Three organizations representing Vietnamese-Minnesotans have written a letter asking First Avenue to cancel the band Viet Cong‘s upcoming 7th Street Entry show, and further asking representatives of the venue to meet with them to discuss “how we can heal and move forward together.”
Currently, 201 people have added their names to a letter written by the Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota, the Vietnamese Organizers of Minnesota, and Pan-Asian Voices for Equity. The letter, which has also been endorsed by five other organizations representing members of local Asian-American communities, criticizes the band for “taking the name of a military group with a direct hand in driving Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees from their home countries, changing the name meaning to suit their purposes, and demonstrating ignorance to very real consequences.”
The letter praises First Avenue as a local music institution, but criticizes the decision to host Viet Cong’s Sept. 24 show. “First Avenue and 7th Street Entry is a source of pride for our hometown. Your support of the Viet Cong band is inconsistent with the strong values held by Minnesotans to welcome our refugee communities and to uphold an independent spirit in music.”
The Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota, via its Facebook page, has also announced a Sunday meeting at Coffman Memorial Union “to discuss the next step in our efforts” regarding Viet Cong’s upcoming performance.
Update 9/18: The Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota is making plans to protest Viet Cong’s show with a demonstration at the venue starting at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday. A Facebook event for the protest currently has 94 confirmed attendees.
First Avenue has thus far declined to comment on the letter. According to a spokesperson for Viet Cong, the band are “definitely aware” of the letter and “are communicating directly with the parties who have voiced their concerns.” Jillian Tran, president of the Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota, says that the letter-writers have not yet heard from the band.
Viet Cong are a post-punk band founded in 2012 in Alberta, Canada. They’ve built a substantial fan base and earned critical raves from publications such as Pitchfork—which gave their debut album a strongly positive 8.5/10 review. “The Calgary band’s self-titled debut projects unbridled passion, creativity, and possibilities,” wrote reviewer Ian Cohen. Viet Cong previously played the Entry in March 2015; when they were in town for that show, they came to The Current to record a session.
The band’s name has engendered extensive criticism; a planned performance at Oberlin College on March 14 was canceled by the student booker, who issued an extensive apology written in collaboration with the college’s Vietnamese Student Association.
Tran writes in an e-mail that for her personally, “the name ‘Viet Cong’ is offensive because my grandpa and uncles were in the Vietnam War, fighting their own people. Viet Cong is a name that you would call the Vietnamese communists. When I was growing up my uncle would tell me stories about how terrible the war was and I know how much he suffered over there. He would never be able to go back to the same home he grew up in.”
Viet Cong told the Guardian that their name was inspired by frontman Matt Flegel wielding his bass in a gun-like fashion. “All you need is a rice paddy hat and it would be so Viet Cong,” drummer Mike Wallace remembered telling Flegel, adding “we stopped on that sentence and thought it was a good idea.”
In the wake of the Oberlin cancellation, the band released a statement regarding their name:
Our band, Viet Cong, has existed for a little over three years now. When we named ourselves, we were naive about the history of a war in a country we knew very little about. We now better understand the weight behind the words Viet Cong. While we don’t take any concerns about the name lightly, we feel it is important to let you know that we never meant to trivialise the atrocities or violence that occurred on both sides of the Vietnam war. We never intended for our name to be provocative or hurtful.
We truly appreciate the seriousness of the feedback we’ve received, and we will continue to be open to listening to issues and concerns from all perspectives.
With love from the band Viet Cong.
Flegel, however, told the Minnesota Daily on March 11 that the band has no intention of changing the name. “I mean, we could, but it has no deep meaning to me at all. As long as people understand that—I need to write a letter to the Vietnamese Student Association in Oberlin and just say, ‘hey, guys, chill out. We’re just a band. We don’t mean any harm, we have no political affiliations with the Vietnamese communists of the 60s and 70s.’ People just need to chill out, I think.”
That interview sparked a petition by the Midwest Asian American Students’ Union, calling on the band to change their name “and provide more critical thought into whatever it is that you choose.” That petition, which now has 2,305 supporters, says that Flegel’s remarks demonstrate “the sheer impact white privilege has on marginalized communities.”
Tran explained that this summer, the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of the Midwest convened a conference call among student leaders to discuss the band’s name. That call led to a roundtable discussion among students and local organizations, which led to the decision to write the letter to First Avenue.
“We decided to write this open letter to First Avenue because we knew that if we got their attention,” wrote Tran, “they would be willing to talk to us. Also, they were the ones that booked the Viet Cong band so we were hoping that after they read the letter they would want to meet up with us to have the concert canceled.” Tran added that she hopes in the proposed meeting, the letter writers can learn more about the venue’s perspective on the issue—but still, “we hope that they cancel the concert.”
Some have defended the band’s decision to keep their name. Among those who have spoken in support of the band is Andy Gill of Gang of Four, a British band that sparked criticism in the 1970s for taking their name from the post-Mao Chinese government’s term for Mao’s widow and three officials accused of being “counter-revolutionary.” Gill told Brooklyn Vegan that “it’s a little ridiculous to ban bands for their names.”
“We hope you receive this letter in the spirit it is intended,” concludes the letter to First Avenue, whose writers say they wished “to reach out, find understanding and empathy, and urge you to stand up for what is right—as we believe that ultimately we are all a part of one community and we must be in solidarity.”