Artists Are Ditching Their Racially Insensitive Band Names. Who's Next?

No matter how slight a band name's connotation to slavery in America may be, now is the time to change it.
28 June 2020, 12:27am
The Chicks
Photo courtesy of The Chicks

Two weeks after country-blues trio Lady Antebellum became "Lady A," distancing themselves from the historically racist connotations of the Antebellum South, the Dixie Chicks have also changed their name. On Thursday, Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire cut "Dixie," another word that romanticizes the Civil War-era South, from their moniker.

While many fans were supportive of the change, others have argued that "Dixie" is merely a regional designation that "isn't about slavery or race," a cute, inoffensive nickname Southerners use to describe their homeland with no underlying malice. It's a Southern thing, their argument goes—if you're not from here, you wouldn't get it.

Some historians believe "Dixie" derives from the Mason-Dixon Line, which separated free states from slave states during the Civil War. Others believe it came from the French $10 bill circulated in Antebellum Louisiana, known as the "dix." Regardless of how "Dixie" originated, the fact is that it refers to a time and a place in this country where Black people were enslaved.

I was born and raised in Atlanta; even among Southerners, you could spend a lifetime arguing about the word "Dixie"—its debated etymology, its evolved connotation as a term of pride among some folks who claim to mean no harm in saying it—and whether it was "right" or "wrong" for The Chicks to drop the word from their name. It's an argument that's playing out right now on Twitter, and will probably rage on for weeks to come. But at the end of the day, regardless of which side you're on, The Chicks remain The Chicks; people who want to say "Dixie" keep saying "Dixie"; and we've all wasted our time on an argument that really isn't the issue at hand at all.

The actual issue here—whether we're talking about band names or Confederate statues or the Rebel Flag—is this: Black people were enslaved for more than 200 years in this country, and they continue to be discriminated against by a social, judicial, and incarceral system steeped in white supremacy. The question is not, "Should bands whose names have ties to slavery change them?" The question is: Are we committed to looking our awful history in the eyes, admitting that it led us to a place in which Black people in America are still systematically mistreated, and doing everything we can to fix that?

If the answer to that question is yes—and it should be—then the answer to the first question becomes simple. Change the names.

Aside from Lady A (who, it's worth noting, blindly poached their name from a Black musician who'd gone by it for years) and The Chicks, Southern rock band Confederate Railroad, Norwegian punk band Turbonegro, and Sacramento hardcore band Slaves* all perform under racially insensitive names, to give just a few examples. That needs to end. No matter how slight or significant a band name's connotation to slavery in America may be, if we are truly committed to reckoning with that history and all it wrought, we should do away with anything that comes close to glorifying, anesthetizing, or normalizing it.

It's understandable that a band with a racially insensitive name might be hesitant to change it. It's what their fans know them by; it's what they've built their careers on; it's what they've been emotionally attached to for years. On the surface, those might seem like fair, good-faith reasons to keep a problematic band name in place. But let's break them down, using Southern rock band Confederate Railroad—whose lead singer, Danny Shirley, has vowed he will "never" change the band's name—as an example.

The argument: It's what our fans know us by.
If "Confederate Railroad" were to change its name to "Kentucky Railroad" tomorrow, anyone looking for their music would easily be able to find it, after spending about 15 seconds on Google. Anyone who genuinely likes their music would not cease to like it because it is performed under a different name. Those who abandoned "Kentucky Railroad" would do so because they feel more allegiance to the word "Confederate" than they do the actual band. Are those the kinds of fans you want to court?

The argument: It's what we've built our career on.
You didn't build your career on your band name; you built it on your music. If, when Shirley's band formed in 1987, they had opted to go by "Kentucky Railroad" instead of "Confederate Railroad," their songs would be the same, their performances would be the same, and the level of success they attained would be the same. For Shirley to think otherwise would be to undervalue his own art.

The argument: It's what we've been emotionally attached to for years.
Fair enough; Confederate Railroad has gone by that name for 33 years, and at this point, they must identify with it pretty strongly. But look at it this way: We have identified the word "Confederate" with slavery for about 160 years, since the beginning of the Civil War. The band "Confederate Railroad" does not own the term "Confederate" in our popular consciousness; the Confederacy does. However emotionally attached your band may be to that term, millions of Black Americans are more attached to it as the signifier of a movement that fought to keep people that look like them—if not their very ancestors—in bondage. In the battle of emotional attachment, one side clearly wins out over the other.

The point of all this is not to single out Confederate Railroad; you could apply the same rubric to any band with a racially insensitive band name, and arrive at the same conclusion. The point, instead, is to show that when you change a problematic band name, you don't change the music, and you won't lose your fans—not your true fans, at least. Instead, you say to the world: We care more about Black lives than what we call ourselves.

When you keep your problematic band name, you say the opposite.

Lady A and The Chicks have demonstrated that changing a racially insensitive band name isn't just possible; it's easy. As thorny as this issue has somehow become, and as many questions as it has managed to raise, there's really only one worth asking: Who's next?

*Confederate Railroad and Turbonegro did not respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE. In a statement, Slaves wrote:

"As individuals, as well as a collective, we hold certain virtues close to our hearts—honesty and transparency with our fans being some of the most important. Early on in the process of writing and recording the new album To Better Days_, we discussed what this new iteration of our band should sound like, what it should look like, as well as what it should be called. We decided then, this would be our last release under the name "Slaves." The name "Slaves" was conceived as a reference to the band’s battle with substance abuse in the past, to the idea that we become enslaved by our addictions and by our own demons. 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. However, 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. ‘To Better Days’ will represent the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another for the band. This is something we have been planning for a while and are excited to start unveiling new music, new name, later this year. We are thankful to our fans that continue to stick by us and we look forward to sharing this new era with you moving forward."_

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.