Artistic Asian American Activist Advocates Action
Musician, Activist, Business savvy, and more, Simon Tam holds the key for social change through music.
The scene opens with Tarantino’s thriller hit Kill Bill exhibiting a sleek Asian American and woman strutting coolly into a sushi restaurant.
Blown away, that moment was the first time Simon Tam saw an Asian American depicted as cool, confident, and sexy in an American produced film. Though if Hollywood films are hardly representative of minorities, the music industry is worse. Music having always been present in his life, Simon Tam utilized his talents and his diversity to add color into mainstream music and created Chinatown Dance Rock band, The Slants. The intention of the band is to provide a bold portrayal of a culture from their perspective, or slant, on life as an Asian American.
Simon’s fire for justice began as a passion for helping marginalized communities in his hometown, San Diego. Having frequently been on the frontlines of Asian American issues, Simon also advocates intersections with other worlds, like gay and trans rights, Muslim and black Americans, and folks in general who have stories he can relate to about receiving the short end of the stick of justice.
For the last five or six years, Simon’s band, The Slants have been rather articulate with social justice issues.
The Slants are the first band Simon worked with tying music with community groups; Simon wishes for kids who have stories like his, who are tired of hearing stereotypes, to feel accepted. As a result, the band is rewarding on both a creative and an activist level.
The band’s advocacy led to an opportunity to tour for soldiers overseas; the need arose on account of Lieutenant Danny Chan committing suicide after being harassed for his Asian American heritage. The Slants provided the soldiers on military bases with their story and Asian American representation. Just one episode of many, The Slants continue to advocate awareness for Asian American injustices.
Not only is Simon the founder and bassist for The Slants, but he also has a knack for the world of business.
Even though Simon earned a master’s degree in Music Business, (originally from the San Diego area, Simon lived in Portland for 13 years after finishing his formal education in business) he learned the trade early on out of necessity. Since he involved himself in local community and charity events, oftentimes including a live band performance, somebody had to know how to lead the business side of the operation. Through trial and error and extensive law research, Simon mastered his niche.
Word of his quality work spread quickly, and record labels began to take notice and contact him to book their acts. Labels sought after Simon’s services because he genuinely took care of the talent. He would personally visit the hotels before booking rooms for the musicians, he would prepare a home cooked meal instead of ordering the bands pizza and beer, and he approached the task with the attitude of “treating others how you would want to be treated.”
Like a dusty cowboy in the Wild West preparing for a showdown, straddling between The Slants and his business operations (which aren’t entirely exclusive of one another), Simon stands at the ready, able to shoot his focus towards wherever the need lies.
After mastering his business skills, Simon formulated his “Chinatown Dance Rock” band.
Apparently, Chinatown dance rock has no official meaning, but really just sounds cool. Additionally, the genre name carries social connotations that provide a space for Asian Americans to feel safe and welcome.
The beginning stages of The Slants included registering their name for trademark in 2009, but the trademark office rejected their application because the band name was ‘disparaging’ towards Asian people. To no surprise, Simon&co. decided to fight back, because having a name, an identity, is worth the struggle.
Fast-forward to 2017 (yes, 8 years later), and The Slants unanimously won the battle in Supreme Court, a victory for minorities in the arts!
For all the nitty gritty details, Rolling Stone extensively covered the court case, among other big name publications. In fact, searching The Slants is impossible without “Supreme Court” also popping up in the results.
Other monolithic media features include filming a bit for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in Portland.
Unsurprisingly from his previous involvement in the Portland arts community, Simon was able to provide the producers with contacts for the set, the studio, and so on. Mirroring the generosity, the producers for the bit also showed care and attention to detail by reading through all the legal documents and discussing with the band how to handle such a delicate, hot button issue productively and politely, leaving Simon with a good impression and a relationship that continues today.
The massive media momentum influenced major labels to offer the band very generous contracts, with the caveat of changing the lead singer to someone white.
Politely declining and partially heartbroken, Simon grabbed that pivotal moment and rode it onwards to continue changing the racial landscape of Western music.
Enter: Nashville’s scene and the hospitality of HOME
Less than a year ago, Simon switched over to Nashville’s scene on account of the relative affordability and the definitively amazing barbecue.
His discovery of HOME was a bit of a happy accident. Wanting to see Patty Smyth perform, he attended City Winery’s Women Who Rock event, and consequently won a prize including a HOME membership. Patty Smyth didn’t end up performing, ironically.
Now, (relative to when I interviewed Simon in July), the game-changing man is focusing on a new album, though the interspersed band members pose a collaborative challenge.
In the meantime, Simon consistently records and releases his podcast episodes among giving talks at conferences about the music business and being an Asian American.
Check out his TEDx talks, his podcasts, his books, his music, his broadcast media features, and educate yo’self
Written and interviewed by Andra Ingram