Thousands of young people with long hair and studded tongues pay good money several dozen times a year to listen to lectures about genocide. Well, “lecture” is perhaps not the best way to describe Serj Tankian’s delivery. The tall lanky Tankian, who has cascades of curly hair and looks like the long-lost offspring of Frank Zappa and Cher, is a natural on stage. But when he grabs the microphone, he is more likely to shout than to talk. . .
Serj Tankian is the lead singer of System of a Down, a popular rock group on the cusp of heavy metal. SOAD, as its fans like to call it, is part of a new generation of politically engaged rock groups. Like Rage Against the Machine or Green Day, SOAD produces some rousing antiwar songs (like “BYOB” with its chorus of “Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?”). But the group also has a very specific political goal: to educate the world about the Armenian genocide.
A new documentary, Screamers, tells the story of the 1915 genocide through the words, music, and activism of the four Armenian-American members of System of a Down. The film comes at a particularly important time. Despite repeated public avowals of “never again” by many government leaders—after Bosnia, after Rwanda—genocide is again in the headlines because of Darfur. And Turkey continues to evade responsibility for the Armenian genocide even as it attempts to join the European Union and cement its alliances with the United States.
Screamers, as genocide expert Samantha Powers explains in the film, are people who react viscerally to the horror of atrocity and won’t stop screaming until something is done about it. The raw energy of System of a Down clearly resonates with its audience. But will such musical activism make waves outside the concert halls as well? Political Metal
Heavy metal, according to convention, is all about Satan, death, and doom. It is a musical form about as far removed from politics and foreign policy as a lullaby or a mazurka.
Dig a little deeper, though, and even heavy metal turns out to be more complicated than that. Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Sabbath, for instance, would seem to be the epitome of reactionary, white-boy rock. Long before his reality show resurrection, however, Ozzy took aim at the Vietnam War in the song “War Pigs” and blasted the insanity of Cold War deterrence in the song “Children of the Grave.” Today, heavy metal bands wear their politics even more prominently on the sleeves of their black T-shirts. Bands like Lamb of God write songs castigating U.S. foreign policy, while Cattle Decapitation takes on the protein industrial complex.
It’s one thing to rile up an audience of recruitment-age young people with songs about the idiocy of the Iraq War. System of a Down, however, aims at the more difficult goal of activating young people around an event that occurred nearly a century ago. In 2005, during a concert tour devoted to the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the band put photographs of the atrocities on the big screen in the concert hall and ran TV footage of Peter Jennings discussing the meaning and contemporary significance of the term “genocide.”
“Today, more people learn about the Armenian genocide from System of a Down than through all the other efforts combined,” says Aram Hamparian of the Armenian National Committee.
And it’s not just Armenians or the descendants of other genocide victims (Jews, Cambodians) who groove to SOAD’s message. Although the band refuses to play in Turkey, Serj Tankian reports, “We have a lot of fans there. We’ve gotten into the heads of some of the younger generation, and hopefully something will happen one day with that.”
For SOAD, the crusade is deeply personal. In Screamers, the band members each relate stories passed down from their grandparents and great grandparents about who survived, who didn’t, and the unspeakable things that were witnessed. Scholars estimate that 1.5 million Armenians died during the genocide. “A whole race, Genocide. Taken away, all our pride,” SOAD sings in “PLUCK.” There’s Something About Turkey
The stakes reach well beyond settling personal scores or even setting the historical record straight. System of a Down is very clear about the geopolitics of its work. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey fended off all outside pressure to alter its policies—regarding Cyprus, its mistreatment of Kurds, or its interpretation of its national history—by emphasizing its anticommunist credentials. With the Cold War over and membership in the European Union beckoning, Turkey has been willing to make some concessions, such as abolishing the death penalty and providing more rights to the Kurdish community. But diplomatic recognition of Cyprus is still off the table, and the Armenian genocide remains a forbidden topic.
Several prominent Turkish writers, including Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk, have run afoul of the authorities for merely mentioning the genocide. One of the first Turkish historians to grapple honestly with the issue has published a new book on the genocide—from his exile in Minnesota. In A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, Taner Akcam argues that acknowledging the true nature of what happened in 1915 would require accepting that the architects of modern Turkey were war criminals. In her New Yorker review, Elizabeth Kolbert calls Akcam’s psychological explanation “a view of Turkish ethnic pride that gets dangerously close to a national stereotype.” Given that most U.S. citizens are similarly unwilling to associate the establishment of the United States with the attempted eradication of Native Americans—and that related complexes flourish in Australia, Israel, and many other countries—Akcam has not so much fallen back on an ethnic stereotype as he has articulated a more general psychological trait: the universal impulse to deny the horrors that lie beneath all nation-building.
Turkish efforts to stifle discussion on the Armenian genocide extend far beyond the country’s borders. Peter Balakian describes in his landmark book Black Dog of Fate how the Turkish Embassy intervened in a textbook project convened by the New York State Department of Education. Embassy officials told the organizers of the textbook project on 20th century genocides that inclusion of a chapter on the Armenian genocide would jeopardize U.S.-Turkey relations. “I traveled to Albany several times … and sat in overheated offices imploring state bureaucrats, who were horrified by the Turkish assault, to hold firm on the chapter,” writes Balakian, a professor of English at Colgate University. “The Turkish contingent was threatening to call President Reagan. Letters went back and forth. The Education Department grew increasingly befuddled. Before it was over, the Turkish government had succeeded in forcing changes to the textbook.”
At a much higher level of politics, as Screamers documents, the Turkish government has lobbied the U.S. Congress to prevent the passage of a resolution on the Armenian genocide. Although the House International Relations Committee passed two resolutions in 2005 identifying the atrocities as genocide, the Republican-controlled leadership blocked passage in the House as a whole. With Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats now in charge, however, there is a good chance that the resolutions will be brought to the floor and passed. The Politics of Screaming
Unlike many largely forgotten atrocities, the Armenian genocide is well documented. The accounts of survivors and contemporary observers, the photographic evidence, and even documentation from the Ottoman leadership itself make it impossible to dispute the attempt to wipe out an entire race of people. Historians are still filling in the gaps and piecing together motivations. Books like Black Dog of Fate or Atom Egoyan’s exquisite film Ararat about the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky explore the impact of the genocide on subsequent generations.
However, these historical investigations take place in academe. The books and movies are powerful but are ultimately, like most high culture, understated and nuanced.
System of a Down is not interested in nuance or understatement. The band members are passionate and angry, and they scream out shocking lyrics often full of expletives. When Serj Tankian visits Congress to lobby legislators, he seems, without a microphone and an opportunity to raise his voice, like a fish out of water. But with Turkey still playing the geopolitical card by threatening to stop buying U.S. arms and hosting the U.S. military, a little screaming might be in order—not just in concert halls but in the halls of power as well.
FPIF, January 4, 2007