“Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work.”
– Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom
There are presently two bands that go by the name Slaves that are made up of white men, one from the US and one from the UK. The US band has vowed to rebrand following the release of their latest album, To Better Days, although their UK namesake has no such plans.
The two bands have both put out statements regarding their names, the US one in June 2020 and the UK one all the way back in May 2015. The two statements contain many similarities; the origin of their names, how they have evolved, the purpose of their music; but they reach different conclusions about how to move forward:
Slaves (UK): “Our band name relates to people not being in control of their day to day lives. […] Our name and music is aimed at being a slave to day to day life and routine, it is a metaphorical use of the word. […] we are all slaves in this modern age, whether it be to our jobs, corporations, social media or society in general.”
Slaves (US): “The name ‘Slaves’ was conceived as a reference to the band’s battle with substance abuse in the past, to the idea that we became enslaved by our addictions and by our own demons.” Lead vocalist at the time, Jonny Craig, also described the origin of the US band’s name in an interview after they had formed: “Men have been enslaving men for as long as we’ve had gods to hide behind. Every man is a slave to what we love — whether it be women, drugs, music or sports.”
Both bands chose the word ‘Slaves’ because it represented their respective struggles in a figurative sense, the UK band in 2012 and the US band in 2014. It is unlikely the US band were aware of the UK band when they formed because the latter did not become widely known until the release of their 2015 debut album, Are You Satisfied? and its subsequent nomination for the Mercury Music Prize. As music attorney Bob Celestin noted in a Rolling Stone interview about Lady A’s name change, which was discussed in a previous blog: “This problem with [the same] names is not too common, because it’s easy to do a Google search.”
The two bands also agree on the purpose of their music:
Slaves (UK): “The music we make is motivational and aimed at people personally as well as collectively.”
Slaves (US): “Our goal has always been to tackle these difficult subjects head on, as well as to build a community and share stories of hope to let others know that their inner demons can be defeated.”
Both claim their music encourages people to metaphorically emancipate themselves, but their conclusions diverge, as the UK band is gearing up for a defence of their appellation while the US band is prefacing an apology and announcing their upcoming name change:
Slaves (US): “This definition of the name neglects to take ownership of its racial connotations. As obstinate supporters of the BLM movement, we cannot continue to tie our music and our positive message to a word associated with such negative weight and hurt.”
Slaves (UK) “On this point we would like to highlight the Oxford dictionary definition of the word Slaves; “(Especially in the past) a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.” As you can see, there is no mention of race. All different slave trades could be discussed now, but it would be futile.”
One reason for the different responses is their nationalities. The US has a long history of confronting racial issues, from slavery to the Civil War to Civil Rights to the modern Black Lives Matter movement, so there is an awareness of the term ‘slaves’ referring to African Americans embedded in the culture in a way it is not in the UK, despite the latter’s instrumental role in the Atlantic slave trade. The uproar over Edward Colston’s statue being toppled and thrown into Bristol Harbour proved that the UK has yet to seriously reckon with this ugly part of its history.
Although the US band say they are changing their name because they are “obstinate supporters of the BLM movement”, there are other advantages. One was the departure of lead vocalist, Jonny Craig, who had been the only permanent member, as bands often change their name when they get a new singer, and he was also the one to explain the origin of their name. It also avoids confusion with the UK band. It is difficult to estimate the outfits’ comparative popularity, but at time of writing, the UK band has 922,594 monthly listeners on Spotify and the US band has 515,222, it will help cut through the noise of internet search results.
Before these two bands came to be, there had previously been a band of white men called Slaves from 1997 to 2000, forming from members of The VSS and becoming Pleasure Forever in 2000. In an interview with online publication, Westword, drummer Dave Clifford gave his explanation for choosing the name: “I’ve also always been intrigued by the human will toward slavery. This isn’t any new revelation, but more of an artistic interpretation of Wilhelm Reich’s writings about fascism and human nature. We all seek authority figures, whether to ultimately rebel against them or for the comfort of having someone make our decisions for us. Ultimately, all of us are slaves to one thing or another, and we all revel in that.”
What Clifford is referring to is a hypothesis put forward by Wilhelm Reich in his book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Reich contended that the suppression of sexual desire in a patriarchal society created an anxiety that manifested in the political sphere as a propensity for authoritarian idealism. The patriarchal family is therefore the most fundamental of the institutions supporting fascism, whether the resulting internalised desire for an authority figure was unconsciously followed, or, as Reich proposed, consciously fought against through a revolutionary sexual politics. Reich would later go on to obfuscate this fascinating idea with baffling pseudoscience based around the debunked concept of the ‘orgone’, which he claimed to have discovered, and makes any attempt to research it on the internet lead you down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and online lunacy.
In an interview with the Phoenix New Times, Clifford explained why they chose to stop using it: “The name ‘Slaves’ was easy to be misinterpreted, and didn’t fit what we were doing [at that point]. We were addressed as ‘The Slaves’ a lot, like we were saying as a band, ‘We are slaves,’ like getting into some victim ideology. The real, actual impetus for the name was an interest in slavery as an idea, the different forms it can take — as part of something that’s human will, or an external force that guides someone’s life. That was more involved and heady, and that was difficult to get across.”
To avoid confusion, they could have called the band ‘How humanity’s repressed sexual desire subjugates people to authoritarian idealism and other implications of the word slaves’ but it’s difficult to fit that onto a bass drum.
The three bands independently chose the name because of the sheer all-encompassing nature of the how the term can be applied. In these statements, people are described as being enslaved to day to day life and routine, jobs, corporations, social media, society, personal demons, women, drugs, music, sport, family, authoritarian thinking and fascism.
Remember that each of these three bands used a version of the phrase ‘we are all slaves.’ To explain their name. The 1997 to 2000 band: “all of us are slaves to one thing or another”; Slaves (UK): “we are all slaves in this modern age”; Slaves (US): “Every man is a slave to what we love”. Aside from the androcentric formulation in the last quotation, the same basic idea crops up in each of their explanations.
As the UK band noted, slavery has happened to many peoples. In fact, the the foundation of music is tied-in to the history of slavery, as Ted Gioia noted In an interview with the Syncopated Times about his book, Music: A Subversive History:
“Take for example the most basic building blocks of music, our musical modes. These simple scales are usually the first thing students are taught when they study the theory of Western music. And each mode has a name. So students learn about the Lydian mode or the Phrygian mode, but no one ever tells them that the Lydians and Phrygians were the slaves who performed music in ancient Greece. These enslaved outsiders came up with the most exciting and disturbing sounds—so much so that the Greeks became very concerned about controlling which modes people were allowed to hear.”
However, slavery is not just “(Especially in the past)”, as the OED so quaintly puts it, but often used in contemporary parlance as part of the phrase ‘modern day slavery’, which has been used to describe, among others, kafala workers in the Middle East, debt bondage in South Asia and sex-trafficking in Eastern Europe. It may initially bring to mind the enslavement of African Americans, but that is a bias of the present moment and Western culture. The word ‘slaves’ has had and continues to have hundreds of other connotations throughout the world and throughout history. It is why three bands chose the name separately and why yielding to pressure to change it, subjugating themselves to the will of others, only makes the original moniker more appropriate.