Hey Lady Antebellum, That’s Not How Allyship Works

Everything to know about the band's name change to "Lady A" and lawsuit against blues singer Anita White

Turns out, what Lady Antebellum truly needs is a lesson in allyship. Lady Antebellum is in hot water after a July 8 announcement that the country band, comprised of members Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood, is suing Seattle-based blues artist Anita White over the use of the name Lady A. ICYMI, after 14 years of going by the moniker Lady Antebellum, the band announced in June that they’d be changing their name to Lady A in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement (more on that in a moment). Theoretically, a name switch is all fine and dandy, except for the fact the new name they want has belonged to White since the 1980s. While the band initially announced that they were working towards a solution with White, in which both parties could use the name, that compromise appears to have been thrown out the window. In the recent lawsuit, the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum asks a Nashville court to grant its right to the trademark of the name. Per documents obtained by Pitchfork, the lawsuit notes that the band isn’t asking for monetary damages or attempting to prohibit White from performing under the name Lady A, but to prove that they aren’t infringing on a copyright. But, it’s still pretty sketchy on the band’s part—especially considering that White is a Black woman and pretty much a protest artist. And fans online are not happy.

Here’s everything you need to know about Lady Antebellum, Anita White and their name-change debacle.

So…why did Lady Antebellum suddenly change their name?

For many people who’ve known Lady Antebellum (or at least listened to “Need You Now” on repeat throughout 2009), the decision to change the band’s name 14 years after they first came on the scene may seem a bit odd, but for the band, the name change made sense in light of the recent global movements protesting the killing of Black and Indigenous people at the hands of police. In a June 11 Instagram post, the band announced their decision to go by the name “Lady A,” a nickname they say fans have given them from the start of their career, writing: “After much personal reflection, band discussion, prayer and many honest conversations with some of our closest Black friends and colleagues, we have decided to drop the word “antebellum” from our name and move forward as Lady A, the nickname our fans gave us almost from the start.” The decision, as noted in their post, came after the band reflected on the use of the word “antebellum” which refers to a period of time in the United States before The Civil War, and is typically applied to the South. The issue? This period of time included slavery. While the band noted that when they chose the name 14 years ago, it was in reference to the music born in the South which influenced them stylistically, they said: “We are regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before The Civil War, which includes slavery.”

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Dear Fans,⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ As a band, we have strived for our music to be a refuge…inclusive of all. We’ve watched and listened more than ever these last few weeks, and our hearts have been stirred with conviction, our eyes opened wide to the injustices, inequality and biases Black women and men have always faced and continue to face everyday. Now, blindspots we didn’t even know existed have been revealed.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ After much personal reflection, band discussion, prayer and many honest conversations with some of our closest Black friends and colleagues, we have decided to drop the word “antebellum” from our name and move forward as Lady A, the nickname our fans gave us almost from the start.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ When we set out together almost 14 years ago, we named our band after the southern “antebellum” style home where we took our first photos. As musicians, it reminded us of all the music born in the south that influenced us…Southern Rock, Blues, R&B, Gospel and of course Country. But we are regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before The Civil War, which includes slavery. We are deeply sorry for the hurt this has caused and for anyone who has felt unsafe, unseen or unvalued. Causing pain was never our hearts’ intention, but it doesn’t change the fact that indeed, it did just that. So today, we speak up and make a change. We hope you will dig in and join us.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ We feel like we have been Awakened, but this is just one step. There are countless more that need to be taken. We want to do better. We are committed to examining our individual and collective impact and making the necessary changes to practice antiracism. We will continue to educate ourselves, have hard conversations and search the parts of our hearts that need pruning—to grow into better humans, better neighbors. Our next outward step will be a donation to the Equal Justice Initiative through LadyAID. Our prayer is that if we lead by example…with humility, love, empathy and action…we can be better allies to those suffering from spoken and unspoken injustices, while influencing our children & generations to come.

A post shared by Lady A (@ladya) on

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The fact that it took them so many years to realize that the use of antebellum in your name is harmful and problematic is one thing (almost as problematic as getting married on a plantation and then failing to acknowledge it, CC: Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively), but can we also just address the fact that removing nine letters from the end of antebellum doesn’t really change the meaning? Guys, we all *know* what the “A” stands for! As twitter user Matt Ogonowski so aptly tweeted: “It’s not different.”

And who is Anita White?

While Lady Antebellum may have changed their name to Lady A in 2020, there’s long been another Lady A on the music scene, Seattle-based blues singer Anita White. White, who works for Seattle Public Utilities by day, has been singing blues professionally, releasing albums and touring under the name for 20 years. According to a June 20 interview with Rolling Stone, she’s even been using Lady A for karaoke performances since the 1980s.

In the same Rolling Stone interview, published shortly after the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum announced their name change, White claimed that neither the band nor any members of their team reached out to her before announcing the change [the band says they were unaware of the overlap in name usage]. And she says she was upset by the group’s decision, and failure to reach out to her, especially considering they were allegedly changing their name as a means to protest racial inequality. “This is my life. Lady A is my brand, I’ve used it for over 20 years, and I’m proud of what I’ve done,” White told the magazine. “This is too much right now. They’re using the name because of a Black Lives Matter incident that, for them, is just a moment in time. If it mattered, it would have mattered to them before. It shouldn’t have taken George Floyd to die for them to realize that their name had a slave reference to it.”

Why is Lady Antebellum suing Anita White?

This is where it gets pretty complicated. After first finding out that the band name Lady A was already being utilized by another artist, the Lady Antebellum trio says they reached out to White to discuss the best way forward. On June 15, the band shared a photo to Instagram of themselves on a Zoom call with White, writing: “Today, we connected privately with the artist Lady A. Transparent, honest, and authentic conversations were had. We are excited to share we are moving forward with positive solutions and common ground. The hurt is turning into hope. More to come.”

At the time, White shared the same post to her own Instagram account, making it seem like there was hope for an easy fix. And in a June 16 statement, a publicist for the band claimed the two parties had come to an agreement to both move forward under the name Lady A (a statement White actually refuted at the time). And alas, negotiations seem to have fallen apart. In a statement released on July 8 regarding their lawsuit, the band claimed that White and her team had “demanded” a $10 million payment for use of the name. “Today we are sad to share that our sincere hope to join together with Anita White in unity and common purpose has ended,” the group said in the statement. “She and her team have demanded a $10 million payment, so reluctantly we have come to the conclusion that we need to ask a court to affirm our right to continue to use the name Lady A, a trademark we have held for many years.” [In a request for comment, FLARE was provided the same statement from the band].

Per documents provided by the trio, the group had officially put in a request to trademark the name “Lady A”—a nickname they say they’ve long held from fans and has been used interchangeably to identify the group—and have used the name intermittently on merchandise and in marketing. The trademark was submitted in 2010 and approved in 2011. At the time the band registered for the trademark, and up until now, White didn’t contest the usage (TBQH, she may not have even known about it, because who pay attention to that stuff?). In their suit, the band said that White “never used ‘Lady A’ as a trademark to identify her goods or as a service mark to identify her entertainment services.” The filing also posits that while the band and White both share the same name on Spotify, their music is immediately distinguishable, noting that there are four additional artists (aside from White), that show up under the name “Lady A” on Spotify, none of which are the band.

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Per the suit, the band said that White had attempted to “enforce purported trademarks rights in a mark that Plaintiffs have held for more than a decade.” It’s important to note that the band is suing not so that White *can’t* use the name, but to prove that the band—by going under the name Lady A—is not infringing on any trademark or copyright laws.

Can Lady Antebellum even do that?

Legally speaking, yes. But *should* they do it? That’s another question. As the band pointed out in documents—and as many have pointed out online—Lady Antebellum does *technically* have rights to the name…

But so, technically, does White, even though she hasn’t legally trademarked it. “It would be clear that Lady A—Miss White—has prior use under law and consistent, continual prior use for many years,” says Toronto-based entertainment lawyer Julie MacDonell. “And that’s a very strong legal status, actually.” And while the band isn’t presently trying to prevent White from using the name, within this recent filing is a larger question over who really is entitled to it.

Although Lady Antebellum officially trademarked the name Lady A back in 2010, in the U.S. there is deference to prior use, meaning that because White was using the name for decades before Lady Antebellum formally filed to trademark the name, she also has legal claim over it. “Had [White] used it only after 2010, so after the registration, there would be a case potentially for a cease and desist,” MacDonell says. [It’s important to again note that, as of now, that’s not where either parties are at…yet.] “The question is: are [Lady Antebellum and White] in a forced coexistence situation?” While MacDonell says White has a “very solid” entrenched trademark right due to prior use, because she never federally trademarked the name, it allows other traders (groups, individuals, brands etc.) to come in and achieve federal trademark status unless opposed.

Something else to consider is the fact that, although Lady Antebellum *did* legally trademark Lady A in 2010, according to the United States Patent and Trademark office website, to keep a trademark registration alive, “the registration owner must file required maintenance documents at regular intervals.” “Registered trademarks require consistent use over time.” MacDonell says. “So they have to be reinforced by use.” Meaning that if Lady Antebellum just filed their trademark in 2010 and haven’t used the name since then—or filed maintenance docs—they may run in to trouble when it comes to defending infringement and ownership.

Why is everyone upset with Lady Antebellum?

While the legality of ownership over “Lady A” is important, what has many people online fired up—and upset—isn’t the specifics of the group’s lawsuit, but the fact that they’re filing one–and fighting White’s ownership of the name—so hard. Especially considering the fact that the reason Lady Antebellum claims they changed their name in the first place was in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. To then sue a Black female artist who has made her living using the name you want to go by? Yeah, that’s really not a good look. And, as many people online pointed out, it makes their name change feel pretty freakin’ superficial—not to mention reinforces the very white supremacist system they were purporting to try and dismantle. Because there’s very clearly a power imbalance between the members of Lady Antebellum and White.

“When you look at the reason for the name change, initially it was in response to George Floyd’s murder and and social action that came out of that,” MacDonell says. “All of a sudden, everybody was re-examining things, and I think the change of name is similar to the toppling of statues, where we’re saying ‘we’re toppling this entire system that’s rooted in slavery.’

“That it took that event for the band to realize that their name was offensive in that manner is one thing,” she continues, “but I think it’s really a political question. How do you respond [to someone] who says that [the name change is] a response in support of  Black Lives Matter, and then aggressively digs [their] heels in on a name vis-a-vis a Black artist who is well established and in some respects a protest artist?” Like we said, not a good look.

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And it leaves no one in a good place, especially White. “You have to be extraordinarily sympathetic to an artist like the original Lady A,” MacDonell says. “Because this is an artist who also has a day job. This is an artist who is doing it for true love and passion, who hasn’t achieved the global success that Lady Antebellum has, doesn’t have the deep pockets, doesn’t have the access to advisory services and managers and people who will guide her in terms of registering [for trademarks].”

We can only hope this issue is resolved quickly, and as positively as possible, for everyone.

FLARE has reached out to Lady Antebellum and Anita White for comment. The story will be updated with their responses.