2015 Hero: April Aliermo
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2015 Hero: April Aliermo

Nominated for: explaining racism and cultural appropriation to the ignorant and obstinate.

Torontoist is reflecting on 2015 by naming our Heroes and Villains—the people, places, things, and ideas that have had the most positive and negative impacts on the city over the past 12 months. Cast your ballot until midnight on January 7. At noon on January 8, we’ll reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

Heroes April Aliermo

April Aliermo keeps busy as a member of (often touring) Toronto bands Hooded Fang, Phèdre, and Tonka & Puma. While she’s been a passionate activist before—with cARTographyTO’s info pole hijackers, and as a speaker to youth and racial discrimination awareness groups—she hadn’t tried journalism. That changed in 2015, because of Viet Cong.

The Calgary-based rockers earned rave reviews for their self-titled LP, but as their profile grew, so did criticism of their flippantly chosen and insensitive band name. Several open letters were written over the first half of the year explaining why the name was hurtful and racist, and the band acknowledged the growing outcry—and then ignored it. So did Canada’s mainstream music journalists, who championed Viet Cong to the short list for the prestigious Polaris Prize.

It was Aliermo’s article in Exclaim! Magazine—part op-ed, part interview with people of Vietnamese descent like Double Double Land’s Jon McCurley and activist Xuan Yen—that changed the tide of public perception. Viet Cong released a statement days later saying that they would change the name (a promise they’ve yet to fulfill). At the Polaris Gala, the buzz was about whether the band would change their name on stage, not whether they’d win.

Aliermo followed up her Exclaim! piece by hosting a public meeting entitled “Music: Racism, Power, & Privilege 101”, to address questions regarding cultural appropriation and racialized (the term the RPP101 panelists preferred over “people of colour”) discrimination raised by the Viet Cong scandal. Questions that’d been solicited online were read, then answered by the panelists. The Music Gallery venue hit capacity, turning scores of people away at the door to watch at an impromptu overflow room up the street at OCAD, or online. If there were some who were upset that the event didn’t cover more specific issues—such as Toronto’s issues with diversity in (and acceptance of) the hip-hop genre—at least the turnout indicates that there’ll likely be future such meetings to continue the learning process Aliermo helped start.

The band (still named) Viet Cong continues to tour and make new bookings under the name into 2016, including a recent two-night stand in Toronto—but they’re being met with protests both in Canada and the U.S.. And whether or not Viet Cong eventually changes their name isn’t the true benchmark for the work done by Aliermo and her fellow organizers and activists. Instead, it’s the changing of attitudes in Toronto (and Canada’s) “mostly white” indie rock community, who are learning to examine issues regarding their privilege (and abuse of it), and the encouragement of racialized musicians and community members to speak up about cultural appropriation and the lack of inclusivity. They’re difficult subjects to discuss; as Aliermo said in her post-meeting notes, “a lot of my white friends were grateful for the learning experience. However, like myself, a lot of my racialized friends felt sick in their stomachs and hearts.” Making that personal discomfort known, and sharing it, is heroic.