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'The Slants' Seek Social Justice Through Their Band's Identity

The six-piece band based in Portland refer to their sound as "Chinatown Dance Rock."

The six-piece band based in Portland refer to their sound as “Chinatown Dance Rock.”

Courtesy Ro Tam

In this day and age, legal tussles in the music industry are somewhat commonplace, especially in situations where money is involved on such a large scale. But for one Portland-based rock band, the legal issues aren’t about money and percentages: They’re about identity.

The Slants, an all-Asian group who have been pumping out rock/dance anthems for years, has spent four years fighting to trademark its name. And now the band is filing a federal lawsuit to challenge a decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that says it can’t trademark its name because it’s an ethnic slur.

In documents that are publicly available, the USPTO says that the denial of the trademark is about “the manner in which the mark is used in the marketplace” and that while “the entire band, may be willing to take on the disparaging term as a band name … [that] does not mean that all members of the referenced group of persons share applicant’s view.”

The band’s founder, Simon Tam, says that this effectively makes the band responsible for the ideas and thoughts that come into people’s minds in relation to a term that has more than one meaning — and this is not fair.

Tam goes on to explain that there have been other musicians and groups, like Uncle Kracker and N.W.A., who have reappropriated historically derogatory terms as a way to drain them of their negative impact on the groups that they were initially intended to marginalize. He goes on to mention the controversy of the Washington Redskins’ name and logo.

“I find it interesting that a group of historically white owners of an NFL team have been using the term ‘Redskins’ for years, and this is a term that has been found to be insulting to two-thirds of Native Americans,” says Tam. “That term was only ever used to be insulting.”

For Tam and the band, the issue has far-reaching implications not just for the music industry, but for all Americans.

“It’s been a blessing and a curse on our band. For one, no band wants to be tied up with a legal battle for many years,” he says. “It drains our resources, our time — honestly, as an artist, some of that energy that I could be using to direct towards creativity. But at the same time, [it’s] been very positive because it’s gotten us a lot of great attention, not only on the music, but on the social justice work that we do.”

On November 19, for example, the band will participate in Clark College’s International Education Week where they will host a talk about race and identity followed by a performance.

Tam says the band holds similar workshops all throughout North America.

“We’re actually thinking about forming a non-profit organization specifically for that,” he reports.

Asked if the band anticipated a dispute when they decided on the name, he says that they weren’t intentionally trying to be provocative — at least not in terms of a legal confrontation.

“Initially we just thought that having an Asian-American band in the media would be strong and have an impact because you just don’t see Asian-Americans in entertainment at all.”

Especially not in rock ‘n’ roll.

“And certainly not in a non-stereotypical way,” he adds.

Click here to listen to Simon Tam in conversation with Think Out Loud’s Dave Miller about the details of the trademark dispute.

The Slants Asian-American trademark