When Simon Tam’s application to trademark his band’s name, The Slants, was rejected by the U.S. Trademark Office because it disparaged a minority group, he appealed the ruling — starting a court battle that would take him all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He's the founder and bassist of The Slants, an Asian American dance rock band, and co-founder of The Slants Foundation, a nonprofit that funds artists involved in activism.
Tam formed The Slants in 2006 to bring better representation to Asian Americans in the rock scene. In this Q&A, he explains how he also leveraged the power of words to turn a physical trait and a racial slur into a point of pride.
How did a rock band end up at the U.S. Supreme Court?
That started about 2009. Our band had been touring for several years, playing across the country, and an attorney who we knew recommended that we should file an application to register a trademark for the band’s name. The trademark office came back with a denial, and they said it was because our band was disparaging to persons of Asian descent.
Of course, we appealed, because we spent years touring and playing with and working with Asian American communities all across the country, so we said, “Who is offended by our name?” And they didn’t find a single person. They instead quoted UrbanDictionary.com and they used Miley Cyrus pulling her eyes back in a slant-eye, offensive gesture.
It kicked off a very long legal battle. We said, “What is it about this band or this application?” And the trademark office came back and said, “It’s because you’re too Asian.” They said it’s incontestable that we’re Asian and part of an Asian band and therefore there’s this association with this outdated racist slur. When we got to the federal circuit, which is right below the Supreme Court, we said, “Hey, maybe this is actually violating my First Amendment rights, my freedom of speech” The court eventually agreed with us, striking it down as unconstitutional, but the trademark office actually turned around and sued me, taking it to the Supreme Court. And I ended up winning at the Supreme Court unanimously [in 2017].
When did you form the Slants Foundation?
It came shortly after that. We continued to tour and release music and that sort of thing, but at the end of 2019, I was getting really burned out so we decided we wouldn’t tour as a full band anymore. It was kind of around that time period that I wanted to really focus on philanthropy, so that’s when we started The Slants Foundation, and we really did it because I knew I wanted to use our resources and platform to fund and mentor underrepresented communities, especially those who are doing things like civic engagement or activism.
What does the foundation offer?
We work at the intersection of arts and activism, and we consider any medium, from visual art to film to theater to, of course, music. Anyone who’s in that space but wants to use their work to create real-world social impact, we provide resources like mentorship, coaching, and funding to help scale up that work.
Every year we’ve kind of taken on a different project or campaign. This year, we’re really focused on developing a compilation album of artists who are writing songs around civic engagement, and we’re helping them partner with local organizations to work on an issue that they care about, so we’re capturing that right now, and we’re going to be releasing it next year as a series of interviews for TV, radio, and of course, release the songs as well.
What does inclusivity mean to you?
I think a lot of people assume it just means having certain people in the room, but to me that doesn’t mean a whole lot if they don’t have influence. Inclusivity really needs to be wrapped around this concept of equity. People need to have shared power and influence and access to resources, especially when it comes to decision-making.
Your best tip for better communication?
I think we should absolutely begin with our values first. Too often we’re so caught up in the details of our work or what we’re trying to get across that we’re not realizing that values are what connect us with other people. I think most Americans don’t actually have different values: We have very similar values. Where we differ is the interpretation of what those values look like in society. But unless we begin with how similar we are and how we hold dear many of the same principles, we’re gonna be caught up in debates and disagreements with folks who might otherwise be amenable to working with us.
Willa Hart is a freelance writer.
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