The reason Ye — the artist formerly known as Kanye West — can’t legally sell his “White Lives Matter” T-shirts is not because the phrase is designated as hate speech by the Anti-Defamation League. It’s because two Black men own the legal trademark.
Ramses Ja and Quinton Ward, two Black radio hosts in Phoenix, Arizona, were gifted the intent-to-use trademark application from a longtime, anonymous listener of their show, Civic Cipher. The listener applied for ownership of the phrase to be used on various products early last month to ensure it didn’t fall into the wrong hands, and offered to transfer the trademark to Ja and Ward in early October. It officially entered their possession on Oct. 28, giving them sole ownership over the phrase and the ability to sue anyone who uses the saying for financial gain.
“The way the law works is either you’re owning phrases, or it’s up for grabs for people to make money off them,” Ja told Capital B. “This person who first procured it didn’t really love owning it, because the purpose was not necessarily to get rich off of it; the purpose was to make sure that other people didn’t get rich off of that pain.”
The trademark, expected to go into full effect within the next six to nine months, gives the radio hosts priority to use the phrase on most types of wearable items, such as hats, clothes, and shoes. The trademark does not grant the hosts total control over the phrase’s usage, meaning the phrase could be trademarked for a different purpose, including advertising, by another entity.
The anonymous listener believed that the social-justice-oriented radio hosts, whose show is nationally syndicated, would be able to leverage the phrase for Black causes, such as helping to inject funding into local chapters of Black Lives Matter and the NAACP. Coincidentally, just as the trademark was transferred into Ja and Ward’s hands, Ye began his weeks-long tirade promoting anti-Black and antisemitic beliefs.
Earlier in October, Ye and Candace Owens, a Black conservative commentator, donned “White Lives Matter” T-shirts, which Ye claimed he would sell. A few days later, he dropped off dozens of the shirts at homeless encampments in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, home to the highest concentration of unhoused people in America. In the weeks since, Ye has lost more than $1.5 billion worth of partnership deals as a handful of groups have threatened to sue him for racist and bigoted comments, including the family of George Floyd. Ye publicly, and incorrectly, claimed that Floyd died from a fentanyl overdose and was not murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Now Ja and Ward, whose radio show addresses the intersections of racial justice and hip-hop, are forced to face the fallout of owning one of the most recognizable racist phrases in contemporary culture.
The phrase first picked up steam after the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and anti-Black racism in the mid-2010s. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the phrase has morphed into the identity behind a full-fledged hate group in the past few years. The group describes itself as “dedicated to the promotion of the white race” and condemns the “laws and immoral orders” that are “targeting everything the white way of life holds dear.”
The radio hosts are no strangers to addressing racism head on: Their show was created after Ja left a popular Phoenix station after being told by executives that his show was “too Black.”
Capital B caught up with Ja to learn about Civic Cipher, the emotional toll put on the pair by the phrase “White Lives Matter,” and what they plan to do with the trademark going forward.
Capital B: Civic Cipher didn’t register the trademark, so how did you and your co-host come into ownership of it?
Ramses Ja: Our radio show was born out of the protests of 2020. We were both DJs and hip-hop radio broadcasters based in Phoenix. Arizona, so we got the idea to create a political, social justice type of show that critically informs hip-hop audiences around the country.
So we have a listener who decided they wanted to own the right to create, produce, and sell shirts that say “White Lives Matter.” This individual didn’t want to produce those shirts, but rather it’s my understanding that they were doing it to ensure that the right people benefited from it. This person procured it but didn’t really love owning it, so they approached us to ensure that the right people benefit from it and that people aren’t hurt by it. They felt we were in a much more public position to use it to the advantage of Black folks.
It’s a racist, white supremacist phrase used in our society to hurt Black folks. What does that feel like to have legal ownership of the phrase? How have you been able to sit with that heaviness?
Where we land on it is that somebody will own that trademark because it has fully entered into our popular vernacular. So someone will own the right to produce and sell clothing with the phrase. Still, I would rather live in a world where the profits from those sales go back to help offset the pain it causes rather than live in a world where I have nothing to do with that.
I recognize that one of two things could happen. Someone could come to our lawyer or us and say, “Hey, you have the exclusive right to make and sell those clothes in the United States of America. I would like to buy the trademark for millions of dollars.” If we were to sell that trademark, for whatever amount of money, we could donate that money to causes that we feel would benefit Black people, like the NAACP or Black Lives Matter organizations. Because, realistically, we cannot stop the shirts from being made right now. We can write cease and desist to people selling these shirts right now, but that is a big monster that requires teams of lawyers and thousands of dollars that we do not have.
Otherwise, at the end of a long-standing, occupying type of position, we can maybe donate the trademark to Black Lives Matter or any racial justice organization with the resources to send out cease and desist letters all day, every day.
Has anyone from Kanye West’s team reached out?
No, not that I’m aware of.
You were thrown into this position pretty haphazardly. Do you feel like you’re in a position to handle it?
My father was a minister in Compton, California. I was the president of the Black Student Union in college. I’ve been kind of fighting this fight for a long time. I know who I am, and my co-host definitely knows who he is. We created our show to allow the leadership from the streets to come on and uplift our struggles, explain what defunding the police means, and explicitly say that Breonna Taylor’s killing was unjust.
We know that phrases like “White Lives Matter,” “All Lives Matter,” and “Blue Lives Matter” continue to cause harm and to dilute the narrative that was intended to be established by Black Lives Matter. Those phrases are all piggybacking off of Black people’s creativity and efforts, so we’re all for helping to use this as a measure to allow Black people to retain a little bit of ownership.
How have you processed the last month of Kanye West’s actions as someone who’s deeply entrenched in that hip-hop community and Black life?
It’s hurtful, but it’s not something that was unexpected because I know that Kanye has been moving in this direction for some time. I do my best to try to remember the Kanye that I knew in ’04 and ’05. The Kanye that said George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.
I have to focus on the fight at hand. … We’ve got people running for office right now, and we have people trying to suppress our vote and disenfranchise us. There are new voting laws being written in Alabama and Mississippi that have ripple effects across the country. I can’t spend all my time worrying about what Kanye is saying.
This story has been updated to reflect Ye’s name change and additional details about the trademark’s parameters.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date when the “White Lives Matter” trademark was registered. The trademark was procured early last month.