In January, the Slants released a video for the first single off its EP, “The Band Who Must Not Be Named.”
That same day, the case of Lee v. Tam was argued in front of the Supreme Court.
The two are more than slightly related.
The song serves as an open letter to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which rejected the band’s application to trademark its name on grounds it “may disparage” members of a particular ethnic group.
The case is the culmination of band founder Simon Tam’s fight to appeal that decision.
In some ways, the last decade of the bass player’s life can be reduced to “50 minutes of strangers arguing about whether I was offensive to myself,” says Tram, who will share the band’s story and music at a free concert Monday afternoon at Fresno City College.
The court’s decision, which could come any day and is being followed closely by free speech advocates, has affected the trajectory of the band. It has had to divert resources. While most bands are crowd-sourcing albums, the Slants crowd-sourced a trip to Washington to be at the hearing. If the court rejects the appeal, the band will likely finish out any pending projects and then call it quits, Tam says.
It’s almost impossible to grow a band without a registered trademark. In fact, it's a requirement for many labels and agents, he says.
Of course, this is more than just business. The case represents a larger issue among minority communities. Often there is a lack of understanding when it comes to what is offensive to particular communities, Tam says.
“Very seldom do we get to decide that for ourselves,” he says.
“Our own communities should have that right.”
The band had been playing as the Slants for several years before applying for the trademark. It had performed in 30-plus states in front of Asian-American audiences and been widely accepted.
I’m going to find out on Twitter.
The Slant’s Simon Tam, on waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision.
Yes, the band’s name references and re-appropriates a racial slur. It also references the group’s particular view (or slant) on music.
And the government has awarded trademarks for the word in the past – 800 of them according to Tam. Here, the government is arguing the band’s ethic identity provides the context to reject its application, he says.
“At the end of the day, we’re a band and we play music,” Tam says.
And the band wants people to understand its story – and supreme court case – in that context. That’s why its current tour is stopping at college campus and law schools.
“We do care about these issues deeply,” he says.