Photo via Seattle Music News
“It’s just a band name” is what the tombstone should read when the Calgary post-punk band, Viet Cong, finally decides to put the offensive and self-confessed dumb band name to rest. It was those exact words from lead singer and bassist Matt Flegel that revealed their flippant attitude towards the Vietnamese community and their complaints that detail how the name is a reminder of the atrocities committed by the real VC. It also convinced a concert promoter to cancel their show at Oberlin College earlier this year.
What followed was a media storm and debate about artistic expression, which was thrown out when the band admitted that there was “zero political connotation” and that the name was born out of a racist joke made by one of their members. The controversy should have ended in September when the band issued an official statement on Facebook, promising that a name change was on the way. “We’ve been listening, talking and having lots of valuable conversations with the members of the Vietnamese community about the name. Through this dialogue and hearing about what the name means to so many people, we have decided we will be changing the name of our band.”
It has been months since the statement was issued. The band cites legal and licensing issues as the reason for the wait, and they no longer sell merchandise with the name, but without any action, what seemed like a sincere gesture has people like Jon McCurley, skeptical. Jon got involved in the controversy when he turned the band down when they asked to play at Double Double Land, a DIY performance venue he cofounded and operates. Since then, he has had to explain and defend his decision and has received hate mail over social media as a result. It makes sense that after a long drawn out battle, he isn’t happy that the band seems to be retreating on their word. “They've told protesters in different cities different stories and they don't act on it. It's more and more patronizing and reads like an insult,” Jon says. I met Jon when I found myself suddenly participating in the protest he organized against the band and their name on the final stop of their tour at Lee’s Palace in Toronto on Dec. 5. Approximately 35 people showed up throughout the night with signs that had messages like, “Not your history, not your name.” Protestors were invited to speak on the mic as to why they were there to protest the band.
Like Jon, I am a first generation Vietnamese Canadian whose family was affected by the real VC. Before they met each other my parents escaped Vietnam and it took a few hellish years before they finally arrived in Canada in 1980 and 1981. It is looked down upon to ask questions. Their story is one that I can only piece together with fragments they’ve given me over the years. I wanted to participate in the protest for the same reasons others in my community have spoken up. It is hurtful to see a band of four white men appropriating the name Viet Cong while admitting they didn’t know the history behind it. The word has such weight that when I ask my father what he thinks of it, he doesn’t say, Viet Cong, he only says the letters “VC.”
Despite the backlash, 2015 has been a good year for the band. They’ve received praise for their self-titled debut album and their name is also unavoidable for that reason. I also don’t doubt that they are alright guys—as many people pointed out to me when they told me their friend’s cousin’s boyfriend hung out with them once and can attest to their character—or something like that. The issue is far beyond the band at this point. Every time I see the name Viet Cong in the context of the band, it is not only a reminder of a violent history that still affects people today but it is a reminder that when people speak up against racism, they are quickly dismissed and silenced. We are reminded of this every time the word Viet Cong appears in magazines, on posters and on music bills. Music has the undeniable power to unite people of different backgrounds until it leaves us absolutely divided and points out that deep down, some people will always think that others are less than them based on race.
After standing outside the venue and opening myself up to conversations with people whose extent of Vietnamese history is literally watching Apocalypse Now (plainly stating “Charlie don’t surf” is not a valid point), I quickly learned that a band name is no longer just a band name when it propagates hate and racism. Someone told me “Vietnamese people don’t even face racism” in the same night someone screamed, “Fuck Vietnam,” in my face. I watched discussions quickly escalate to the point where one man put his hand on a protestor’s shoulder and she quickly backed away, telling him not to touch her. His response was to mock her and say, “Oh, am I in your safe space?” while others confidently mentioned, “If I were Vietnamese, I would be more offended by x than y.” I listened to people try and educate me on a topic that I’ve only ever had first hand experience with my entire life. Sometimes it was laughable, other times I wanted to cry. I thought about all of the times I let subtle racism slide because it is to be expected and tolerated and from a young age we are told that this is the way it is.
Photo courtesy of Jagjaguwar Records
Pete Nguyen was only two when his family came to Canada as refugees after being displaced by the war. He, his two brothers, and cousin make up the Edmonton pop punk band The Weekend Kids. Pete understands the band’s viewpoint from a musician’s perspective but is troubled by the wave of backlash towards those who have spoken up against the band’s name. “If someone is offended you can't tell them that they're wrong, take a minute to understand why they’re offended. It's upsetting to know that people would rather be right than decent.”
The band unknowingly named themselves after a racially motivated term that was given to a violent political group to propagate hate and racism. My mom tells a story of how it is a racial slur that was used against her when she first moved here. She got into fistfights with people who spat the name in her face. Although there is no outright name calling in this situation, racism is still present in the way that people are quick to dismiss an entire population and their history when members of that community try to speak up against ignorance. That subtle kind of racism is what angers me and makes this name change significant. Changing her name was one of the first things my mom did to integrate herself into this culture yet someone else decided to tell her that she didn't belong. Now 35 years later, people are still using the same derogatory term to tell us that we don't belong; that our opinions don't matter. That it's just a band name.
Christine Vu is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.