The culture wars come to a Madison show's Facebook event
A band called The Malcolmexicans spark a nasty thread, and Fire Retarded vow to change their name.
Madison band The Malcolmexicans have been around for a couple of years, seemingly without attracting too much attention for their cringe-y portmanteau of a name, or for a band logo that shows a caricature of Malcolm X in a sombrero.
That changed this week in a thread on a Facebook event for a show the band is playing at the Crystal Corner Bar. It all started when a member of one of the other bands on the bill—Chris Joutras of Dumb Vision—posted a comment asking for that caricature to be removed from the show flyer. The flyer was updated, but a heated discussion blew up, with other people from the music community criticizing the band's name, and Malcolmexicans members responded with quite a bit of aggression and condescension. At times, the thread looked more like a pile-on of far-right trolls than like a local-music-scene debate.
The conversation spilled over into the music community more broadly, prompting another local band with a questionable name, Fire Retarded, to announce they'd be choosing a new name by January 1. Ultimately, Dumb Vision, which shares members withe Fire Retarded, decided to drop off the bill with The Malcolmexicans.
"Grow some thicker skin, child," the Malcolmexicans' guitarist, Cyrus Pekala, wrote at one point on the thread, arguing with another musician who took issue with the band's name. Band members insisted the name wasn't meant as an insult to either Mexicans or Malcolm X, but also didn't seem willing to understand why it might offend people. "Y'all have provided reasons that you are offended, but not one logical point to reinforce that," Pekala wrote later in the thread.
Another band member, Larry Bush, responded more calmly and civilly, and some of the folks criticizing the band even gave him credit for that. "We understand that it generates controversy, though that wasn't even a thought initially in the naming process," Bush wrote at one point. "One of us just spit it out and we chuckled. I work with several Mexican immigrants who find it utterly hilarious for whatever that's worth, and have never heard criticism about it from anyone who isn't white."
One person not in the band piled on with a comment deriding safe spaces and "snowflakes." The latter has recently become a pejorative term that people on the right use to denigrate liberals and protesters.
"Don’t you guys know that everything everywhere has to be Generation Snowflake approved?" the commenter wrote. "Maybe your name should be Triggered Beings from the Safe Space Dimension. Album name: Hot Cocoa and Positive Reinforcement." The band's Facebook account liked the comment.
Elsewhere, the Facebook page for a project called Obzeen weighed in with this: "Some folks have a problem with our friends The Malcolmexicans - they find their name and logo 'offensive'. Obzeen supports all that is triggering - show these Madison, Wisconsin niggas some love folks!" Accompanying the post was an image of the band's logo with the word "TRIGGERED" added beneath. The band's Facebook account also liked this post.
The band name itself wasn't necessarily the biggest problem for people criticizing the band on the thread. The band members' behavior on the thread became perhaps an even bigger issue as the discussion wore on.
"You know, I didn't have a single problem with your band name...apart from the fact it's terrible...but your reaction to someone's objection has revealed what an utter prick you are," one commenter wrote to Pekala on the thread.
"It's like a Hard Times article: 'Band of white guys think "there's nothing wrong" with racially insensitive name,'" wrote another exasperated commenter.
Mary Begley, a member of Jonesies and other Madison bands, was one of the musicians arguing with Pekala on the thread. Begley told me this later in the day: "His response immediately escalated the situation without cause. I gave him a way out by asking for explanation, and he chose to personally attack me based on my age, race, and gender. The band name is one thing—invoking Malcom X has power, making a pun with his name and the word Mexican has power—but their vitriolic and defensive response shows they can't handle that power.
"Band names are supposed to tell what the band is about," Begley added. "Based on the responses in the thread, it is apparent that their band name attracts a dangerous type of people: casual racists and ignorant 'punks.' It's not the only band name in this town that is offensive for the sake of a joke, and I choose to no longer let them fly without comment. I can handle the personal attacks for the sake of calling out bigotry."
Joutras, whose comment asking for a flyer change touched off the whole thing, didn't take issue with the band name itself but took issue with the sombrero'd Malcolm X caricature in the Malcolmexicans' logo on the flyer. "I didn't want my band to be on a flyer with a racial caricature—it's Malcolm X's face melded with a racial caricature of a Mexican person, his features (nose/mouth) are exaggerated," Joutras told me. "The original Sombrero caricature underneath is probably something like a Mexican chief Wahoo.... that's doubly unacceptable to me and how we want to present our band and I didn't want to have to promote my show with that flyer."
On Wednesday, after this article was initially published, Bush sent me a long statement explaining his take on things. "In regards to the controversy in the event thread, I want to make it clear that I understand wholeheartedly and with all of my cognitive faculties that the band name is offensive to some, if not many people," his note read in part. "I cannot control how anyone else view something." Bush also took issue with Tone Madison's coverage of the thread in this story. "I found it very odd that my guitarist's comments on the thread were the most referenced," he wrote. "The article made no mention of us being repeatedly called stupid, or the fact that my guitarist's acumen as a father was called to question, or that one person went so far as to threaten physical violence. That is not tolerance and prudence." Bush also discussed his experiences of growing up in poverty and wrote, "I have no problem showing empathy whatsoever." He also said that the band plans to keep its name. The full statement is in PDF form here.
On Tuesday night the Malcolmexicans also posted a defense of their name on their Facebook page. The explanation contradicts itself a bit: "In our view and intent, our name is a tribute and honor to both the legacy of Malcolm X, and the lives of Mexican peoples. Only our aim and cause is our art, the music. The initial choosing of the band name was in jest and was not a put down, nor did it have any deeper meaning."
So it's either intended as a tribute to Malcolm X and Mexicans, or—as band members insisted during that roiling thread—it's all a joke that means nothing. Either way, a lot of folks in Madison's music community are not buying it.
As for Fire Retarded, people have also taken exception to that name over the years (apparently without the band getting too confrontational or defensive about it), and several people brought it up in the context of the argument about The Malcolmexicans. Fire Retarded's post on Facebook Wednesday night mentioned that band members have been talking about the name "for some time," but this week's blowup was clearly the final nudge. "We feel that now more than ever having a strong, communal, inclusive and safe scene is not only important, but necessary, for all the artists, musicians and general cool freaks like us to be able to exist in our weird little world and if the name 'Fire Retarded' is hindering that for some, it is absolutely worth getting rid of," the post stated. "It was never something that meant a lot to us, or had a deep meaning or agenda. It was just us. But we don’t want anyone to feel unwelcome or marginalized by our name or our presence. We just want to play some tunes for people who want to hear em."
Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial posting to reflect new developments and comments from those involved.