Last month (Oct. 3), the artist formerly known as Kanye West, sparked outrage across the country when he debuted his YZY Season 9’s new designs during Paris Fashion Week. The collection features a series of hoodies and shirts with the phrase “White Lives Matter” emblazoned on the back. The phrase itself is a hurtful message that was used in response to the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and civil rights movement which gained global attention in 2013. It has frequently been used by neo-Nazi leaders and Donald Trump supporters.
The YZY Season debut marked the beginning of a week-long rampage in which Ye spewed racist and antisemitic rhetoric on several high-profile platforms. His actions ultimately led to him losing major deals with Balenciaga, Adidas, and other companies.
Despite Ye’s cancellation, it was last reported that he was still hell-bent on selling his WLM shirts for $20. Luckily, two Black activists, Ramses Ja and Quinton Ward, are making it impossible for the disgraced rapper to sell his collection legally. Ja and Ward are the radio show hosts of Civic Cipher and, as of Oct. 28, they own the rights to the trademark.
“We hope that by having these conversations and talking about these issues, we’re empowering those allies to then take the conversations into their homes, into their circles, and talk with their racist uncles.”
Ja and Ward met nearly 15 years ago when they were building their solo careers in the radio and broadcast media industry. Civic Cipher came much later in their journey. The nationally syndicated radio show in Arizona came together in response to the summer 2020 protests against civil unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis. “It is a show that was necessary in a hip-hop space because no such programming existed. People were protesting, crying, grieving, and dealing with their frustrations,” Ja explains. “In many cities, there was nothing in that space that really felt like they were giving back to the people who were creating the culture for them to profit from. In our own city, we realized that these protestors, organizers, very powerful women here in Phoenix, Arizona, had bullhorns and signs and brilliant messages, but they didn’t have the infrastructure to reach huge, massive crowds.”
The show hosts thoughtful and educational conversations on issues about race, police brutality, and politics. While their conversations speak directly to the Black experience, they also hold these spaces so non-Black people can listen and learn from the open dialogue. “We hope that by having these conversations and talking about these issues, we’re empowering those allies to then take the conversations into their homes, into their circles, and talk with their racist uncles. We give them the tools they need to diffuse this type of content throughout their circles as well,” Ja adds.
It’s their ability to tackle and discuss such heavy material that ultimately led them to owning the trademark. The “White Lives Matter” trademark was originally owned by another person around 2015. The previous owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, bought the trademark in hopes of keeping it out of the wrong hands during a period in which a spotlight was on Black Lives Matter and civil justice. Ward notes that the phrase had become irrelevant for the past few years, but Kanye’s collection brought newfound attention to it once again.
“Kanye West woke up something that was not in the forefront of anybody’s head right now. I can’t even remember [the last] time I saw or heard it,” Ward tells Complex. “So he jumped off of a cliff and threw that back into popular culture. There’s a lot going on in the world right now.”
With more eyes on the phrase than before, the anonymous owner, who happened to be a fan of Civic Cipher, contacted the hosts. “They explained to us they do not want to be the decider of something that does not affect them directly, in the way that it might affect Q and myself and our community,” Ja said of their conversation with the previous owner. After much consideration, Civic Cipher accepted the trademark as a gift. Both acknowledge the responsibility that comes with owning such a divisive phrase. “It’s a very, very heavy responsibility, but we’re here now, trying to navigate the best way to have something good come of this,” Ward says.
“We’re trying to navigate the best way to have something good come of this.”
A trademark refers to the legal ownership of a word, phrase, symbol or design that can be used to sell a product or service. In this case Civic Cipher LLC has the exclusive rights to the use of “White Lives Matter” on any article of clothing in the United States. This means, as Ja confirms, that “anyone else who sells clothing with that term on it printed anywhere, sewn, embroidered, anything like that, is infringing on our trademark and subject to a lawsuit from our lawyer.” And according to the hosts, the only way someone could use the phrase is if they bought it for $1 billion dollars. To date, Civic Cipher’s lawyers have sent at least 25 cease and desists to individuals that have attempted to sell products using the phrase, but they acknowledge that this can become expensive. Civic Cipher is accepting donations via their website to assist with legal fees, but ultimately, their intention of owning the phrase is to keep it out of the hands of individuals in power.
The idea here was to keep a person from leaning into doing anything crazy, à la a Donald Trump-level figure. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a person with a lot of status maneuver in such a way to where this term has now become a conversation that people are having at dinner tables around the country,” Ja adds. “I feel like protecting it from an individual like that is realistic because those types of people don’t love lawsuits. If we want to nickel and dime people who are making 1,000 shirts here and there and selling them at Trump rallies, we can certainly do that. That’s a little bit more expensive, but not a fight that we are not willing to have.”
Complex spoke to Civic Cipher’s hosts about how they obtained the trademark, what they intend to do with it, and more, below:
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity purposes.
What was the process like of getting the trademark for “White Lives Matter?”
Ramses Ja: We weren’t a part of the original acquisition of the trademark. In fact, it was originally registered in 2015 or ‘16. Basically, what happened was, yes, an individual had this trademark. They came to us after another well-known individual [Ye] started making headlines with this phrase, putting it on clothes. They felt like, “Uh oh. Something needs to be done. This might come back on me because I hold this trademark, and I don’t believe [in its messaging].” We don’t know much about the person, but that’s by design. They want to remain anonymous and a private citizen.
They felt like holding it and keeping it in a box wasn’t something they could do privately anymore because of the caliber of the individual who was wearing those shirts. So it occurred to them one day when listening to our show, that maybe we were the right folks to have a conversation with. They live in Arizona, where we live, so it felt like the alignment of the moon and stars and so forth. They reached out, and we had our conversation. They explained to us that they do not want to be the decider of something that does not affect them directly, in the way that it might affect Q and myself and our community. So they wanted to gift this. They had certain conditions with this gift that we intend to respect.
We accepted the responsibility that was asked of us, and here we are.
They said, “You guys are in a better position to decide what the highest good would be from this moment and from this instrument, this document that grants you the rights to make and produce and sell this clothing with this mark, but more importantly prevents other people from doing it. You decide what’s best for your community. I have done my part. I do believe you two, based on the temperament that you have on your show and the caliber of men I believe you to be, to be the next step in this process.” After a lot of deliberation between Q and I, because you can imagine, that’s not something anybody really wants to be associated with, we got everything in line. We accepted the responsibility that was asked of us, and here we are.
What do you feel is your responsibility now that you own the trademark to this phrase?
Quinton Ward: The term in and of itself, and all terms in this age that end with “lives matter,” are just contrary to Black Lives Matter. We started saying, as we were being killed on video with impunity, “Hey, everybody, we deserve to exist. Our lives matter.” Then a bunch of people said, “No, all lives matter. No, blue lives matter. No, white lives matter.” It was not just someone echoing their right to exist. It wasn’t like, “Well, yes, Black Lives Matter, and our lives matter, too.” It was just being contrarian to the idea that Black Lives Matter. All of those terms hurt. The way it was presented, a lot of people want to argue that the person in question had some deeper philosophical meaning to wearing that shirt, but all you have to do is look at who he was standing with to know exactly where he was coming from.
Us being hurt and triggered and traumatized by that is our right and is very, very normal, based upon the things that Black Lives Matter was born from. Trayvon Martin was stalked and murdered by someone, and that person has not spent a single day even being sorry. That person went on tour around the country, grossly autographing bags of Skittles because he was celebrated by some of the most disgusting people in the world that thought it was okay, that because this young Black kid had a hoodie on that he could be murdered and that someone could get off for it and be celebrated. George Floyd, we watched him die on video. Us saying Black Lives Matter was in response to that. It’s a very, very heavy responsibility, but we’re here now, trying to navigate the best way to have something good come of this besides some billionaire thinking we should wear this shirt for fashion, that triggers and brings back trauma for millions of people in this country.
Some people perceived Kanye’s shirts and the phrase to be an ironic message. Do you think it is possible for a term that holds so much weight to be used in fashion ironically or to send a larger message?
QW: I’ve never heard him suggest it. I just heard a bunch of people who are fans of his suggest it on his behalf. Him standing locked arms with Candace Owens made it very, very clear that he wasn’t trying to be ironic. He wasn’t even trying to be a unifier. She is a very, very divisive, extreme person in her thoughts and beliefs. She released a documentary trying to debunk everything that we know to be true about the murder of George Floyd, on his birthday. We’re not going to pretend that this is a decent person.
“He can’t be a genius who also pretends that he doesn’t know that these things hurt.”
To wear that shirt, locked arms with her, and to put it out in a way that he did, to stir up controversy, to be a troll, to get attention, whatever the reasons are, we’re either going to call him a genius and then call him evil, or we’re going to call him ignorant. He can’t be both. He can’t be a genius who also pretends that he doesn’t know that these things hurt. In my opinion, it would be very difficult to try to claim it and repurpose it for good because in the same way it’d be hard for us to come out here and try to do a white power shirt and try to reclaim that for us. Black power and white power are not just antonyms. They have no similarities except for the word power. One of those is a uniter and an uplifter and a reaffirmer, and one of those is an oppressor and placing people beneath.
RJ: Kanye West specifically, once upon a time, had a shirt where he used the Confederate flag in one of his fashion things. People were asking him about it. Kanye is not from the South. He’s from Chicago. People were asking him, “Yo, what’s this about?” He says he’s reclaiming it. I think that one of the things that we all have to consider is, if you’re doing something, it needs to create the most good. To think of things almost like business decisions, because business decisions are easy, they tend to make themselves. If most people would be hurt or offended by something, it doesn’t make sense to offend most people and try to change most people’s view of history and connection with racist symbols. There’s a lot of hurt behind that. That flag was waving when people were hung from trees by their neck. People’s ancestors. That’s a part of American history. That’s a part of Black history in this country. So to say, “No, we’re reclaiming it,” ignores the fact that there are centuries of hurt behind that. For this one individual to say, “I’m going to change the narrative,” it dismisses everyone else’s. It’s a very selfish thing to do. I think it’s very similar when we’re looking at something as divisive as white lives matter.
What is the significance of two Black men owning the rights to this phrase?
RJ: I think the optics there matter primarily because recently there was a Black man who was popularizing this phrase and effectively making it OK for non-Black people to wear and share this very hurtful message. For Black people to reclaim that, I’ll never say it was almost worth going through it, but I recognize reading the comments that we see on social media, that people feel like they’ve gotten back a little bit of justice. Bear in mind, this isn’t ours. We didn’t think of this. We’re just at the center of it, for better or worse. This is really Black people’s moment.
“For this one individual to say, ‘I’m going to change the narrative,’ it dismisses everyone else’s. It’s a very selfish thing to do.”
We are just the deciders and the holders of this tool at present. We’re a radio show. We’re two friends. We are not lawyers. We are not trademark people. But for now, it’s important for Black people to sit back and say, “Yes, we needed that. We needed that this month.” It’s like poetic justice… I couldn’t be happier that there are two Black men holding the keys to the future of this phrase. No matter what comes, we are committed to always choosing the highest good or doing the thing that impacts the most number of people positively in our estimation. We’re not trying to be contrarian and change the world by hurting people. You can get a lot more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. We want to make sure that we inspire people, and we don’t hurt them. So here we are. Two Black men.
What do you predict the impact you owning this trademark will have on its use by others?
RJ: We’re learning trademark stuff, too, and in real time because, again, we didn’t expect to be talking to someone as cool as you. The intention was to make sure that a person who has a profile larger than your everyman profile, someone who has real capacity to impact the culture and to change the narrative or to shift the optics of the narrative for a certain group of people in this country, to thinking that it’s OK to wear these type of clothes. The idea here was to keep a person in that position from leaning into doing anything crazy, à la a Donald Trump-level figure. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a person with a lot of status maneuver in such a way to where this term has now become a conversation that people are having at dinner tables around the country. I feel like protecting it from an individual like that is, A, realistic because those types of people don’t love lawsuits. If we want to nickel and dime people who are making a thousand shirts here and there and selling them at Trump rallies, we can certainly do that. That’s a little bit more expensive, but not a fight that we are not willing to have.
QW: At the time that this really became a hot topic, it was at Fashion Week. At that time, Kanye West had billion dollar partnerships with major fashion corporations. So our holding of the trademark stopped people with that level of reach and that level of access to manufacture and distribute such a hateful shirt and such a divisive shirt, from doing so. Like Ramses said, any screen printer in any city can print as many of those shirts as they want, give them out for free or sell them because we just don’t have the capacity to police it on that level. But someone like him, with that level of influence and that level of visibility, it was very, very important. It could be very, very impactful in stopping a Fashion Week show from turning into major fashion with a phrase that was come up with to oppose and be contrarian to the idea that our lives are worth living.
What do you hope will be the final outcome after this?
RJ: We understand the way news works. Six months from now and a year from now, this may not be something that people are talking about. After the next presidential election, depending on how that goes, this specific phrase may be far in the rear view and may not need as vigorous of protecting. At present, we’re just focused on making sure that people aren’t harmed in a significant way and that no one is profiting from this hateful phrase.
QW: Best case scenario, it just goes away. Nobody wants to sell the shirts. Nobody’s saying the phrase. It’s not popular anymore. It’s not buzzing. It’s not hot.