Musician: The Slants

The Slants are made up of, from left, Yuya Matsuda, Ken Shima, Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang.
The Slants are made up of, from left, Yuya Matsuda, Ken Shima, Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang.

Let freedom rock!

written by Isaac Peterson

A contagious synth melody loops above a driving drum and bass line. The dance floor is already packed. The Slants’ lead singer, Ken Shima, wearing a slim suit and a skinny tie, tips the mic stand back to croon in a low melodic drawl.

Sorry if you take offense.

Silence will not make amends.

Don’t make the pen a weapon and censor our intelligence.

No we won’t remain silent.

It’s our defining moment.

We sing from the heart.

It’s New Wave synth-pop that could have charted at #1 thirty years ago. The Slants modernize the genre by inflecting it with a hard punk edge. The songs have a faster tempo than their ’80s antecedents, and the lyrics are incisive and confrontational. They call their sound “Chinatown Dance Rock.”

The song is called “From the Heart.” It’s not a love song, but an open letter to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which refused to register the band’s name as a trademark in 2011 on the grounds that “slant” is a derogatory term for people of Asian descent. The Lanham Act of 1946 prohibits trademarks for names that disparage or debase others.

The Portland-based band’s four members, Shima, Simon Tam, Joe X. Jiang and Yuya Matsuda, are all Asian Americans, and they feel their name is an act of re-appropriation
and empowerment.

The Slants have taken their trademark case to the United States Supreme Court this year. Briefs have been filed and oral arguments completed, and now they await a decision. The outcome of the case will be crucial to defining the First Amendment in the modern era. For Tam, a founder and bass guitarist, the case isn’t just about their band.

“Ultimately, communities should have the right to determine what’s right for ourselves,” Tam said. “We shouldn’t have someone who has no connection to our group making decisions on what is or isn’t appropriate. It’s a fight that’s much bigger than our band. It’s about protecting civil liberties that are crucial to marginalized groups.”

What’s the best way to wait for a Supreme Court decision? By playing concerts in support of their latest album, The Band Who Must Not Be Named.

“We’re currently on a coast-to-coast tour, covering everything from Portland, Oregon, to Concord, New Hampshire, and dozens of cities in between,” Tam said. “In total, it’s about sixty appearances in forty-four days. After that, we come home for a couple of weeks before hitting the road once more.”


Update: the supreme court has reached a verdict

Today, June 19, 2017 SCOTUS unanimously – 8-0 – upheld the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s ruling that The Slants have the right to register their trademark, ending an eight-year battle for the Portland, Oregon rock band in their pursuit to trademark their name. The band is currently touring and promoting their latest release, The Band Who Must Not Be Named, which has spawned two singles – “From The Heart” and “Level Up”.


A statement from The Slants’ Simon Tam on their victory:

“After an excruciating legal battle that has spanned nearly eight years, we’re beyond humbled and thrilled to have won this case at the Supreme Court. This journey has always been much bigger than our band: it’s been about the rights of all marginalized communities to determine what’s best for ourselves. During the fight, we found the Trademark Office justifying the denial of rights to people based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, and political views, simply because they disagreed with the message of these groups. To that end, they knowingly used false and misleading information, supported by questionable sources such as UrbanDictionary.com, while placing undue burdens on vulnerable communities and small business owners by forcing them into a lengthy, expensive, and biased appeals process. The Supreme Court has vindicated First Amendment rights not only for our The Slants, but all Americans who are fighting against paternal government policies that ultimately lead to viewpoint discrimination.

For too long, people of color and the LGBTQ community have been prime targets under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, simply because we believe in the deliberate disarmament of toxic language and symbols. We’ve had to endure the Trademark Office working in isolation of our groups to navigate the troubled waters of identity politics and shifting language and culture, without any sense of cultural competency, consistency in enforcement of rules, and only giving the benefit of doubt to the most privileged members of society. Now, Americans can decide who should prevail in the marketplace of ideas rather than a lone examining attorney.

When I started this band, it was about creating a bold portrayal of Asian American culture. The establishment of an Asian American band was a political act in of itself, even though we never considered ourselves as a political group. However, as we continued writing music about our experiences, we realized that activism would be integrated into our art as well. I’m proud our band members have helped raise over $1 million for issues affecting Asian Americans, that we’ve worked with dozens of social justice organizations, and that we could humanize important issues around identity and speech in new and nuanced ways. So we became part art and part activism.

We dedicated our newest release, “The Band Who Must Be Named,” as an open letter to the United States Patent and Trademark Office to articulate these values. Music is the best way we know how to drive social change: it overcomes social barriers in a way that mob-mentality and fear-based political rhetoric never can. Language and culture are powerful forms of expression and we are elated to know that the Supreme Court of the United States agree. Irony, wit, satire, parody…these are essential for democracy to thrive, these are weapons that neuter malice.

We are filled with appreciation for the numerous groups who have helped us along the way. Organizations from all sides of the political made for unlikely allies in order to address the false dichotomy between free speech and civil liberties. We know that to truly protect the most marginalized members of society, we absolutely must protect and expand the First Amendment.

There will always be villainous characters in a free society but we cannot be so blinded in our desire to punish them that we are willing to bear the cost of that cost on the backs of the marginalized.

As we state in our song, “From The Heart”:

Sorry if our notes are too sharp
Sorry if our voice is too raw
Don’t make the pen a weapon
And censor our intelligence
Until our thoughts mean nothing at all

Sorry if you take offense
You made up rules and played pretend
We know you fear change
It’s something so strange
But nothing’s gonna’ get in our way

There’s no room
For your backward feelings
And your backyard dealings
We’re never gonna settle
We’re never gonna settle

No, we won’t remain silent
Know it’s our defining moment
We sing from the heart
We sing from the heart

No, we won’t be complacent
know it’s a rock n roll nation
We sing from the heart
We sing from the heart

Sorry if we try too hard
To take some power back for ours
The language of oppression
Will lose to education
Until the words can’t hurt us again

So sorry if you take offense
But silence will not make amends
The system’s all wrong
And it won’t be long
Before the kids are singing our song

There’s no room
For your backward feelings
And your backyard dealings

We’re never gonna settle
We’re never gonna settle
No, we won’t remain silent

Know it’s our defining moment
We sing from the heart
We sing from the heart

No, we won’t be complacent
know it’s a rock n roll nation
We sing from the heart
We sing from the heart”

The Slants history with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, SCOTUS, and eight year battle to trademark their name:
The Slants – consisting of vocalist Ken Shima, guitarist Joe X. Jiang, and founder/bassist Simon Tam (whose stage name is Simon Young) – are an all Asian-American rock band, located in Portland, Oregon, who formally applied for a trademark in 2010, but a trademark examiner rejected the application, stating that “The Slants” was a disparaging term, using sources like UrbanDictionary.com as evidence. In 2011, Tam filed a second application, but was rejected again under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. After numerous appeals and arguments in court, the band finally prevailed on December 22, 2015, with the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruling that The Slants have the right to register their trademark. In a decision with national implications on free speech, the appeals court ruled that the U.S Patent and Trademark Office and Department of Justice violated the band’s First Amendment rights. In a 9-3 vote, the appeals court struck down the “disparagement” portion of the Lanham Act, a 1946 law that allowed the Trademark Office to deny marks that could be considered “scandalous, immoral, or disparaging.” Writing for the opinion, Judge Kimberly Moore stated, “Courts have been slow to appreciate the expressive power of trademarks… Words – even a single word – can be powerful. Mr. Simon Tam named his band The Slants to make a statement about racial and cultural issues in this country. With his band name, Mr. Tam conveys more about our society than many volumes of undisputedly protected speech.”

Michelle K. Lee’s, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) responded by petitioning the Supreme Court on Wednesday, April 19, 2016. SCOTUS responded on Thursday, September 29, 2016, agreeing to hear The Slants’ (In Re Tam) trademark case. Conversely, the justices announced on October 3, 2016 that they were declining to hear the Blackhorse v Pro Football trademark dispute, rejecting an appeal from the Washington Redskins. On January 18, 2017 The Slants went before the Supreme Court of the United States, and on June 19, 2017 SCOTUS unanimously – 8-0 – upheld the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s ruling that The Slants have the right to register their trademark.

Tour dates:
6/25/17 – World Beat Festival – Salem, OR
7/14/17 – Tokyo in Tulsa – Tulsa, OK
7/15/17 – Tokyo in Tulsa – Tulsa, OK
7/21/17 – Ash Street Saloon – Portland, OR
8/10/17 – Otakon Matsuri – Washington, D.C.
8/11/17 – Otakon Matsuri – Washington, D.C.
8/12/17 – Otakon Matsuri – Washington, D.C.
8/13/17 – Otakon Matsuri – Washington, D.C.

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