By Ian Thomas
For the Pittsburgh Current
In less capable hands, Social Justice Disco — the big, bold collaboration of Pittsburgh-based artists led by composer and self-described jazz diva Phat Man Dee, and Liz Berlin, best known as part of the band Rusted Root and co-owner of Mr. Small’s Theater, Funhouse, and Studio — might ring false. On its face, their mission just seems too grand. With an imperative “to uplift those who would join this international struggle against racism, environmental destruction, war, religious intolerance, misogyny, homophobia and fascism,” they promise a lot, especially in a time where the issues they struggle against often feel all-encompassing.
Man Dee and Berlin find the right pitch by staying out of the way, while voices from across the community do the talking. “We wanted to showcase and do a true collaboration with people of color and with women and not be like ‘Hey, we’re a couple of fairly well-known white chicks and we’re going to talk about social justice and you all sing backup.’ We definitely did not want that,” Man Dee says in a phone interview. They will celebrate release of the album’s second single, “#Bigbrotheristrending,” with a performance of material from the album, Social Justice Disco: Songs to Fight Fascists By, accompanied by many of the project’s collaborators, at Mr. Small’s Theater on July 8. CDs will also be available for the first time at the show.
As earnest an effort as Social Justice Disco became, the project started as an April Fool’s Day joke. A couple of years ago, Man Dee announced on Facebook her excitement to launch the project with Liz Berlin, with whom she had worked in various capacities over the years. Berlin was reading about it for the first time just like everyone else. She and Man Dee were surprised by the buzz it generated. “Throughout the day, both of our friends and fans got more and more excited about it to the point where they were actually kind of, like, mad that it wasn’t true,” Berlin recalls over the phone. When Man Dee confirmed that she did indeed have a vision for the project, and even songs, Berlin – who was then in the process of launching the Funhouse at Mr. Small’s, was on board. “I said ‘Great, our first show is in a month!’”
The thirteen songs on the debut — a mix of originals and covers — defy categorization, incorporating a multitude of genres and drawing from the pool of artists with whom they’ve worked and interacted over their years of creating in Pittsburgh. One of the album’s high points is a cover of “All You Fascists,” a Woody Guthrie song first unearthed and recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco for their Mermaid Avenue sessions, performed here with Justin Sane of Anti-Flag. The best offering is a stirring rendition of Peace Poets’ “I Can’t Breathe,” performed with Pastor Deryck Tines and The Lemington Gospel Choir. For Berlin, the experience of recording with the choir was particularly moving. “That song is,rightfully, so incredibly emotional,” she says. “For them to honor us with their presence and participation and recording it was an astounding moment for [Man Dee] and I.”
With a lineup that includes artists from Pittsburgh’s activist, spiritual, and secular communities, Social Justice Disco creates a sound so expansive as to almost smother all of society’s smoldering ills, if only for the length of the album. On its own, Social Justice Disco will never deliver social justice, but its creators hope it will give sustenance to those who can. As recent weeks have shown, Pittsburgh may just be a city full of such people.
For Man Dee, who also works as a music educator, Social Justice Disco is part of a larger project of enabling and rewarding creativity. “Part of it is empowering other people to use their voices, empowering and encouraging other people to stand up and speak their truths and tell their stories in a creative manner. It’s really important to me that creative people get paid. All of my gigs, I try to pay people as much as I can,” she says.
“I want to make sure that everybody that wants to has the ability to learn how to make music and to create art. I think that creative expression is better than gold. Intellectual and creative expression is sacrosanct. It’s a sacred thing.”
SOCIAL JUSTICE DISCO with PHAT MAN DEE & LIZ BERLIN:
CD RELEASE PARTY & DISCO EXTRAVAGANZA.
7 p.m., Sun., July 8. Mr. Smalls Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale.
412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com