Kathleen Hanna On 'Rebel Girl' And Rock Camps, In Conversation With Ann Powers Bikini Kill's instant anthem for the '90s riot grrrl movement found new purpose at rock camps, where young girls learn to express themselves through music. Hanna breaks it down with NPR's Ann Powers.

Fascination, Friendship And Desire: Kathleen Hanna On The Reign Of 'Rebel Girl'

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The punk song "Rebel Girl" was an ode from one girl to another.


BIKINI KILL: (Singing) That girl thinks she's the queen of the neighborhood. She's got the hottest trike in town. That girl, she holds her head up so high

MARTIN: Kathleen Hanna and her band Bikini Kill released this song back in 1993. This was when Riot Grrrl, the feminist punk movement they helped create, was revolutionizing rock 'n' roll. NPR Music's Ann Powers brings our latest American Anthem about how "Rebel Girl" is reaching girls today, not in mosh pits or nightclubs but at summer camp.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: In the dressing room of a rundown club in Wales in 1993, Kathleen Hanna was waiting to take the stage with Bikini Kill. Things were tense. There was maybe a bomb threat on the club. Guys in the audience were screaming obscenities at the opening band.

KATHLEEN HANNA: And then the girls in the crowd started singing "Rebel Girl" - like, chanting it and clapping. So we just knew exactly what to do. Like, we walked down the stairs, and Tobi started playing that beat.


HANNA: And we sang with them.

POWERS: The fans were giving the song back to the band, and now it was supercharged.

HANNA: It was beautiful. You know, they were saying, like, we want you, and we're going to protect you. And they weren't just saying it. They were singing it.

POWERS: "Rebel Girl" was a special Bikini Kill song. They always stood up to oppression, but this song seemed to make a space where oppression didn't exist. I remember when it first came out. I was a young journalist. I took the lyrics from the record, and I pinned them up in my cubicle at work to remind me that, like Kathleen Hanna, I could be a loud mouth feminist yelling her truth.


BIKINI KILL: (Singing) Rebel girl, you are the queen of my world.

POWERS: Now I'm a mom. My teenage daughter learned about drumming and women's liberation at one of the many all-girl rock camps where "Rebel Girl" is on the curriculum.

LOLA PETILLO: (Drumming on table).

POWERS: At the student center at Vanderbilt University, it's the third day of Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp. Drummer Lola Petillo and singer Zoe Dominguez, who play together in the band Queens of Noise, bang out "Rebel Girl" on a table.

ZOE DOMINGUEZ: (Singing) That girl thinks she's the queen of the neighborhood. She's got the hottest trike in town. That girl, she holds her head up so high. I think I want to be her best friend, yeah. Rebel girl...

PETILLO: I was probably, like, 9 or 10 when I first heard "Rebel Girl." I like Bikini Kill songs a lot because I think they're all really empowering.

ZOE: A lot of the songs that Queens of Noise plays, it comes from a place of - I've been hurt, and I learned to overcome it - or - this guy hurt me, and now I'm better than him or whatever. But with the "Rebel Girl," there's no, like, trauma or whatever that you have to pull up. You can just be empowered because you're a woman and that's awesome.


QUEENS OF NOISE: (Singing) When she talks, I hear the revolution. In her hips, there's revolutions. When she walks, the revolution's coming. In her kiss, I taste the revolution. Rebel girl, rebel girl...

POWERS: That's the Queens of Noise doing "Rebel Girl." They've played it at camp fundraisers to screaming kids, parents and counselors. Everyone knows the song. Camp uses it in assemblies, for instrument lessons, at showcases - all with the goal of making girls feel radically great about who they are. Hailey Rowe-Mabee is the program director for the Nashville rock camp. Ten years ago, she was a camper.

HAILEY ROWE-MABEE: When I think of "Rebel Girl," I kind of think of where I was in life the first time I heard it at camp and kind of what it opened up for me. I hadn't heard a lot of females play music in that way.

POWERS: At rock camp, "Rebel Girl" is a tool that does everything. Musically, it teaches basic beats and riffs. And its message of boundary-shattering love reads like a Riot Grrrl manifesto packed with the defiant joy of all the women's liberation movements that came before it.

ROWE-MABEE: That feels so uniquely female. I think there's this ownership over, like - this is a song made for us by us.


BIKINI KILL: (Singing) That girl thinks she's the queen of the neighborhood. I got news for you. She is.

POWERS: Bikini Kill broke up in 1997. The first rock camp for girls opened in Portland, Ore., in 2001. These camps multiplied, keeping Riot Grrrl spirit alive for a new generation. Pretty soon, Kathleen Hanna realized that her song belonged to those girls.

HANNA: I mean, I started noticing that I was getting a lot of stuff from rock camp that contained "Rebel Girl" covers. And I was really happy - I mean, especially when it's like 7- to 11-year-olds. And you're like, oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPERS: (Singing) Rebel girl, rebel girl, you are the queen of my world.

POWERS: More than a hundred camps sprang up around the world over two decades. Online, dozens of videos show young campers stomping their way through "Rebel Girl." That's satisfying, says Natalie Walker at Rain City Rock Camp in Seattle.

NATALIE WALKER: Many of us who started rock camps, we were brought up with Riot Grrrl. So we kind of gained our sense of revolution and even feminism from Bikini Kill. It's really powerful for us to link our upbringing with now leading our youth through their own rebellions.


BIKINI KILL: (Singing) Love you like a sister always, soul sister, rebel girl. Come and be my best friend. Will you, rebel girl?

POWERS: Fascination, friendship and desire get all mixed up in "Rebel Girl." Its intensity is what Kathleen Hanna was feeling in the early, heady days of Riot Grrl, and she felt it as a teenager, too.

HANNA: Like, I had a huge crush on my best friend in junior high. I hope she doesn't hear this.

POWERS: (Laughter).

HANNA: (Laughter) She was my best friend, and I had a super big crush on her. And I didn't know how to tell her. And then I just was like, well, I can just be friends with her and have a crush on her. It's fine.

POWERS: This is the deepest part of "Rebel Girl," the part that means the most to the girls who love it, girls like 16-year-old Zoe Dominguez.

ZOE: You know, there are friendships that you have where you're not totally sure if you like this person. Like, do I want to date this person, or do I just want to be this person, you know? That's a lot of female relationships that I have in my life.

POWERS: These emotions resonate across cultural lines, says Erica Flores, who has taught in both her hometown of Austin and at the bilingual Chicas Rockeras Camp in Southeast LA.

ERICA FLORES: Whether you're Latinx or black or Asian or indigenous - whatever - there are certain moods in your life, certain moments in your life, certain feelings that can manifest in a particular song. For me, as a young queer Latinx woman in Texas in the early '90s, the first time I heard Bikini Kill on the radio, it blew my mind.

POWERS: That's what makes "Rebel Girl" a great rock anthem - and a great feminist one. Feminism is about embracing girls and women in all their variety, making space for complicated feelings. Zoe Dominguez says it's about not being scared of yourself.

ZOE: Just you know, walking down the hallway and you feel like people are staring at you or judging you. And you're like, screw this. I'm a rebel girl (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPERS: (Singing) Rebel girl, rebel girl, rebel girl, you are the queen of my world.

POWERS: I'm Ann Powers for NPR Music.

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