Political rock and roll: The Slants and “The Band Who Must Not Be Named”

When the Asian American independent rock band The Slants decided to register their name to “protect the brand,” they were found in violation of Section 2(a) of the 1946 Trademark Act, which states that “a trademark can be rejected if it ‘consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage …’.”1

Without a doubt, the word “slant” in historically context is deeply tied to the racial marker “slanted eyes,” which was largely directed at people of Asian descent. So it is no surprise that some minority lawyers and those with traumas from the Japanese Internment take the side of the Patent and Trademark Office in the censorship of the derogatory reference in the name “The Slants.”2

But the band insists that the PTO and its supporters are misrepresenting the case. What they are fighting for is not an anarchy of violent discourses nor an absolute glorification of free-speech (in fact, they barked at the Washington Redskins when they tried to co-opt their case), but the idea that “minorities should have the right to label themselves.”3 In fact, they purposefully chose the name “The Slants” to communicate “what it’s like to be in this country as people of color, as Asians, while paying knowledge to Asian American activists who’ve been using this term in a kind of re-appropriated, self-empowering way”4

Although their case – Lee v. Tam – has received enough momentum to reach the Supreme Court, it has been a frustrating experience for the band. Simon Tam, the Bassist and the founder of the band, recalls in an interview that “just being in that courtroom, I wish I could explain all those things. I wish I could explain how I travel to over 30-40 U.S. states to talk to talk to a 145 social justice groups to make sure that our case was in line with the needs and wants of our community… But unfortunately, I had to kind of sit and watch it unfold”5

Faced with bureaucratic incompetence and blatant contradictions that litter the PTO’s history of registering names like “White Trash Cowboys; Whores from Hell; N.W.A” and “The Devil Is a Democrat” but not “Have You Heard Satan Is a Republican,” The Slants turned again to music for empowerment and self-expression.6 As Joe X. Jiang, the band’s guitarist, notes, “we are here to fight for our rights but we do so through our music because we are musicians first”7

Their response is nothing short of a wonderful combination of pettiness, sarcasm, defiance, and triumph.

Their new EP “The Band Who Must Not Be Named” pokes fun at the PTO’s stance while putting their own case into digestible terms for the common audience. One of its songs, “From the Heart,” is described by Tam as “an open letter to the trademark office.”8  True to its label, the song heavily focuses on the process and merits of re-appropriation, which have been dismissed by the PTO as disingenuous and detrimental attempts at social activism.9

“Sorry if we try too hard

To take some power back for ours

The language of oppression

Will lose to education

Until the words can’t hurt us again”

Another song, “Fight Back,” makes obvious allusions to the significance of continued struggle for your convictions and skepticism towards authoritarian claims to know what is best for you.

“Don’t let the words dissuade

Don’t let the text prevail

Don’t let the weakness of others infect your health

Don’t be their alibi

Don’t feed their greedy mouths

If it’s time, then it’s now, stand up tall”

It is also important to note that the album capitalizes on the rebellious spirit of rock and roll, both in lyric and sound. This development is even explicitly acknowledged in the last verse of “From the Heart”:

“No, we won’t be complacent

know it’s a rock n roll nation

We sing from the heart

We sing from the heart”

The Slants show us music as political activism in action. As minorities, individuals, and laypersons, the courtroom was not their battleground. But as a band, music was their weapon and a legitimate channel for political engagement. In distancing themselves from the legal complexities surrounding First Amendment rights, The Slants justify their performance on their own terms. Their rock-and-roll music challenges existing stereotypes of submissiveness and obedience while supporting the broader movement for Asian American self-determination.

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