Though many classrooms and textbooks in recent years have acknowledged the Jewish Holocaust as a key part of history around World War II, another genocide that often does not find its way into current curricula, despite being widely held as the first modern and sophisticated “ethnic cleansing” of the 20th century, occurred in the Ottoman Empire (now known as the Republic of Turkey). The Armenian Genocide, which has a disputed death toll that reached at least 1.5 million Armenians, has had trouble gaining recognition due to a multitude of factors.
Predating the official start of the genocide itself were a series of massacres of Armenians in the eastern portion of the Ottoman Empire (modern day western Armenia) by both Turkish and Kurdish peoples. From 1894 to 1896, thousands of people were murdered and communities and families were left in shambles, the worst occurring in 1895 during the Hamidian Massacres. These killings were triggered by the Armenian protests against the empire’s leader, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The sultan was more in favor of wanting to discredit and undermine Armenian nationalism, instead wishing to promote people’s total assimilation to the empire through forcing them to turn away from their past heritages. On October 1st, Armenians gathered in the capital of Constantinople and petitioned seeking reform, but were attacked by Ottoman police. The death toll is believed to range anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000, since the killings would go on to also be carried out across the many provinces which they inhabited. Even after the Young Turk Revolution that occurred in 1908, overthrowing Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the Armenians faced problems due to Christian religious persecution and the perception that they had supported the government’s overhaul and return to constitutional rule, and thus were often caught in between the war between the powers vying for control of the government. In the province of Adana in 1909, more massacres and settlement pillages by the Ottoman Army’s troops left between 15,000 and 30,000 more Armenian civilians dead.
Once the Ottoman Empire had entered into World War I, the world’s focus on the conflict made for a great distraction from the deportation of Armenian families and the seizure of their properties and valuables. Officially beginning April 24, 1915, men, women, and children were subjected to unimaginable atrocities. Able-bodied men who had enlisted in the army were used in labor camps and eventually murdered, and community leaders and intellectuals were taken from their homes to be killed away from the general populace. The Ottomans used various methods of cruelty on the Armenian peoples, including drownings and burnings, and even direct disease injection and death marches into the Syrian desert. This was all made possible due to the government’s strict control over information reporting with total control over the telegraph lines, and through the initial removal of the people from their homes with the intent to kill them in secrecy. People were aware of the deportations, but not of the imminent killings. To this day, Turkey does not recognize the reality of the genocide. This, on top of an uncertain death toll and the lack of general discussion in education has not helped the Armenians gain the recognition and retribution they deserve (Adalian).
System of a Down is a band that has been able to connect with and understand the Armenian Genocide since its formation. All four members of the band are Armenian-American descendants of survivors of the genocide, so before the band existed they had all been exposed to the history of the genocide. Growing up, they were told stories by family members of the struggles they and others had to endure. Serj Tankian, the singer, recalls in an interview with Arun Rath, an NPR journalist, that his maternal grandfather survived by moving to and from multiple different orphanages in various countries. Furthermore, his maternal grandmother survived due to a Turkish mayor protecting her and her grandmother, and his other grandparents survived by working on a railway connecting Turkey and Baghdad (Rath). Stories like these served as inspiration for the band members to inform others about the genocide, as their Armenian heritage held great importance for them.
Throughout the lifetime of the band, System of a Down has ensured that the genocide is a focal point of their political stances and actions. They are not afraid to openly state how they feel about the perception of the genocide by the Turkish government, and even the American government. In an interview with TIME, Serj Tankian states that Obama promising to recognize the genocide during his run for president means that if he avoided using the term “genocide,” it would be offensive to the memory of the victims. From this statement it’s obvious that the genocide is such a significant topic to them that they care even about the specific word used to identify it. In the same interview, Serj speaks about the problem of genocide as a whole with “That’s what people need to realize: It’s not an ancient problem. It’s a modern one that still seems to persist because we’re using genocide as political capital in our geopolitics and not really paying attention to humanitarian loss and the damage that we’re doing to each other. Today there is still no effective mechanism for genocide prevention around the world irrespective of the UN genocide convention and multiple organizations dealing with it.” These statements showcase how Serj and the band feel about the concept of genocide, along with how they recognize the overarching problem of preventing genocide. They’ve applied what they learned about the Armenian Genocide while growing up and their current understanding of it to the bigger picture, and realized that the lack of effective prevention is to blame for similar atrocities.
One specific instance of System of a Down physically acting upon a situation they deemed politically unacceptable was their refusal to perform in Turkey. While touring Europe with Slayer, the band intended on performing in Turkey as well. A problem arose when the Turkish government informed the band that they were not guaranteed the right to speak their minds on stage. Shavo Odadjian, the bassist, informed a reporter that the band wanted to say what they felt and what the truth was, and they refused to play anywhere they weren’t allowed to speak their minds. The strength of the band’s will to hold true to their beliefs is encapsulated by this action alone. And by refusing to perform a concert over being disallowed even to speak about the genocide, the band made a significant statement about sticking to their views (Tamar Nazarian).
The music created by System of a Down is nothing short of brain-melting progressive metal, and as Rick Rubin describes it, “Armenian folk-dancing with heavy metal riffs.” And although other genres of music are more common choices to deliver messages, the band still effectively communicates about the Armenian Genocide through songs. One song, titled “P.L.U.C.K. (Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers),” is undoubtedly solely about the genocide and was also released on their debut album “System of a Down.” The song’s ominous guitar leading into all-out chaos is in classic System of a Down style, and the chaos actually serves an important role in this song. Accompanied by the lyrics “Elimination, elimination, elimination” and a drawn-out, screamed “Die, why, walk down, walk down,” the band creates an atmosphere similar to Armenians experiencing the terror and death of the genocide. After this introduction, the lyrics “A whole race: genocide, taken away: all of our pride” make direct reference to the genocide and the Armenians’ feelings. The end of the chorus hints at the desire of the band for the Turkish government to compensate for their actions, and then the next verse lists the exact steps the band wants the government to take: “Recognition, restoration, reparation.” First, the government must recognize that the genocide happened, then restore their pride and the boundaries from before the genocide, and finally repair the damages they caused. After repeating the chorus, the relatively calm bridge plays with a slow, distorted guitar dominating the instruments and the lyrics “Your plan was the mess we call genocide, you took all the children and they died, the few that remained were never found.” These lines accompanied by Daron Malakian, the lead guitarist and secondary vocalist, singing “Never want to see you around” over Serj Tankian leads to a beautiful harmony between the two, as both of them speak directly to the Turkish government. All of these lyrics sung by the two talented vocalists combined with the thrashing guitar, distorted bass, and rapid drumming lead to an intensely informative metal song about the Armenian Genocide.
Another example of a song by the band about the Armenian Genocide would be “Holy Mountains” from the album “Hypnotize.” Stylistically, the opening for this song is similar to “P.L.U.C.K.” in that it begins calm but quickly becomes much more intense. The first few lines of the song, “Can you feel their haunting presence,” refers to the souls of Armenians killed in the genocide, and Serj’s drawn-out delivery adds a haunting feel to the words. The chorus then plays, beginning with Daron and Serj screaming out “Liar, killer, demon” towards the genocide initiator. “Back to the River Aras” immediately following the yells refers to the remaining Armenians being forced back to the Aras River to rebuild their losses, and “Someone’s blank stare deemed it warfare” tells of the mindless command issued to begin the genocide. Also, the freedom Serj speaks of is what the survivors experienced after being forced back to the river. Then, in the same haunting style of the first lines, Serj asks “Can you hear the Holy Mountains?” The “Holy Mountains” he references are the two mountains that comprise Mount Ararat, the supposed location of the landing of Noah’s Ark (“Mount Ararat”). The chorus is repeated again but with a new line: “Someone’s mouth said paint them all red.” This once again refers to the leader who commanded the genocide. The structure of the song beginning at the first lyric is undeniably interesting, with the questions being asked in the verses and the chorus repeating so quickly with a different line. The instrumentals are also played twice almost identically, so this entire phrase gains more importance through the repetition. Immediately following the second chorus, though, the volume and speed of the guitar and drums lowers and quickly builds, releasing in an explosion of rapid sound. “They have all returned, resting on the mountain side” is the first line Serj re-enters with, and with it he claims that all the Armenian souls have returned and are now resting on Mount Ararat. He then speaks of learning that the perpetrators of the genocide have no honor, and the chorus plays once again, but shortened this time. The outro is essentially the song’s introduction but reversed, along with the tempo gradually decreasing. By mirroring the beginning of the song, System of a Down has created a cyclical feeling and a sense of completion to wrap up another detailed piece about the Armenian Genocide.
Though the band has had many instances of political outspokenness, easily the most influential was their most recent tour starting in 2015 after a long hiatus from putting out new music and playing live shows regularly. Titled “Wake Up The Souls,” the mostly European-based show schedule was put together as a way to pay homage to the Armenian Genocide’s 100 year anniversary. Though even Serj Tankian noted in an interview with KROQ-FM radio that the band “didn’t plan on being four Armenians in a band together, it just kind of turned out that way,” their ties to this central cause has really strengthened their bond as musicians with a shared message and identity. Though often artists embark on music tours to promote their recent work, it is not often that you see a tour meant to commemorate history in this way. Because all of the band members have familial ties right back to genocide survivors and have grown up being exposed to their stories of survival, Serj Tankian said in an NPR interview before the tour that the cause has “many political aspects to it. But because all four members of the band are Armenian-American, its personal.”
Though the tour would go on to be extended, the original last show was set for April 23, 2015, in the capital of Armenia in Yerevan, almost 100 years to the day of the first mass deportation of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire. With a set list of thirty seven songs set to span the time of over two hours, this was not to be a typical performance. It would not only be free for those who could attend live, but it would also be freely streamed on the internet for the world to see. This would be the very first show the band would ever hold in their homeland, which on such a momentous occasion really speaks to the band’s focus on the dedication to their cause through having this sort of “homecoming” during such a historic time. Though the band obviously has a special connection to the events in the Ottoman Empire that came to coin the term “genocide” when later used as a reference to Hitler’s actions in World War II, they stand for the greater cause of genocide acceptance and acknowledgement as well as the recognition of the reality that many more genocides have been and are being committed that simply are not receiving the attention they deserve. Quite simply, System of a Down just does not want what happened to their people over a century ago to happen ever again.
The endeavors of a critically acclaimed music group like System of a Down to do more than get radio play and turn a profit through their political activism and adherence to purpose are not commonplace in the modern music industry, despite how powerful and impactful they have been to people across the world. They serve as a beacon of hope to many who have had their lives forever changed by the genocide, to those who have suffered other such atrocities that have yet to have their voices heard, and to those who without the band would never have even heard of the Armenian Genocide. The efforts of Serj Tankian, Daron Malakian, Shavo Odadjian, and John Dolmayan have been a great testament to the power of music to go farther than just entertaining. Music has the power to inform the world about itself and to provide solidarity to those who have been wronged by it, and it has the power to advocate for reforms and provide its listeners with a sense of identity and unification like no other medium. This all, of course, is heightened when the cause is as near and dear to the musicians as the Armenian Genocide is to System of a Down.
Adalian, Rouben Paul. “The Armenian Genocide: Context and Legacy.” First appeared in Social Education: The Official Journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, February 1991. http://www.armenian-genocide.org/Education.56/current_category.117/resourceguide_detail.htm
MauEatURmusic. “Rick Rubin talks about System Of A Down.” Youtube. June 22, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hByRgNaneTU&feature=youtu.be
MauEatURmusic. “System Of A Down – Interview (Kevin & Bean) The World Famous KROQ 2014.” Youtube. December 15, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nm8_TYPLE3k&feature=youtu.be
“Mount Ararat.” Edited by Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., February 27, 2017. www.britannica.com/place/Mount-Ararat
Rath, Arun (interviewer). “System Of A Down, Armenia’s Favorite Sons, On Facing History.” Broadcast on All Things Considered. NPR. April 19, 2015. https://www.npr.org/2015/04/19/400395629/system-of-a-down-armenias-favorite-sons-on-facing-history
Tamar Nazarian. “Shavo Odadjian From System Of A Down Talks About The Armenian Genocide.” Youtube. February 14, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmghuAQvXSs
Tankian, Serj. “System Of A Down Singer on Armenian Genocide: ‘We’re Still Here, We’re Still Alive.” Time. April 25, 2015. http://time.com/3834792/serj-tankian-armenian-genocide/
Chakelian, Anoosh. “System of a Down’s Serj Tankian on his tour for recognition of the Armenian genocide.” NewStatesman. April 17, 2015. https://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/04/system-downs-serj-tankian-his-tour-recognition-armenian-genocide
Grow, Kory. “Genocide and Kim Kardashian: The Bloody History Behind System of a Down’s Tour.” Rolling Stone. January 8, 2015.
By John Tyler Morgan and Kyatt Spessert