In his play Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare famously asked, “What’s in a name?” RealClearLife posed the same question to Simon “Young” Tam, the bassist and founding member of the rock world’s first all-Asian-American rock band — which he controversially named The Slants back in 2006.
“It’s a chosen identity,” Tam answers. “For us, it also conveys an important social and political message about our view of what it’s like in the entertainment industry as Asian Americans.”
Tam, who grew up in San Diego and is of Chinese-Taiwanese descent, is pretty blunt about what that has meant for him and his bandmates. Once the band started gaining traction, playing higher-profile gigs and getting a fair amount of press, the major labels came knocking—but all the record deals came with “a caveat.”
“They wanted me to replace our lead singer with someone who was white, because they told me Asians don’t sell,” Tam recalls. He heard the same racism from promoters, who wondered who’d want to pay to see an all-Asian band.
Which brings us back to that name. While “slant” can mean any number of things—a journalist’s angle for a story, an attitude—what makes Tam’s use of the word so controversial is that it’s long been used as a racial slur slung at Asians (the epithet dates back to the early 1940s). Whereas the Washington Redskins recently found out the hard way regarding their clearly archaic (and arguably racist) name, what Tam and company are doing is an altogether different beast. These are self-respecting Asian-American men using the word as an artistic statement, a way of “celebrating Asian culture,” as Tam puts it.
However, as Tam and his band found, their name would lead to seemingly irreversible legal woes that have still not been resolved.
Before entering into that tale of woes, there’s one point to get out of the way: Tam and his bandmates have been putting out albums as The Slants for over a decade. They tour under the name, have a Spotify page, and when journalists write about them, they don’t have to bowdlerize it. Read: For the most part, the freedoms provided by the First Amendment have extended to Tam and his compatriots. It’s just one in a number of band names that could be viewed as equally or even more offensive: There’s F—ed Up (which we definitely can’t write out); Perfect P—y; and The Sex Pistols, to name a few.
Tam tells RealClearLife that he had no problem registering copyrights for his albums, but when it came to trademarking the band’s name, that’s when he ran into the tangle of issues.
“The whole matter was brought to my attention by an attorney friend of mine [in 2009],” explains Tam. He’d never really heard of the need to trademark a band name, but tried to do so to take his band “to the next level.” According to Tam, some record labels won’t sign bands who haven’t trademarked their name. Bands can also run into trouble when trying to sign licensing agreements.
So Tam attempted to register the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), and ran into a brick wall. They basically told Tam and his lawyers that the group’s name was racist and denied them.
It could’ve all ended there, but Tam appealed, which led him and his lawyers (who have been representing him pro bono for several years now) all the way to the federal court of appeals. “In that court, we won,” explains Tam. “Nine out of 12 federal judges agreed with us, in fact; 10 out of the 12 said that we should have had [the trademark] long ago.”
It was a huge win for Tam and The Slants, overturning a 71-year-old law, which the court of appeals declared unconstitutional. But the PTO, still standing its ground, appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Which sent Tam and his lawyers down their current rabbit hole. (Interestingly, The Slants’ case will be heard, whereas the Redskins’ won’t.) “See, the government says, ‘If we get it wrong, you can always appeal the decision,’” says Tam. “But what they don’t tell you is that nobody has ever won an appeal—there’s no precedent set.”
Tam believes he’s representing somewhat of a higher cause. “The reality is that [the court case] is much bigger than our band,” he explains.
“If we lose and the Supreme Court sides with the trademark office on this particular issue, that means not only do we lose the ability to register our trademark, but so do hundreds and hundreds of other applications that are in suspension right now,” he continues. “That tends to be other artists or nonprofits or small business owners, who were accused of being disparaging or offensive whether or not they actually were.”
So what’s next for Tam and his band? All they can really do is wait for the Supreme Court’s decision (which will likely come this summer or fall) and continue making music. Just last month, The Slants released a brand-new EP called The Band Who Must Not Be Named (which Tam says was one option they came up with for renaming the band). You can preview or buy it here. And well, even if The Slants close up shop at some point, Tam’s become a pocket expert in trademark law. He even tells us he’s gotten a few offers from law schools to come study there, with some fees waived.
But he insists that the band (and this cause) is his future: “I see my role more on the other side of the fence; I like [holding] lawmakers and public policy officials accountable.”
Listen to their latest single, “From the Heart,” below.
—Will Levith for RealClearLife
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.