On Sunday afternoon at Coffman Memorial Union, several Vietnamese/Asian-American advocates met to plan a demonstration against the Canadian post-punk band Viet Cong, who are playing a show on Thursday night at the 7th Street Entry. The band had just announced plans to change their name—but with the name change not set to take effect until an undetermined point in the future, organizers decided to proceed with the demonstration.
Locally and internationally, Viet Cong have garnered lots of attention for their band name, which many find to be offensive. The Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota (VSAM), the Vietnamese American Organizers of Minnesota (VAO), and Pan-Asian Voices for Equity (PAVE) co-wrote a letter last week to the band and First Avenue, criticizing both the band for its decision to “culturally appropriate the name Viet Cong for their own economic gains” and First Avenue for its “support of the Viet Cong band.” As of Monday morning, 292 people and several organizations have co-signed the letter.
Last week, a representative for the band said Viet Cong are “definitely aware” of the letter and “are communicating directly with the parties who have voiced their concerns.” The letter-writers have not yet heard from the band, but on Saturday evening, the band put out a statement via Facebook, saying, “we have decided we will be changing the name of our band.” According to Viet Cong, their decision came about from “conversations with the members of the Vietnamese community,” and say they’ve “been planning to change the band name for the next record for months.”
At Coffman, VSAM had originally intended to host a planning meeting for a protest against the band name. After the band’s announcement, several attendees wondered whether or not to go on with Thursday’s demonstration. However, upon discussion, meeting participants agreed to move forward with the protest, since the band have not as of yet made the promised name change. On Monday afternoon, the organizations involved issued a new statement of intention.
In Viet Cong’s statement, the band wrote, “Know that [we] will be rolling out a new name as soon as we agree upon one.” Denise Hanh Huynh, a founding member of VAO, is uncertain. She observed, “They said they’re changing it, but they can change their minds at any time. They didn’t commit to a timeline, they haven’t done it yet…a protest can still be valuable.”
A member of VSAM agreed, saying, “Ideally, we would want them to play the rest of the tour not known as Viet Cong.” Meeting participants acknowledged the difficulties of both rebranding and dealing with merch, but Ken Gonzales, advocacy chair for both the Midwest Asian American Student Union (MAASU) and the Asian-American Student Union (ASU), drew a clear boundary. “Accountability means not profiting off the name.”
Local musician Ryan Evans brought intersectionality and an artist’s perspective to the conversation. “In terms of being involved with the music scene in the Twin Cities…one thing that struck me is that there’s been a lot of talk lately about sexism in the music scene.” He referenced Strange Relations’ recent public statement by mentioning “female-fronted bands saying, ‘Don’t go to our male guitarist for booking shows.’
“There’s been tons and tons of local support for that,” said Evans. “So I was surprised to see, when there’s another “-ism”: In terms of sexism, it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re all on board.’ But in terms of cultural appropriation, it’s like, ‘Nah, we’re going to take a step back.’”
Evans also brought up B.O.Y.F., the local band who changed their name from White Boyfriend earlier this year. “When they found out their name got in the way of people connecting with their music,” he said, “they were like, ‘Oh.’” They released a statement and changed their name almost immediately.
After several recent appropriation-related controversies, such as the Ordway’s staging of Miss Saigon and the white author who took the name Yi-Fen Chou, Huynh is troubled. At the meeting she asked, “Our statement can have something about artistic freedom vs. artistic responsibility, right? Because you can have both.”
“Cultural competency is what it’s called,” added Gonzales.
For several years, two Viet Cong members were part of a band called Women. “We’re all in solidarity…we don’t want this to happen again in the future,” said Huynh. Gonzales stressed the importance of insisting that “the name is not going to be another targeted community.”
The meeting also covered logo design, coalition strategy, and protest chants, with “Change your name now” being a popular phrase across the board. The meeting attendees demanded transparency and accountability. They will proceed with their protest on Thursday night.
As for First Avenue, Huynh said, Viet Cong is still Viet Cong, and “First Ave is still sponsoring that.” She explained: “If I had a music venue, as a Vietnamese person, would I do this? The answer is obviously no.” She paused. “But they don’t see us as part of their community. And that’s a problem, because I see First Ave as part of my community.”
(Update: In an e-mail, First Avenue marketing director Ashley Ryan writes, “We’ve sent a response to the organizations that originally contacted us, we connected them to the band directly, and I spoke with them on the phone last week. We take the concerns of the organizations who contacted us very seriously. First Avenue prides itself on being an active member of our entire community, a place that fosters art, music, and entertainment for all.”)
Responding to concerns about “freedom of speech” bullying, Huynh was firm. “I’m not the government,” she said. “I’m the little guy, being like, ‘Hey, you’re being a jerk.’”
For a number of Minnesotans, then, the Viet Cong controversy is not over yet. “We hear you; we thank you,” Gonzales said in comments directed at the band. “But when?”
Cecilia Johnson is a freelance writer from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro.