Between their spasmodic rhythms and jagged melodies, System of a Down have always been committed to a sobering cause: raising recognition for the Armenian genocide of 1915. The group’s self-titled debut LP contained a song called “P.L.U.C.K.,” in which frontman Serj Tankian sang “A whole race, genocide/Taken away all of our pride,” and over the years the band has held several one-off “Souls” concerts to help raise awareness of the tragedy.
Now the group, whose members are all children of survivors, is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the genocide – in which Ottoman Turks began arresting and executing some 1.5 million Armenians, something that Turkey and several countries still refuse to recognize officially – with an international tour named “Wake Up the Souls.” This will end on April 23rd, the day before Armenia commemorates the anniversary, with the group’s very first performance in the country of their ancestors. The band plans on livestreaming the concert so people all over the world can watch.
System of a Down have also set up an interactive “heat map” on their website, allowing fans to learn about how different parts of the world have reacted to the genocide, including which countries have officially recognized it. Elsewhere, they host a call to action motivating fans to ask the Turkish president and parliament for recognition.
“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.” He chuckles. “I say that, laughing, because obviously it’s ridiculous.”
Why have you decided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide with a tour?
This is a recommitment and expansion of some of the work that we’ve been doing with the Armenian genocide for years. The whole “Souls” concept became a tour, and it’s something that we all believe in because we’re all children of survivors of the genocide. It’s important for the recognition of the genocide as an end result, as well as attaining justice.
What are the steps toward attaining justice?
I think for us it’s important for Turkey to know its own history in a truthful manner. It’s not just about the genocide of the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, but what’s going on now. There are no executable international agreements that have to do with stopping the genocide. Irrespective of a number of great U.N. bodies and even U.S.-based bodies in terms of genocide prevention, there’s no binding resolution on any genocide or holocaust occurring. We still see them happening. I read in today’s press that they discovered a mass grave in Deir Ezzor in Syria of ISIS massacres of this one tribe there, and it reminded me of all the bones that are under those sands in Deir Ezzor from the first genocide of the 20th century in the exact same place. If that’s not symbolism, I don’t know what is.
Your grandparents both lived through the Armenian genocide. What did they tell you about it?
They had these incredible, haunting stories of their survival. 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.
When my grandfather was still alive, we had them on camera for this film that we were part of called Screamers. It was a nice partial telling of his story, which was very fulfilling for me. We got a camera crew to tape 16 hours of these important stories that are disappearing because the survivors are almost all gone.