A Rocky and Slanted Battle

January 27, 2015 • Community, News

(From left) Slant’s Simon Tam, Tyler Chen, Ken Shima and Will Moore. Photo by Cospix.net

Rock band ‘The Slants’ continues to fight for its name at Federal Court after a six-year battle.

By P.C. Staff

Oregon-based Asian American rock band “The Slants” argued in court Jan. 9 that its name was reappropriation despite the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office calling it a racial slur at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

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The band’s latest album, “The Yellow Album,” dives into its quest for ethnic pride and awareness. This tongue-in-cheek soundtrack surfaced just before the band’s hearing in court over its appeal. Photo courtesy of ‘The Slants’

A decision from the Federal Court should come within the next several months, and depending on the outcome, the case might advance to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For more than six years, “Slants” founder and bass guitarist Simon Tam has been fighting to trademark the band’s name in hopes of reclaiming racial stereotypes.

Band members including Tyler Chen (drums), Will Moore (lead guitar), Thai Dao (guitar/keys) and Ken Shima (vocals) are all of Asian American descent.

After applying for the trademark back in 2010, the application was rejected, citing Section 2(a) of the 1946 Trademark Act in part that the name “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage . . .” The rejection went on to say that the name might “disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons . . . or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”Tam and many AAPI community members disagree.

“Ultimately, we deserve the right of self-determination, choosing what we consider social empowerment,” Tam told the P.C. several days after the Jan. 9 hearing. “It’s disempowering when a government decides what is sensitive for you because for us it’s about principal. It’s about Asian American activists using the term in a positive manner, using it as a way to create social change.”

(From left) Slants' Simon Tam (bass), Thai Dao (guitar/keys), Ken Shima (vocals), Tyler Chen (drums) and Will Moore (lead guitar) are all of Asian American descent. The government's lawyer explained after rejecting the band's application that "the applicant is a founding member of a band that is itself described as being composed of members of Asian descent 'that the racial slur is thus unavoidable.'"

(From left) Slants’ Simon Tam (bass), Thai Dao (guitar/keys), Ken Shima (vocals), Tyler Chen (drums) and Will Moore (lead guitar) are all of Asian American descent. The government’s lawyer explained after rejecting the band’s application that “the applicant is a founding member of a band that is itself described as being composed of members of Asian descent ‘that the racial slur is thus unavoidable.'” Photo courtesy of ‘The Slants’

In the past, the word slant is considered an outdated term to the band and other community members. The long-held racial slur against Asian Americans is now a source of empowerment and change.

“I consider the name a point of cultural pride,” Tam wrote in a statement about the Jan. 9 hearing. “One of the first things people say is that we have slanted eyes. I thought, ‘What a great way to reclaim that stereotype and take ownership of it.’” Tam describes when first deciding what to name the band back in 2004.

Inspired by the term, Tam thought the name nodded to slanted guitar scales, slanted perspectives on living and a new way to take back what was once offensive.

“Our band uses our name to refer to our perspective and experiences in life as people of color,” he went on to write. “It’s our ‘slant,’ if you will, and we choose to empower others that way.”

The Section 2(a) clause has always been a fuzzy line at the U.S. Trademark office. In 2008 when Jewish publication Heeb Magazine tried to reclaim the racial slur, the office denied the publication’s trademark. Despite the band’s first rejection, its members appealed with an extensive document, containing letters from AAPI community leaders and members responding to the decision.

“This does not disparage Asian identity,” Mari Watanabe, then-executive director of the Oregon Nikkei Endowment, wrote in the appeal. “It celebrates it.”

The band’s attorney, Ronald Coleman, argued at the hearing that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board lacks the constitutional authority to decide whether a mark is “disparaging” or “scandalous” and therefore unworthy of registration. Coleman also argued that the U.S. Trademark Office denied Tam due process over the first application.

Judge Kimberley Moore described Section 2(a) “as outdated, cursory and a candidate” at the arguments. This section has gone under heavy inspection as the high court decided last month to review whether the government can withhold vanity license plates on the ground of their offensive character.

The band’s latest album, “The Yellow Album” echoes its members’ rally for ethnic pride and awareness. With a juxtaposing title and lyrically deep tracks on the album, the band hopes to speak to its fans on embracing the struggle and pain of this trail while maintaining “ a punk rock swagger.”

Today, Tam, along with Slants’ other band members, speaks at AAPI conferences and universities across the nation. Tam himself gave a TEDTalk at the University of Washington in June on social justice and activism. “The Slants” have also been featured on BBC World News, NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” CBS, MTV and in such publications as TIME Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal.

Even without the media attention to the band’s trademark battle, “Slant,” calling itself Chinatown Dance Rock, has also performed at the SXSW Festival, Comic-Con and for the Department of Defense and Rotary International.

“It’s been a blessing and a curse,” Tam said about the six-year battle over the band’s name. “It’s a lot of work, but at the same time, it’s opened additional doors to do racial justice work.”

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One Response to A Rocky and Slanted Battle

  1. […] and vocal support through Pacific Citizen, the organization’s national publication. They write, “In the past, the word slant is considered an outdated term to the band and other community […]

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