When White Dudes Name Their Bands “Black Pussy” and “Viet Cong”

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Rock ‘n’ roll is all about pushing boundaries and sticking a middle finger up to “the man.” But what if white dudes’ bands attempts to be edgy are actually insensitive, even offensive — and turn them into “the man,” excluding others from their experience?

The bands Viet Cong and Black Pussy have both been met with protests and petitions recently. Viet Cong canceled a show at Oberlin after their presence was protested on campus due to a “name that deeply offends and hurts Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American communities.”

This week, the band members admitted to being “naive” in their choice of name (although they haven’t changed it):

“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.”

The problem with this band’s name isn’t necessarily that they chose to assume the moniker of a brutal army (by that logic, one could argue against any US Army-related band name), but the admitted ignorance with which they did so. A group of white Canadian dudes trawling the history of world conflict, essentially picking a name out of a hat in order to sound edgy without considering context is thoughtless, plain and simple.

Another band of white dudes, who call themselves Black Pussy, represent a much more blatant case of trolling via racist appropriation. They’re allegedly named after the (rejected!) title of the Rolling Stones song “Brown Sugar,” a song which even Mick Jagger admits he wouldn’t record today. As the band has headed out on tour this winter, the music community has reacted with some shock on social media. Someone started a petition on Change.org declaring that: “This band represents a larger society’s consistent disregard for black life and a culture of white supremacy and misogyny towards women, particularly, towards Black women. Please boycott this group, and any venue that books them.”

While the petition only has 1,300 or so signatures, social media and word of mouth combined have successfully allowed the protests to reach a wider audience. Some cancellations have occurred, and other bands have removed themselves from joint billings with BP. And the band’s mealy-mouthed response to questions about its name only adds insult to injury.

“I’m not going to change the name because I’m afraid it’ll hurt my project,” frontman Dustin Hill told the Willamette Week, explaining that the name evokes Tarantino. “I’ve committed to it, because that’s what artists do: They commit to an idea. It’s not about trying to be successful or trying to make money, it’s about the idea. We build on the idea, and if it fails, it fails. But I’m not going to change it because a tiny percentage of the population has an issue with it.”

So, which “idea” would that be, exactly?

For women and people of color in an indie music scene that is still far too exclusionary, the very name of the band is an indication of their unwelcome status, their existence as mere objects. In the Daily Dot piece about the band’s name, many of the angry people quoted are musicians themselves, people who respect innovation and offbeat creativity, but not at the exclusion of their own identities. There’s an implication in Hill’s words that the people who feel directly affronted by the name won’t be at the same clubs or the same shows as he is. But of course this is not the case. One person’s freedom of expression is another person’s “do not enter” sign.

“What they are expressing?” Sara Haile-Mariam, the frontwoman and drummer of the band Music Bones, tells Flavorwire. “They’re not being insightful, they’re just being shitty. They’re totally entitled to do that. But then they’re making life more difficult for girls like me — if that’s the desired outcome of the expression, then congratulations, they’re succeeding.”

Haile-Mariam was so upset about the name that she wrote an essay linking it to her own attempted sexual assault, poor treatment by law enforcement, and attempt to shout out Black Lives Matter protests from the stage of various venues. “Yet while I’m mustering the bravery to proudly and persistently proclaim that black lives matter — a band of white guys from Portland are running around calling themselves ‘Black Pussy‘ with no consideration for how that registers in the mind of a black girl who has actually been reduced to that by a stranger,” she wrote.

Over Gchat this morning, Haile-Mariam told me that the band’s existence and casual acceptance in the community make it harder for women of color and others to find a foothold in the music world. “Whether you’re offended or not, the existence of a band named ‘Black Pussy is demoralizing, and it sends the message that this space isn’t meant for people like me,” she says. “Every venue and publication that cosigns them or casually overlooks the band’s name perpetuates that message.”

Haile-Mariam loves music and says she found it late in life because of the dearth of highly visible role models. “I didn’t grow up seeing women like me doing what I ultimately discovered I wanted to do,” she says. Eventually, mentors like Beverly “Guitar” Watkins helped her find a foothold, but to Haile-Mariam, the larger problem with Black Pussy isn’t just that it’s offensive — it’s that it works to keep young women away from the instruments that could be their salvation. Rather than focusing her ire on the band, she has a message for her fellow musicians: “When I think of a response from the music community, it’s focused on the people who see things like this and don’t necessarily feel welcome or seen. To them I say, please keep making your music and telling your stories.”

Do bands like Viet Cong, and particularly Black Pussy, want the rock scene to remain a consequence-free playground for the thoughtless posturing of white dudes? Possibly, of course, they do want exactly that. But if so, they should at least be forced to acknowledge that that’s what they’re doing. Whether the boycott influences the BP band members to change their name or not, one hopes they will listen to voices like Haile-Mariam’s and understand the broader implications of what they’re doing.