Chanukah, social justice go hand-in-hand for these local musicians
Phat Man Dee and Liz Berlin collaborated on a social justice themed album that spanned issues from the Black Lives Matter movement to the Dakota Access Pipeline to activism.
Spanning the decades, from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the disco era in the 1980s to activism today, two local Jewish artists are using music to tackles issues of social justice at home.
Liz Berlin, a musician with the Pittsburgh rock band Rusted Root, and Phat Man Dee, a local jazz artist, teamed up to create a collection of social justice themed songs, focusing on issues from the Black Lives Matter movement and the Dakota Access Pipeline to fascism and activism at large.
With a combination of original songs and covers of classic activism anthems — including “Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor and “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield — the duo, with several guest performers, aimed to create an album that would address how they felt about the times in which we are living.
“It’s 60 Pittsburgh musicians coming together to protest what is happening in the world,” Mandee said. “This was a way we could use our art to go, ‘Hey, we’re not OK with this.’”
For Berlin, the music, and the creative way of thinking about protest and activism, helped her to “clarify how I feel about things.”
The artists debuted their collection of music at the Shine the Light with Social Justice Disco at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh on Dec. 14.
Springer, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and participated in an original arrangement of the song “I Can’t Breathe” for the album, said Berlin and Mandee allowed the artists to have their own voice in the project and “took responsibility as allies to every community.”
For her individual performance, Springer focused on battling racism from within.
“If you’re not careful, it doesn’t matter who you are, white supremacy will sneak up on you and crawl inside,” she told the audience. “And it is our job every day to sort of clean house and look inside.”
Racism and inequality was a central tenant of the concert — Mandee wrote the original song ‘Jim Crow is Alive and Well’ about police brutality and other injustices against people of color, and Berlin rewrote the lyrics of the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin Alive’ to replace the traditional “ha ha ha ha” with “black lives mat-ter.”
“We’re not in a post-racial society. Racism is happening right now,” Mandee said.
The artists also focused on unequal treatment for immigrants. The social justice disco was in collaboration with the art series “Out of Many: Stories of Migration” that is currently on display at the JCC. The exhibit highlights the American immigrant and migrant experience through photographs and essays, focusing on Pittsburgh’s particular immigration stories.
After meditating at the exhibit, Mandee wrote the original song ‘How Far We Have Come’ about the immigrant experience as a “beacon of hope” for themselves and more, but also as a journey that has just begun.
She jokingly posted a Facebook status about a collaboration with Berlin, whom she has known for several years and works with at the Afro American Music Institute teaching music to children.
At first, fans were excited about the prospect — and then angry to learn it had only been a joke.
In response, Berlin, who co-owns Mr. Smalls Theatre and Funhouse in Lawrenceville, told Mandee they would be performing at the opening of a new section of their club. A year and a half later, they have recorded their album and are preparing to release it in the spring.
The JCC concert, which served as the debut performance of their collection, fell on the third night of Chanukah.
At the event, Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life at the JCC, had each performer light a candle and answer the question, “What lights your light?” The responses ranged from watching future generations learn and follow traditional practices to friends and family supporting them.
By the end of the night, they had lit eight candles.
“The message of Chanukah is that each light can light many and that nothing gets diminished,” Symons said. “The light just keeps shining brighter and brighter in all its diverse glory.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at