Simon Tam shares fireside chat with themes of perseverance, justice for Asian American musical artists

GVL+%2F+Jonathan+Lantiegne

GVL / Jonathan Lantiegne

Parker Learman-Blaauw

When most people think about their favorite rock band, images of furious guitar playing, stage dives, pyrotechnics, and chanting crowds all come to mind — not fighting the United States Supreme Court.

Although that is probably the furthest thing from the stereotypical band experience, fighting stereotypes has never been an issue for Simon Tam.

As part of GVSU’s yearly Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Celebration, Tam held a fireside chat on Feb. 24 centered around his unique experience as an Asian American. 

Tam, frontman of the now-retired band, “The Slants,” said he had always had ambitions of playing music professionally. 

During the Zoom, Tam said he distinctly remembers falling asleep next to his dad’s old Hi-Fi stereo, and began music lessons when he was ten years old. 

Tam’s parents, like many before them, had another idea. They wanted him to pursue a career in something they deemed appropriate, like a doctor or engineer. 

During his final year at the University of California Riverside, however, those plans were upended when Tam dropped out of college, moved across the country, and started a punk rock band with his friends.

The origins of the band and its name is what ultimately led to Tam’s eventual battle with the Supreme Court. 

Tam said the idea came to him in 2003 when he had been watching the film, “Kill Bill.” He said Lucy Liu entered a room with her gang in slow motion as the music started up in the background, and it was unlike anything he had ever witnessed before. 

“It was the first time I had ever seen an American produced film that showed Asians as cool, confident and sexy,” Tam said. 

Tam also said an Asian-American had never been on the cover of the major music industry magazines of the time such as Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Spin, and that even MTV’s programming had a serious representation problem. 

“I decided that night, something needed to change,” Tam said. 

After surveying all of the white people in his life on what they thought was the most common Asian trait, Tam found that the majority felt slanted eyes were the defining characteristic. 

Despite taking issue with the claim factually, it also provided Tam with the perfect name for his all-Asian-American band: The Slants.

It was clear from the widespread response the band received on MySpace that by challenging the Asian stereotypes that persisted at the time, the band was making waves. 

Performing at clubs, festivals, and even anime conventions while also working to break down the stereotypes they encountered meant Tam was always busy. The government itself even reached out for help on Asian-American outreach in the Armed Forces.

All of a sudden success meant that Tam had to make sure his work was protected from imitators by copyright law. 

On the advice of an attorney friend, he sought out a trademark for the name, “The Slants.”

The surprise came when the government denied the trademark request, citing the name was “disparaging” to Asians, using Urban Dictionary as proof of the assumed offense.

The irony of the government declaring the name racist despite the outpouring of support from the Asian-American community was not lost on Tam. 

In an appeal to the denial, Tam was able to gather the largest ever appeal for registering a trademark, yet, the application was still denied.

The truth, as Tam soon discovered, was that Asian-Americans had historically been denied copyright protection for terms deemed derogatory towards Asians. This was to avoid the association between the racist terms and the victims on the receiving end — despite those associations being used by actual racists every day. 

“We should have the right to decide for ourselves what’s good and what’s bad,” said Tam. “It comes down to dignity.” 

What followed was almost a ten-year legal battle that culminated in an appearance before the Supreme Court, where Tam’s team had to defend the unconstitutionality of the law preventing the reclamation of racist terms by the very groups they were meant to harm. 

The Supreme Court luckily understood the incredulity of the situation, and unanimously struck down the law under the First Amendment.

By the time the decision had finally been reached, the band had gone on several tours around the country, including to a majority of law schools that hosted Tam as a speaker, where he would give insight into his frustration with the American legal system’s handling of racial issues. 

Despite the band retiring shortly after the case was decided, the victory Tam and his team were able to score that day has lasting implications for the future of racial justice in America. Tam’s words on perseverance act as a sort of rallying call to all those hoping to affect change.

“The most important thing I learned was to keep fighting,” Tam said.