Wake Up the Souls: System of a Down and the Armenian Genocide
In 1915, during the height of the First World War, the Turkish government started an extermination and expulsion of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire that continued for five years. Men, women, and children were killed and removed from their ancestral home. By the time this was over, more than 1.5 million Armenians had lost their lives and many more had been forcibly removed. Today, most historians call this event genocide – “the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group” (Webster). While most people see the mass killing and deportation of Armenians as genocide, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge it as such. Despite pressures from Armenians and human-rights organizations from all across the world, it is still illegal to talk about the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. But, one hundred years later, one group has dedicated a huge portion of their career to raising awareness for this international tragedy: System of a Down. System of a Down formed in California in 1994, and its members are lead vocalist and keyboardist Serj Tankian, vocalist and guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, and drummer John Dolmayan. System has had a very successful career, and they are commonly known as one of the greatest metal bands of the new millennium.
System is so interested in the genocide because all of its members are of Armenian descent. Tankian and Dolmayan were both born in Lebanon, and Odadjian was born in Armenia. Malakian was born in the U.S.; his parents were Armenian immigrants. All four members are the grandsons of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. They all grew up hearing horrific stories, and Tankian relates one in an interview with Rolling Stone:
“They were both toddlers, small children. My grandmother and her grandmother were saved by a Turkish mayor in a small city, as they were being marched through Turkey toward Syria, toward Deir Ezzor, the desert. They were saved in that way. My grandfather lost the majority of his family on the pogrom. He ended up in a number of different orphanages and ended up in Lebanon, in terms of finding a home there and growing up there. Just really heart-wrenching stories” (Grow).
This is a very personal issue for the members of System. They are raising awareness for a horrific event that their own families went through, and they use their influence to spread the word of the genocide.
The most recent example of System raising awareness of genocides was the “Wake Up the Souls” tour. This was a worldwide tour the band did from 2014-15 to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The tour came to a head on April 23, 2015, when System of a Down had their very first live performance in their native Armenia. This concert was held in Yerevan’s Republic Square, and it was a free event. The band played for two and a half hours, with a set-list of thirty-seven songs, an impressive feat for any rock band, but especially for one whose members are now all in their forties. But the tour was not just about music – it was about the Armenian Genocide. Tankian gave mini-speeches during the set at all shows during the tour. According to Tankian, the point of the tour was to raise awareness and get justice:
“Part of it is bringing attention to the fact that genocides are still happening, whether you use the word ‘genocide,’ ‘holocaust’ or ‘humanitarian catastrophe,’” Tankian says. “None of that is changing. We want to be part of that change. We want the recognition of the first genocide of the 20th century to be a renewal of confidence that humanity can stop killing itself,” (Grow).
Tankian makes the argument that as long as governments are not recognizing past genocides, there cannot be prevention of future genocides. He says that if governments recognize past genocides, then the world can hope to eradicate them entirely. ‘“It's not just about the genocide of the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, but what's going on now […] there's no binding resolution on any genocide or holocaust occurring. We still see them happening,”’ (Grow). System’s goal is to prevent the destruction of entire races of people, and the way to do that is first to accept that there have been mass genocides. The Armenian Genocide must be recognized.
Besides System of a Down’s touring and humanitarian work, they spread their message in another, perhaps more obvious way: their music. System is seen as one of the greatest metal bands of the new millennium. Their music is aggressive, with Tankians screech-like vocals and Malakian’s heavily distorted guitar. The lyrics, though, are what set them apart from a lot of other bands. The themes of their songs deal with very serious topics: anything ranging from the Iraq War, the American prison system, human nature, and of course the Armenian Genocide. System has many songs that are about the genocide, but one in particular speaks volumes about the tragedy: “Holy Mountains.” The song addresses the Turkish government directly, calling them out for their terrible crimes:
System of a Down has done, and is still doing, something that many people are too afraid to do: they are standing up against injustice. Some people think there is no way to make a foreign power admit that it committed a crime. But System and its fans are taking a stand. They will not stop until Turkey admits that the Armenian Genocide happened. They will not stop until it is legal to talk about the past sins of the Turkish government in the streets. They will not stop until their ancestors are avenged. They will not stop until humanity has stopped killing each other because of race. They will not stop until their people can live in peace, knowing that those who killed so many of them a century ago are finally punished for their crimes.
"Armenian Genocide." History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.http://www.history.com/topics/armenian-genocide
Grow, Kory. "Genocide and Kim Kardashian: The Bloody History Behind System of a Down's Tour." Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 08 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/system-of-a-down-serj-tankian-armenian-genocide-new-album-20150108
Kaye, Ben. "System of a Down Make Armenia Proud with Massive 37-song Set -- Watch." Consequence of Sound. Consequence of Sound, 23 Apr. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. http://consequenceofsound.net/2015/04/replay-system-of-a-downs-massive-first-ever-concert-in-armenia-watch/
Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/genocide