Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter and music educator Chana Rothman may look like she lives a mainstream life with a male partner, her 4 and 2 year-old sons and a baby on the way. However, she plays an unconventional tune, which has gone into her first children's album, Rainbow Train.
Rothman grew up in Toronto, Canada. Her musical track began at 14, when she went to a music camp. The last chair flutist, each week she participated in musical challenges where she and another camper would play in competition and the losing musician would go down a level. This activity, Rothman remembers, was when she realized she did not want music to be a devastating experience for anyone.
At the age of 18, Rothman came out as bisexual, which she explained became a significant part of her identity. Rothman started writing her own songs during those high school years, listing Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls as huge influences along with Tracy Chapman, a female artist who did not abide by female stereotypes. She played less of the flute and picked up the guitar.
Through the years, she has babysat, taught Hebrew school and outdoor education and was a song leader in the Jewish community. Her love of kids, music, culture, religion and spirituality, has lead up to her career as a music educator.
"I really experienced and witnessed how powerful it is to be part of a music-making community and a community that is working toward justice," said Rothman. "It's meaningful to be in groups of people who are interested in changing things that need to be changed in the world and talking about things that need to be changed and they're doing that work. I have found, as a musician, that there's always a place for that work. Music always has a space. It always has something to offer and always has a way of bringing people together."
Her style has changed over the last decade and she enjoys incorporating folk, pop, hip-hop and rock into her music.
"My goal there is to really introduce children to as many kinds of sounds as possible while building community and musicality and confidence," Rothman said.
Her awareness and dislike of unfair stereotypes and gender expectations began at a young child. Having two brothers who played hockey, she also wanted to play, but being a girl, she was denied.
Following unconventional suit, at a clothing swap two years ago, her oldest son fell in love with a dress he picked out. Rothman's peers in the inclusive community she intentionally surrounds herself in, encouraged him.
"I think any of those things are terrifying to us because it doesn't matter how progressive you are, we are raised in a culture that is really transphobic and sexist and really misogynist," said Rothman. "Anything feminine is considered a target whether it's on the male, female, transperson, or gender non-conforming person. It was sweet to see he was comfortable and I was proud of him for being free to be himself even though I don't think he perceives himself that way. I will say as time went on and that's what he wanted to wear, I had a lot of my own fear and bias to fight past."
Searching for tools as a parent and for her project, "Rainbow Train," Rothman joined a parents' support group on Facebook and read the books "Gender Born, Gender Made," "Jacob's New Dress," and "Raising My Rainbow."
"I leave it open and as a gift that we have been given the opportunity to stand behind the thing we believe in about children's freedom of expression and freedom to be who they are," Rothman said. "Our obligation as parents is to support them no matter who they are and how hard it is or how harshly they may be judged in the world or no matter how attached the world might be to their gender presentation."
"Rainbow Train" was created with a grant and based on feedback from diverse focus groups Rothman devised. The children's album, she adds, is a project with meaning beyond herself and her family.
"I feel like this project has a sense of meaning that's much deeper than the music I've written before," Rothman said. "I've always written about consciousness and social justice and spirituality, but there's something about having had the opportunity to combine all the different pieces of myself as an educator, as a musician, as a parent, as an activist. It really feels like a culmination of my life's work and it feels like something I really think is larger than myself."
"Rainbow Train," which will be released May 12, is a musical "mish-mosh" featuring latin, jazz, disco, hip-hop, pop, folk, a ballad and children's voices in dialogue. The target age is 4-9-years-old, but Rothman insists the songs do not talk down to kids. The themes surrounding gender identity and expression are ageless.
The album is a collaboration with many individuals. Along with Rothman, the core musicians include Bill Moriarty, Stuart Fuchs, Sarah Carlisle and Francois Zayas. Many other artists lent their musical talents, but Rothman makes special mention of Mya Adriene Byrne, who co-wrote the song "Everybody Gets to Choose their Own Name." Byrne came out as a transwoman and is a trans activist.
"I intend this as a tool for parents and educators and for children and for anyone who really cares about freedomfreedom of expression and gender freedom," said Rothman, who was partially inspired by some of the books she read. "I really intended this to be a soundtrack for a growing movement. I feel like any good social movement needs some good music to go with it. I'm really excited to present this as a companion to this really exciting movement toward gender liberation that's happening."
For more information, visit chanarothman.com/rainbow-train .