Seattle blues singer Lady A had just gotten off of work on Thursday when a bombardment of phone messages from friends, fans and producers came in all shouting the same thing: Her name had been stolen.
Earlier that day, Grammy-winning country trio Lady Antebellum — whose name had been criticized for its associations with romanticized ideas of the pre-war, slavery-ridden American South — announced they were changing their name to Lady A in light of a heightened national conversation about racism. Lady Antebellum made the changes swiftly on social media and distribution platforms including Spotify and Apple Music, and the group’s website also announced their rechristening as Lady A. But according to Seattle’s Lady A, neither the band nor any members of their team reached out to her before making the change.
This Lady A — a 61-year-old black woman whose real name is Anita White — has been playing the blues under the name for more than 20 years. She began singing as a gospel performer at church and started going by Lady A for karaoke nights in the Eighties. She’s released multiple albums with the name, and on top of her day job working with Seattle Public Utilities, she’s gearing up to release another album, Lady A: Live in New Orleans, on her birthday on July 18th.
White tells Rolling Stone she’s frustrated that Lady Antebellum hadn’t gone to her before making a decision, pointing out the irony in changing a name in support of racial equality while simultaneously taking another one from a black performer. “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,” she says, her voice breaking. “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.
“It’s an opportunity for them to pretend they’re not racist or pretend this means something to them,” she adds. “If it did, they would’ve done some research. And I’m not happy about that. You found me on Spotify easily — why couldn’t they?”
When reached for comment Friday morning, a rep for Lady Antebellum said the band was not aware of the other artist and plans to reach out to her.
White has long been an advocate of social change. She hasn’t participated in protests around the police killing of George Floyd out of concern about the ongoing health crisis — she and her sisters regularly visit their 83-year-old mother — but she’s readying a panel on Zoom on June 27th with white and minority colleagues that discusses the role of white people in conversations about race. She’s written songs about cases of racial injustice like the death of Trayvon Martin, and says she changed some of the lyrics in an upcoming song in response to Floyd’s death. That song and the name of her upcoming panel are called “The Truth Is Loud.”
At issue is the possibility of trademark infringement. “Just like other goods and services in the marketplace such as Nike or McDonald’s, band names can be protected under trademark law,” explains intellectual-property attorney Wesley Lewis.
“It’s about who is first to use a name. Audience size is irrelevant,” says Bob Celestin, a longtime music attorney who’s represented Pusha T and Missy Elliott. “And the question is, does the original Lady A have a trademark registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office? If she does, she can go ahead and sue Lady Antebellum for infringement. If not, she still has a common law trademark and she can still show that she’s been using the name in commerce — records, posters, tour flyers — for a number of years. She is first to use the mark in commerce, so that gives her a superior right to the name.”
Celestin adds that if two artists who work in different genres end up with the same name, they can reach a coexistence agreement that allows both groups to market music under the name by acknowledging the slim chance for confusion. “But you could say that blues is the foundation of country, so they’re very close in genre, and if they’re close in genre there’s much more confusion in the marketplace,” he says.
“I’m not about to stop using my name. For them to not even reach out is pure privilege” — Anita White, known professionally as Lady A
Seattle’s Lady A — who got her performing start in a Motown Revue band in the Eighties — says she holds a business trademark for Lady A LLC but does not know where she stands from a legal standpoint; she is going to speak with a lawyer next week to discuss her options. “I don’t know if [the new Lady A] are going to give me a cease-and-desist. I don’t know how they’d react. But I’m not about to stop using my name,” White says. “For them to not even reach out is pure privilege. I’m not going to lay down and let this happen to me. But now the burden of proof is on me to prove that my name is in fact mine, and I don’t even know how much I’ll have to spend to keep it.”
If the two parties end up going to court, Celestin says one group will likely have to alter their name. The newly-named Lady A may also have to pay a sum to the Seattle singer if there’s proof of damages. “Whenever you sue someone, you have to show that you’ve been hurt,” he says. “So have you been damaged, and how? This problem with names is not too common, because it’s easy to do a Google search. I tell my clients to search Google, GoDaddy, and the trademark office before using a name.”
Though such clashes are rare, some artists have had to change their names in the past due to doubling. The British group the Charlatans, for example, are known in North America as the Charlatans UK because of a conflict with a Californian psychedelic-folk band already named the Charlatans.
The Lady A trio have been releasing music under the moniker Lady Antebellum since 2006, but said they decided to change their name after reflecting on its possible connotations. “We are deeply sorry for the hurt this has caused,” group members Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley, and Dave Haywood wrote in an Instagram post on Thursday. “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 every day. Now, blind spots we didn’t even know existed have been revealed.”