On 23 April, Los Angeles alt-rock quartet System of a Down will play in Yerevan, Armenia.
Many metalheads know of the band’s Armenian heritage – but how many realise that they are playing for the centenary of the Armenian genocide?
In 1915, the Ottoman Turks began the systematic extermination of the Armenian people. As the First World War progressed, the Ottoman government passed a law allowing the authorities to deport anyone they saw as a threat to national security. A death squad called the Special Organisation set about rounding up and deporting the entire Armenian people. So all-encompassing was this attempt to exterminate a nation that the term “genocide” was invented: the systematic killing of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
Up to 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives in the genocide: rounded up and taken from their families by soldiers, murdered in their villages, or marched into the endless desert until they could march no more, their bodies left to crumble to dust.
System of a Down’s grandparents are survivors of the genocide. In the 2006 documentary Screamers, frontman Serj Tankian’s grandfather Stepan speaks of being brought to an orphanage in Cyprus. His brother David was left behind and perished. “I went crazy,” he says. “I was going to try and throw myself into the ocean, and they caught me. I tried again. ‘Take me to David’ [I said].”
To this day, the Turkish government denies the genocide. While it acknowledges that Armenian people were massacred, it insists that the intention was not the wholesale extermination of the Armenian nation. It is this denial, the failure to see justice done, that the band believes set the precedent for other genocides. In a letter on their website, they write:
“The failure to prevent the atrocities or punish the perpetrators led to the modern cycle of genocide… Adolf Hitler remarked: ‘Who now remembers the Armenians?’ as he orchestrated what is now known as the Holocaust.”
SOAD’s position as justice campaigners is remarkable in the world of metal. While politics has long been a staple of punk and folk, metal lyrics are more likely to delve into Scandinavian folklore or worship rock and roll itself. System’s closest parallel here must be the outspoken anti-system lyrics of Rage Against the Machine, whose frontman Zach De La Rocha’s campaigning saw him speak at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in support of black activist Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Metal frequently evokes morbid imagery and themes, but its makers have rarely related that to real-world human rights abuses, or what it means to live in peace. Off stage, most rock heavyweights do not hold the megaphone at protests. They do not give school children at gigs leaflets for their history teachers. They do not petition for their cause in national politics. Dedication of this kind is born when the atrocity of oppression and systematic murder is in your blood.
With several platinum albums and a Grammy under their belts, there’s no denying that System of a Down have clout. By weaving their message into their music, they have reached an audience that historians and activists could only dream of.
With the release of the albums Mezmerize and Hypnotize, System of a Down found the resonance frequency of millions of fans angry at Bush’s invasion of Iraq. This wasn’t System’s first foray into political music; tracks such as ‘Prison Song’ pre-date September 11. But with these albums the band upped their game, creating an evocative, angry opus beginning and ending with a paean to the horror of war. Monolithic riffs and quixotic lyrics reeled the audience in. Anger that rang true kept them there.
But of the fans who went so passionately for the anti-Bush message, which of them heard in it echoes of an older, deeper hurt? The band’s lyrics are threaded through with references to the Armenian genocide. In ‘Holy Mountains’, Hypnotize‘s eighth track, Tankian sings:
“Can you hear the Holy Mountains? Liar! Killer! Demon! Back to the River Aras!” and “They have returned, resting on the mountainside / We have learned, that you have no honor.”
The Aras river flows along the Turkish-Armenian border. The holy mountains in question? Mount Ararat, a national symbol of Armenia featured on the country’s coat of arms.
Indeed, many of their lyrics could refer to both the genocide and the US devastation of Iraq, a condemnation of human rights abuses everywhere. In Hypnotize’s second track, ‘Dreaming’, Tankian sings:
“She lost her mind / Someone kicked her into the back of the line / She lost her head / When they called and they said that they thought he was dead”.
Such words reflect not the horror of a specific act of violence, but of all violence.
Perhaps most System of a Down fans know little of the genocide now. But by April 24, they certainly will.