The Slants' songs aren't exclusively about race, but the subject comes up frequently.
In the 20th century, younger members of many minority groups repurposed offensive words that had been used as slurs and insults. African Americans and gays, in particular, transformed hateful brands into badges of pride or belonging. Now, in the 21st century, a few Asian-American musicians are trying to do the same, particularly in the name they chose for their band: The Slants.
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. Now, with The Slants, he's almost done it.
Young, both Chinese and Taiwanese, met The Slants' lead singer, Vietnam-born A-Ron, and later formed the band with drummer AC and guitarist Johnny, who are both Hispanic and Filipino. "Together, they make up about one Asian," Young says with a laugh.
The Slants' brand of Asian-American identity means breaking out, trading in the old stereotypes, and maybe living inside someone else's skin for a while. While Young and A-Ron don't write exclusively about race, they say it was something they wanted to tackle with The Slants.
"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," A-Ron says. "They still scared me, though."
Growing up, Young says, he and A-Ron had similar experiences of being chased around and even beaten up by other kids. In its music, the band picks up on schoolyard rhymes that used to drive its members nuts as kids.
"Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these," A-Ron recalls. "That was the way I heard it at my school." That rhyme became the seed for the chorus that speaks to anyone — Chinese, Japanese, or anyone else who knows what it's like to be an outsider.
The Slants' breakout gig came last year, at a convention devoted to Japanese animation. These conventions draw thousands of young anime and manga fans, many barely into their teens. Often, they come decked out in costume, ready to spend and starved for music.
Inspired by anime's science-fiction and fantasy themes, convention wear can be pretty wild: kitten ears, demon wings, even the occasional radiation suit. It was here that The Slants began to build a fan base.
The convention-goers represent a real market: They're buying comic books, toys, and DVDs. John Lo, who came from Atlanta to sell CDs and posters, says that The Slants are different from the foreign bands who dominate the convention circuit.
"All the bands we deal with are Japanese bands," Lo says. "Some of them have ties with anime, because they do the anime opening songs. Others are just popular music that the kids like. It's kind of a crossover between anime and J-Pop music and stuff."
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. Young and A-Ron say they'll never forget the screaming kids at that show.
"Dressed up like Sailor Moon, and kids dressed up like DragonBall Z ... It's amazing. It's like a big party like Halloween. It's great the kids are so genuinely enthused and excited about that," A-Ron says.
"It's definitely one of my favorite shows I've ever played in my life," Young adds.
Plans are in the works for some Slants dates in Asia next year.