By Pete Dulin, NAAAP-KC
Simon Tam was a keynote speaker at the 2019 NAAAP Leadership Convention in Kansas City. His presentation, Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court, tells the story of Asian American dance rock band The Slants. The band’s case to register The Slants as a trademark escalated to the Supreme Court, where the band fought for the legal right to use their name.
The band’s history began from its earliest days of building a fan base, recording music, touring, and adapting to changes in its lineup. In this exclusive interview, Tam shares more insight into the journey that led to representing Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) as a rock band, facing a Supreme Court battle, publishing an award-winning book, and launching The Slants Foundation.
Nearly 20 years ago you realized that Asian-Americans “had almost no representation in the Billboard charts, major music magazines, or rock clubs.” In due course, you launched The Slants to represent AAPIs, share that perspective on life, and address or expose misconceptions about AAPIs. During this time, where do you feel the band has made the most impact or progress with these goals in mind?
When I first started the band, I had representation in mind – to help share a different narrative about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that would defy assumptions or stereotypes about us. As we progressed in our career, I started realizing how it was also important to make institutional changes as well. Culture is constantly being reshaped around us not just from the arts, but also in the environments that we find ourselves in. The only way to bring more power to our community is to transform the systems that we engage with on a regular basis. It's more than bringing awareness to issues, it's to inspire people to take action. On that front, I think we were able to make the greatest impact.
Even though we didn't intend on upending unjust laws, working with the White House on anti-bullying campaigns, or working with social justice organizations at the outset, I'm proud that we were able to level up our own advocacy work in order to help become a catalyst for change. It's hard to imagine those things when you're starting a band, we just took one step at a time and responded to the call from our fans and society at large. While we aren't touring today, we do help run The Slants Foundation, a nonprofit that we started to empower AAPI artists using their creative works to make a social impact.
The world has changed in many ways over two decades through technology, cultural awareness, and divisiveness, the COVID-19 pandemic, etc. Have these factors influenced the songs that The Slants are writing/performing and the stories you're telling now?
The stakes feel higher now than they have in a long time, especially since so many people are getting information from insular, divided sources that don't necessarily encourage people to engage in meaningful and productive ways. That's why I think it's so important to focus on civil liberties and the underlying values that most people can agree on.
We're often told that Americans are extremely divided because we have different values but I don't think that's the case. I think most [people] hold similar values but can't seem to agree on how values like liberty, safety, and support for our children ought to look like. In other words, we're caught up on the strategies and tactics but have to remember that we have similar goals: That every child has an opportunity to thrive no matter their race or zip code, that we can make our neighborhoods safer, and to build a more prosperous country. So, I often focus on sharing stories that can unite people, even if only for a few moments. I think it helps build a healthier democracy that way.
With our band's message, it isn't all that different. When you look back on our Supreme Court case, you'll see that we brought both extremely progressive and conservative groups to the table. We received a rare, unanimous verdict at the high court. People often quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said, “Fight for the things that you care about,” but they often forget the other half of her statement, “but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
How important is it for existing and new fans to view The Slants through the lens of an Asian-American rock band vs. connecting to the music? Is the band's identity and raison d'etre vital to get the message? Or is there a more universal pathway for fans to connect to the messages?
Many folks have found their way into our message of AAPI empowerment through indirect paths: Our message about fighting racism by bringing greater accountability to over-policing, our fight for freedom of speech, and even our love of geek culture. No matter how they end up there, I'm just glad that they find ways to connect and to see themselves in the struggle for justice.
The band won its high-profile Supreme Court case in 2017 with a rare unanimous ruling that The Slants should be a registered trademark. Six years later, do you have any thoughts to share on personal and/or professional ramifications of that decision? Clearly, the band had much invested in the name from a commercial standpoint that needed to be defended and protected. Were there other implications from the win?
I'm extremely proud of our win even though it was an extremely long fight that nearly destroyed the band. At the time, there were large concerns that our victory would mean that the marketplace would be flooded with hate speech and that the Washington-based NFL team would never change their name. In fact, no article ever written about our band in 2016-2019 did so without mentioning the racist football team's name. But folks were wrong on both counts. Our society found other, more effective ways at creating change while still protecting the voices of the most vulnerable. And more recent articles about our band's case rarely mention those things, if at all. We can't always let fears get in the way of larger victories that help bring dignity to more people. American philosopher John Rawls essentially wrote that the laws that are the most just are the ones that we'd all agree to no matter who was in charge. It's a good reminder why we need to lean on our civil liberties because in the end, they'll prove out.
You published a book about the band's battle up to the Supreme Court. Was the book a way for you to tell your story from your perspective? Like the band and its music, did the book provide another platform for representation?
Thousands of articles, radio shows, and television programs told that story but it was always framed in ways that I found skewed. They rarely talked about the implications for Asian Americans even though Asian American identity was central to our story.
I was tired of being defined by others so I wanted to publish the definitive account of our band's story, why we fought for the trademark registration, and what it meant for all Americans. We're often told that our stories matter, but I think we ought to do a better job at reminding folks that they need to keep telling their own stories.
How can the arts play a role in activism to effect change, such as The Slants Foundation?
The arts can help us reframe our understanding of our relationship to important social issues. They can also inspire conversation and change within the hearts and minds of people who are most affected by our systems.
With The Slants Foundation, we're learning how data, art, and accountability can help advance social causes in new and more effective ways. Over the years, we've partnered with many organizations and hundreds of artists across North America with small tests of change. That information is then collected and reshared to more artists and organizations to help them build even more effective strategies at challenging racism and injustice, all while making great art.
Bringing the discussion back to the band and creative work, any new projects on the horizon?
We just finished writing and composing an opera, Slanted: An American Rock Opera, we're releasing a new album later this year, The Band Plays On, and we're working on a musical theater show that will debut this fall at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati.
Slanted: An American Rock Opera is one of three multi-genre stories selected by a panel of St. Louis artists, advocates, and community leaders as the first works to be presented in the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' New Works Collective on Saturday, March 18, in St. Louis. Click for more details and ticket information.