Shut Down Viet Cong launches in Seattle on October 16, 2015. • Photo by Seungkyul Park
Shut Down Viet Cong launches in Seattle on October 16, 2015. • Photo by Seungkyul Park

Recently, the band known as Viet Cong finally changed their name to Preoccupations after a strong and united push from the Vietnamese community. Preoccupations is comprised of four white men, and originated in Canada in 2012. The band issued a statement last September that they would change their name. However, they did not do so until almost a year later with the announcement of their world tour.

Since its formation, Preoccupations formerly used the name Viet Cong while ignoring outcries from the Vietnamese community and its allies. The band, for its use of the name, was criticized for being racist, soliciting trauma, and culturally appropriating the name of a Vietnamese communist militia.

A February 2015 article in the Guardian described how the band came up with the name Viet Cong from drummer Mike Wallace’s offhand description of lead singer Matt Flegel bouncing around while playing his bass like he was shooting a gun. Flegal told the Guardian, “All you need is a rice paddy hat and it would be so Viet Cong.”

This origin story is one of many that is reflective of the dangers of ignorance, and insensitivity, towards marginalized communities.

“They were glamourizing a style of guitar play with a regime that murdered its own people,” said Vy Nguyen, one of the two co-organizers of the October 2015 protest against Viet Cong performing at Neumos in Seattle. “There’s nothing glamorous about genocide and the loss of a homeland for people. And there’s nothing glamorous about the trauma that over a million Vietnamese suffered and passed on to their kids and grandkids. … I love indie music, I think the band actually has a great sound—it’s unfortunate what they named themselves, and the sort of response they had when there was push back in the Vietnamese community and why it was hurtful to Vietnamese communities and allies.”

Together with co-organizer Tony Vo and 170 people, including 10 organizations, the Vietnamese community and their allies collectively protested the band’s name.

Speaking on the recent name change and use of their Sasquatch Festival marquee, Nguyen said: “I think the name change is great, and that while it took them a long time, there was a lot of pressure in different cities to hold this band accountable to them saying they’d change their name.”

Vo added: “It’s ironic that they changed [the band’s name] to Preoccupations. They gave some thought into it. They didn’t give thought into it because they were preoccupied. I think using ‘formerly known as Viet Cong’ is still using the name in a bad nature. … At the same time, I think they’re using it as a phase out. I would hope that they would phase it out very soon.”

The aftermath of the Viet Cong protest has also affected not just Vo and Nguyen, but their families, too. Nguyen’s father and younger brother attended the Neumos protest. Shortly after, her father volunteered to provide transportation for Seattle protestors who continued to peacefully resist at the band’s Portland show.

“To me, it was a very powerful show of the Vietnamese community,” Nguyen said. “It was an opportunity [to show] what the Vietnamese experience is like beyond serving you phở. Or doing your nails.”

Vo also brought his mother and sister to the protests. Vo described his mother’s reaction the day before the protest, which was happened on the eve of his trip to Vietnam. Vo said: “She’s scared for my safety because I’d be protesting a group that is in charge of Vietnam. In her 40 years, it shows how inappropriate this band is in order for it to create that fear today. And that just made me feel more resilient and empowered of what I was doing.”

Preoccupations performed this Memorial Day Weekend at the Sasquatch Festival in George, Washington, with the marquee “Preoccupations (formerly known as Viet Cong).” Sasquatch Festival did not reply when asked for a statement.

As for Vo and Nguyen, they both look back on their protest as a moment to be proud of, and encourage momentum among other community members.

“Organizing the protest was a really scary space for me, just like any new American with Vietnamese refugee parents,” Nguyen said. “I’ve been told all my life to not make waves, not to speak up, but if you do that, then things will keep happening to us. … So while it’s scary, follow your instincts and you just might be surprised at the power you can build.”  

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