to teach these kids about empowerment, teach them about taking up space, being loud, being proud, and pushing against the status quo.”

After a transgender youth signed up for camp in its second year, Rock Camp SLC changed its mission to include girls and transgender, non-binary, and gender-expansive youth.

“So we exist for marginalized youth, marginalized genders,” Keys said.

Baker-Rajsavong is a 15-year-old nonbinary college student and a five-time camper.

“Some of us feel like we don’t belong or that we’ve been pushed out,” they said. “This is one of my safe places. It’s a place that I always want to come back to. Because I know that even if there are tons of new people, it’s still going to be like a family.”

During a week-long session, campers get an instrument and music lessons, join a band and write and perform a song.

Baker-Rajsavong this year plays the bass in a quartet named That Punk Band.

“It’s almost like if you’re standing next to train tracks and you can feel that rumble shake through you,” they said.

Saerichai Baker-Rajsavong, AKA Jedi plays bass. (KSL TV)

Their song is about cryptids, creatures such as the Loch Ness Monster that have been said to but not proven to exist, an allegorical reference to those marginalized genders.

Baker-Rajsavong said they faced harassment because of an Asian heritage and her gender identity.

“I’ve had people throw firecrackers at me, I’ve had people yell slurs at me,” they said.

Keys encourages the students to write songs about what they know.

“You can deal with some of life’s hardest things by using art. If you have things you’re dealing with in your life, you put that into your music, you put that into your sports, you put it into school, you know, you put your emotions into what you do,” she tells them.

Keys wrote a recent song, “Head Up,” about depression.

“I felt the weight of the world on me and I just said to myself, ‘Keep your head up.’ And I’m like, ‘Ooh, that’s nice.’ “

Write more songs and write more songs

That will change the world

And tell your truth and tell your truth

‘Cause that will save your soul

Shine bright as hell, shine bright as hell

So the darkness will dim

And do it well, do it well

Strength comes from within

“When I was nine, I had a bowl cut. I wore my Jordans, my basketball stuff. I played with Ninja Turtles. I was not afraid to be a tomboy,” Keys said. “And I loved when I was misgendered as a kid. I liked being called a boy. When I hit puberty, I had to question all that stuff. I had to, you know, pretend I was a girly girl, grow my hair out. I denied who I was.”

She said she was a pansexual.

She abused alcohol and thought about suicide.

“It’s a reality for a lot of queer folk that you are so, you know, closed in and you’re so trying to not be who you are, that you would rather not exist,” she said.

She was in her mid-twenties and was performing with the band Marinade when she came out.

She said as a straight woman she faced sexual harassment and as a pansexual faced verbal and physical abuse.

“I started out as a straight woman and in that band came out. And I couldn’t deny my truth anymore. I realized that I was hiding,” she said.

The week at camp culminates with a rock ‘n roll show at the Commonwealth Room, the sister venue of the popular State Room.

There are plenty of amps, stage lights, and cheering campers and family members, but no pressure on performance.

“There are no wrong notes. There are no, like, mistakes, you know,” Keys added.  “We definitely are not a disciplinary music school. We really just want to build kids up, build up their self-esteem and their confidence.”

“Campers, do you matter?” she asked the crowd, and the crowd screamed back in the affirmative.

Baker-Rajsavong’s band performs their cryptid song and the audience cheers.

“We need to teach our kids that no matter of their differences, no matter who they are, what they look like, how they identify whether they’re true to themselves yet or not, that they matter,” Keys explained.

“It’s about making sure that everyone knows that they have someplace to go if they need something,” Baker-Rajsavong said.  “And that they belong in this world and that they don’t need to apologize for being themselves.” 


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Girls (and other gender identities) Rock!