This June, as Black Lives Matter was gaining momentum and the racist actions of prominent figures came to light, the American country group named Lady Antebellum changed their name due to its racist denotation. The word “Antebellum” means “before the War”, and said War is almost always the American Civil War. Thus this word is associated with slavery and the plantation era. In an effort to separate themselves from the name’s racist history and show their support to the BLM movement, the band renamed themselves “Lady A.”
Unbeknownst to them when they decided on the name change, there was already an artist who used the name Lady A; Anita White, a Black blues and soul music artist, who has been performing under the name Lady A for over 20 years. Here is where the formerly known Lady Antebellum’s actions are revealed to be an example of performative activism. Instead of changing their new name to one that wasn’t in use, they sued Anita White in an effort to reclaim the name.
At first, it appeared that the two parties had been close to reaching an understanding. Over Instagram, the band stated that they had a Zoom meeting with White and both parties would perform under the name. Obviously, that agreement did not last long and the country group quickly shifted gears. Apparently, White asked the band for $10 million and they could take the name. She stated that the first $5 million would be used to help her rebrand while the other $5 million would be put towards various Black Lives Matter charities.
Having used Lady A as an abbreviation for Lady Antebellum over the years and trademarking it in 2011, the band claims that the name has been theirs from the beginning of this disagreement. They then filed a declaratory judgment lawsuit against the singer, citing federal trademarks and size of following. It is, however, important to note that the band is not fighting to prevent White from using the name Lady A, they are trying to establish their legal entitlement to use the name as well.
According to both legal teams, time, scope, and geography will be crucial points in the case. In terms of time and scope, the respective artists will be required to demonstrate how long and how widely they have used the trademark. This means that White, while having used the name for over 20 years, will have to show that she did not just go by the name but used it in terms of advertising – billboards, tickets, and other things that can be sold. With respect to geography, local trademarks can exist in two separate states while federal trademarks overrule those that are local. As the band filed the case in Tennessee and White performs in Washington, if a local trademark is achieved, both parties are legally allowed to use the name.
Regardless if the band wins the case or not, they have already lost. In filling the lawsuit against Anita White, the formerly known Lady Antebellum asserted their privilege over the blues singer and reaffirmed their supremacy. The changing of their name was one symbolic action that was undone the moment they told White that, if she wanted to keep the name she performed under for decades, she would have to share it. In addition, switching their name to Lady A removes nothing. The “A” still implies the rest of the word; it is just abbreviating the previous racist meaning. In the end, it is clear to see that promise made by the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum on June 11th – a promise to be “better allies to those suffering from spoken and unspoken injustices” – has been either forgotten or ignored. It is hard to say which one is worse.