Interview with Simon Tam of The Slants and The Slants Foundation
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 – t 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.
Slanted: An American Rock Opera To Be Staged in St. Louis
In 2019, Simon Tam was a keynote speaker at the 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 going to the Supreme Court to fight for the right to use their name. Their journey 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.
This three-year commissioning cycle pushes the boundaries of opera by combining music and storytelling in powerful new ways. Through this initiative, they seek to create an authentically inclusive environment on their stages by introducing works with diverse perspectives and voices. Audiences will have the opportunity to experience Slanted: An American Rock Opera, Cook Shack, and Madison Lodge during the inaugural season.
NAAAP-KC Board members will be attending the performance on Saturday, March 18th. There may be an opportunity for us to gather with some folks from the St. Louis area prior to the show for a drink/dinner. Please let us know if you plan to attend the March 18th performance so that we can keep you updated on our plans. Together, we can amplify stories that have been historically overlooked and ensure a more equitable representation of diverse voices in opera.
"These stories will whisk audiences from 1920s Harlem to the modern-day Supreme Court, and from the exuberance of drag ball culture to the empowerment of a young female inventor. Get ready for a night full of boundary-breaking surprises and joyful voices as we celebrate diverse cultures, stories, and the power of the human spirit!"
- Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Inclusive Leadership Training | The 5 Voices
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