MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. In the 20th century, many African-American and gay activists tried to repurpose offensive words that had long been used against them. In the process, they transformed hateful brands into badges of pride and identity. Now in the 21st century, several Asian-American musicians are trying to do the same, and they started with the name of their band. April Baer of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on The Slants.

APRIL BAER: It all started as kind of a practical joke. Simon Young had been playing bass in bands for years, but what he really wanted was to front an all-Asian lineup. And with The Slants, he's almost done it. Here's Simon Young and his lead singer, A-Ron.

A-RON (Lead Singer, The Slants): I was born in Vietnam.

Mr. SIMON YOUNG (Bassist, The Slants): Chinese and Taiwanese. Our drummer AC and guitarist Johnny, they're both Hispanic and Filipino. Together, they make about one Asian. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BAER: The Slants' brand of Asian-American identity - breaking out, trading in the old stereotypes, maybe living inside someone else's skin for a while.

(Soundbite of music)

A-RON: (Singing) I want to live inside your skin. I want to see the devil's work, I do. Come on baby and let me in. Oh, yeah.

BAER: Simon Young and A-Ron don't write exclusively about race, but they say it was something they wanted to tackle with The Slants.

A-RON: When I was actually a kid, the first racial slurs I heard were Chink and Jap, and I'm Vietnamese, so they didn't even get those right. And, you know, they still scared me, though.

Mr. YOUNG: We did have a lot of similar experiences growing up. We both got kind of chased around and beat up by other kids because they were...

A-RON: Oh, I never got beat up.

Mr. YOUNG: Oh, you - well, you outran them.

A-RON: I outran them on my bike.

Mr. YOUNG: I had a bunch of rocks thrown at me, and, you know.

BAER: In their music, the band loves to pick up on schoolyard rhymes that used to drive them nuts as kids.

A-RON: Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these was the way I heard it at my school.

BAER: That rhyme became the seed for the chorus that speaks to anyone - Chinese, Japanese, or just down on their knees - anyone who knows what it's like on the outside.

(Soundbite of music)

A-RON: (Singing) (unintelligible) Can you save me? (unintelligible)

BAER: The Slants' breakout gig came last year, at a convention devoted to Japanese animation. These conventions - or cons - draw thousands of young anime and manga fans, many barely into their teens. They're decked out in costume, ready to spend, and starved for music.

Did you go to the rave last night?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

BAER: The rave was awesome.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes, it was. I told her last night we'd go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BAER: The wigs are only the beginning. Convention wear is pretty wild, inspired by anime's sci-fi and fantasy themes. You get kitten ears, demon wings, even the occasional radiation suit. It was here that The Slants began to build a fan base.

Unidentified Woman #2: And then I really like their music.

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah, I love their music.

BAER: Jackie Kims(ph) and her friend Onyu Kim(ph) - no relation - are both from Mill Creek, Washington. Dressed in matching schoolgirl costumes, they lined up at Seattle's Sakura-Con for autographs. Actually, the girls just got some bad news about The Slants next local concert date.

BOTH: On May 10th...

Unidentified Woman #2: But that's our prom date.

Unidentified Woman #3: That's our prom.

BAER: What will you do?

Unidentified Woman #3: I don't know.

BAER: You have to go to prom.

Unidentified Woman #2: Maybe they can escort us to prom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BAER: The con-goers represent a real market: They're buying comic books, toys and DVDs. John Lo came from Atlanta to sell CDs and posters. He says that The Slants are different from the foreign bands who dominate the convention circuit.

Mr. JOHN LO (Retailer): All the bands that we deal with are all Japanese bands. Some of them have ties with anime, because they do the anime opening songs. Others are just popular music that the kids like.

BAER: The Slants' songs about Asian-American alienation don't seem to have hurt their appeal to white teenagers. If anything, they resonate with kids whose geeky adoration for anime makes them outsiders in their own way. Just one convention gig was enough to fund the band's first CD. Simon Young and A-Ron say they'll never forget the screaming kids at that show.

A-RON: Dressed up like Sailor Moon, and kids dressed up like DragonBall Z, and it's amazing. It's like a big party. It's like Halloween. But it's great. The kids are so genuinely enthused and excited about that.

Mr. YOUNG: Yeah. It was definitely one of my favorite shows I've ever played in my life.

BAER: Plans are in the works for some Slants dates in Asia next year.

For NPR News, I'm April Baer in Portland, Oregon.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.