Recently, The Slants went before SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) in regards to In re Tam (Lee V. Tam), the band’s case fighting to trademark their name.
“I’m confident that the Supreme Court will stand by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s decision in finding viewpoint discrimination through trademark registration unconstitutional.
What many people forget is that this process all started with the government denying me rights based on my race: even in court, the government agreed that our racial identities provided the context for ‘The Slants’ to be a racial slur rather than any other possible definition for the word. In other words, the government alluded that anyone could register ‘The Slants’ if they had the right context – or in this instance, if they were of the right race. That’s simply wrong. It perpetuates institutional racism.
I’ve spent almost 8 years in court – almost a quarter of my life – so that I could fight for marginalized communities to have their voices protected. Voices that are often silenced in fear of a football team regaining their trademark registrations. Our obsession to punish villainous characters should not justify the collateral damage that the undeserved experience. Part of taking up the cost was possibly being forever associated with a team who I find disagreeable, but it was for the greater good of justice. Being the target of both white supremacist groups and even a few organizations that normally support my work will all be worth it if it means a more equitable society.
I hope that our case encourages others towards having robust conversations of racial justice in order to create better law.” — Simon Tam, The Slants
The band also released a music video for their song, “From The Heart,” an open letter to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and those who would rather shut down the band’s social justice efforts without actually considering how things might affect their communities. “From The Heart” is the first single off the band’s forthcoming EP, The Band That Must Not Be Named (In Music We Trust Records).
The Slants – consisting of vocalist Ken Shima, guitarist Joe X. Jiang, drummer Yuya Matsuda, and founder/bassist Simon Tam (whose stage name is Simon Young) – are an all Asian-American rock band, located in Portland, Oregon, who formally applied for a trademark in 2010, but a trademark examiner rejected the application, stating that “The Slants” was a disparaging term, using sources like UrbanDictionary.com as evidence. In 2011, Tam filed a second application, but was rejected again under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. After numerous appeals and arguments in court, the band finally prevailed on December 22, 2015, with the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruling that The Slants have the right to register their trademark. In a decision with national implications on free speech, the appeals court ruled that the U.S Patent and Trademark Office and Department of Justice violated the band’s First Amendment rights. In a 9-3 vote, the appeals court struck down the “disparagement” portion of the Lanham Act, a 1946 law that allowed the Trademark Office to deny marks that could be considered “scandalous, immoral, or disparaging.” Writing for the opinion, Judge Kimberly Moore stated, “Courts have been slow to appreciate the expressive power of trademarks… Words – even a single word – can be powerful. Mr. Simon Tam named his band The Slants to make a statement about racial and cultural issues in this country. With his band name, Mr. Tam conveys more about our society than many volumes of undisputedly protected speech.”
Did all this attention and the hearing make it easier or harder to write this EP? From a starting point, I’m assuming you had tons of fodder…but did the music come as easily as the message?
Joe: The court case was the main driving force behind my obsessive songwriting process for the EP and upcoming full length album, but not necessarily in content. I felt inspired to write because I wanted the band to move beyond the case by focusing on our music. The moment I look most forward to is to see an article about The Slants that actually talks about our new songs rather than lawyers or a certain football team. Even on a song like From The Heart, which I wrote as an open letter to the USPTO and people who have taken offense to our stance, I tried to communicate that we are here to fight for our rights but we do so through our music because we are musicians first.
Ken: I believe it made it easier. Gave us something to write about, substance and feelings to write with, and experiences to share through the lyrics and music.
Everything that we have started writing includes experiences and thoughts and reflections about what’s going on around us whether it’s the world or our own environment.
Yuya: I feel like our music is the main vehicle for our message, so I would say yes, the music does come just as easily as our message. We’re all on the same page when it comes to our message and our creative process.
Simon: For me, I think the legal battle has made things much more difficult in terms of writing. In many ways, the legal battle has been a distraction for me and has taken tremendous resources, time, and energy – however, that’s mostly because I am more involved with the case than anyone else. Like Joe, I was driven to push our musical boundaries and songwriting beyond simply being associated with fighting the government, but it can sometimes be difficult writing creatively when one feels completely drained. That being said, I feel like many of the songs that I helped write this time around felt more personal and raw than ever before.
The New EP involved a new lineup. How well did everyone gel with such a HUGE issue and outcome (court hearing) looming overhead? Was that a factor in recruiting the new lineup? Was it a distraction or attraction to the new members?
Simon: Several of the songs were being written before the Supreme Court even granted a hearing and before we had a lineup change, so in some ways, things were already set. We knew we wanted a change in direction in terms of our music, and we knew the message was going to be much more direct as well. When our longtime drummer (Tyler) left, it wasn’t that unexpected – he was commuting across state lines and it made it difficult for him to really be involved. For us, we wanted to fill that position with someone who could be all-in, and someone who was as passionate about our new music as much as they would be about our activism.
Joe: I believe the band’s lineup changes happen out of necessity more than anything else, as people’s priorities change and moves on, though I do feel like the looming court case is often a distraction and stress point. It’s not easy to keep a band running for 9+ years and as much as it’s nice to have publicity and name recognition, the legal battle has definitely taken a toll on the time, energy and finances of the band, particularly on Simon.
Ken: Personally, when I joined the band, none of this had escalated to the Federal or Supreme Court. I joined when I thought the band was established, but the trademark issue was starting to gain traction. Since each member has joined, we each have stepped up and we know what this fight is all about. We all have the same goal, which is to make music that’s relevant to the time, and our battle.
Yuya: I can’t speak for the others in the band, but I came into the band about 6 months ago, Simon, Joe, Ken, and Tyler already had their lineup established, however Tyler left due to moving out of state. For me it was an attraction, as I’ve been looking for a band like the Slants for years.
If you are refused the trademark…what next?
Ken: We will always unashamedly be The Slants. The same anti-racist, anti-bullying, food devouring group that tries to change lives one at a time.
Yuya: If we are refused our trademark, we’ll continue making music and actively fight for social justice in this country.
Simon: To be clear, we already have our trademark. What we lack is a trademark registration. Though we’ll continue with our art and activism, this battle will probably end this year, win or lose.
If you could go back in time 5 years and tell yourself something to better prepare yourself for your music career, what would it be?
Ken: I know for a fact I would tell my younger self to research more bands. I had favorites then, but there are so many artists to listen to, to reach out to… Go see more shows, support local acts and other artists. It’s not meant to be viewed as a competition…it’s a family.
Joe: Five years ago, I treated music as the hobby that I would never give up on and I would just reaffirm that. Getting to play music for a career is a dream come true and The Slants made that happen, but at the end of the day I’d be happy playing my songs to an audience of one. I think it’s that passion for the music that’s kept me dedicated and prepared me to join a touring band.
Simon: I wish I had made some tougher decisions about the band back then in terms of direction and the lineup. Often, I can be endlessly optimistic and will put too much faith in individuals, hoping that they have the capacity to change or grow in their commitment, even if it costs the band valuable opportunities. However, I realize that the sum is far greater than the parts and that this band truly needs a group that is willing to make the appropriate sacrifices to move us ahead.
Who are you listening to now and why do they inspire you?
Joe: Radiohead, because they are my favorite band of all time and their new album is gorgeous. I’m so sad I’m going to miss seeing them in Portland (though for a good reason as we’ll be on tour). Chance the Rapper, hands down one of the most dynamic hip hop artist right now and he always seems to put on a great show with varying lineups and guest musicians. Jessica Dennison + Jones is my friends’ band and a huge influence on my songwriting. I’m a bit biased because I’ve contributed musically to their project, but their new LP is one of my favorite collections of songs I’ve heard in years!
Ken: This type of question and answer depends with my mood or what I’m feeling and it could change on any given day! First. I’m gonna go with Maroon 5, I’m on a Songs About Jane kick right now. I can listen to Weezer almost anytime, they can change my mood with their songs. Finally, I’ll say Billy Joel cause yeah… He can rock the keys, has a great voice and well… he’s Billy Joel!
Yuya: Three bands I listen to now (it changes constantly): John Mayer – because I love his lyrics, they’re so well thought out and so descriptive. Not to mention one of my favorite drummers Steve Jordan is on a lot of John’s albums. Michael Buble – because I love jazz, and big band music, and Michael is basically a modern-day Sinatra. Jazz will never get old to me. Dream Theater – because i like progressive hard rock, and all the members of the band are masters of their respective instruments and it’s always fun listening to musicians of that caliber.
Simon: Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of CHVRCHES. I’m absolutely obsessed with Lauren Mayberry’s vocals – her delivery of emotion and attitude is spot on. Elvis Costello is always my go to for song inspiration because he writes with incredible wit and adaptability; I especially love the word that he did with the Imposters. I’ve also been listening to Portland’s very own, The Gossip, who brings an incredible mix of pop, disco, and soul in a very gritty, danceable, and catchy way.
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