Serj Tankian by Travis Shinn
Photo: Travis Shinn

Can Music Change the World? Serj Tankian Thinks So

We caught up with the System of a Down frontman to discuss his new documentary 'Truth To Power', and the relationship between art and activism.
March 24, 2021, 11:25am

It’s a tough gig fighting for justice around the world, but someone has to do it. Serj Tankian is one of those people. Best known as the frontman of the Armenian-American band System of a Down, with whom he performs like a shaman channelling a thousand upset spirits, it’s impossible to untangle Serj’s art from his activism (despite many trying via the valiant medium of Reacting To A Political Facebook Post With An Angry Face). Or rather, his art from his identity.

Born in Beirut to Armenian parents, raised in LA and now living part-time in New Zealand, Serj is part of a diaspora that – following generations of war and displacement – is at least double the population of Armenia itself. In person, he’s a soft-spoken, wizard-like figure who oozes tranquility; on stage, he’s a tempest lambasting warmongers and corporate greed. But his work is always driven by a powerful sense of Armenian identity, and a drive to push back against injustice wherever it exists.

As well as a new EP, Elasticity – a collection of songs written for a potential new SOAD album – Serj has also released a new documentary called Truth To Power. Directed by Garin Hovannisian, it follows Serj’s journey from playing in bands in college to meeting the other members of System of a Down and becoming an unprecedented mainstream success; how art has been – in his own words – “the conduit to the activist having a larger voice”. Running alongside his own story is the broader political history of Armenia, beginning with the genocide in 1915 and ending with the non-violent revolution in 2018 that successfully ousted former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and his government from power. 

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Along the way we see home videos, glimpses of the modern Armenian community in Los Angeles and tour footage that culminates in a System of a Down performance at Republic Square in the Armenian capital of Yerevan – their first ever show in their ethnic homeland – on the centennial of the genocide. Soundtracked by Serj and featuring interviews with Rick Rubin, Tom Morello and more, Truth To Power is bookended by the question: can music change the world? 

We caught up with Serj to discuss Truth To Power, his enduring faith in art and the reignited war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020 that prompted System of a Down to release their first new music in 15 years

Serj Tankian, by Travis Shinn.jpg

Photo: Travis Shinn

VICE: Truth To Power begins by posing the question, “Can music change the world?” You circle back to that at the very end and give an answer – no spoilers! – but have your feelings about that changed much over time?
Serj Tankian:
I've always had the same response. I feel like there’s a formula for how it works. Artists are inspired by the collective consciousness and the time we’re living in – the truths of that time, the beauty of that time, the love of that time – and if artists are good presenters of that muse, then they're able to put out something that people are inspired by. 

When we talk about inspiration, it's a very right brain, intuitive type of thing. It’s a reaction. Music inspires you because it moves something inside of you, but you can also process the lyrics in a very left brain, reasonable fashion. The combination of the two are quite powerful, especially when it comes to protest music and things that beg for action. When someone does act upon that, it becomes a full circle in terms of activism through the arts. So that's how I look at the formula of inspiration, transforming from a muse in the collective consciousness to changing the world, if you will.

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I've seen it happen in my lifetime because of System of a Down and my activism having to do with awareness of the Armenian genocide, and then seeing US Congress recognise the genocide formally in December of 2019. It’s the UK's turn next.

I wrote a piece for VICE last year speaking to fans who had been politically influenced by System of a Down, and it was clear that the political aspect of the band was something that resonated very strongly. Obviously there are those who just come for the music and then whinge on Facebook whenever you have anything to say, but pre-internet there were definitely a lot of people whose formative political beliefs were shaped by the band. At what point did you notice that what you were saying was having an effect?
We would get emails or letters from people saying they’d done their essay in high school on the Armenian genocide, or college and university papers about it. That kind of stuff started to come to us, and we were going, “Oh, wow, this is actually having an impact on young people because this information is not out there and it should be.”

Now, in the internet age, we get the immediate reaction – positive and negative! You put something out there and thousands of people are viewing it, some people are agreeing and encouraging, and others telling you to f-off. That's really interesting to me, and that's another one of the points of Truth To Power. When you disagree with an artist and tell them to just “go make music”, you’re not understanding that an artist has to live with the truth. An artist has to live with reality. It’s not just grabbing a guitar and making music that you can dance to – there’s that too, and that’s valid – but usually what an artist does is connect to something beyond that. And you can’t do that without the realisation of the truth and the fight for justice. In my case, at least. 

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One thing that stuck out to me watching the documentary is how little progress is made when things are in a really heightened state of emotion. For example, the film mentions the essay you posted to System of a Down’s website after 9/11, which basically just stated facts about American foreign policy, but because the pain and anger was so understandably foregrounded there was no space to talk about the context for what happened. I think the US and the UK have been experiencing a lot of that internal chaos ever since, but especially during the last six or seven years. Things have been in this constant state of hysteria and nothing is really changing. Having felt the brunt of that previously, what do you feel like the antidote to that deadlock is? 
That's a very interesting question. I think an emotional response to an event without thinking things through geopolitically is dangerous – for a population, and especially for governments. Obviously governments want to appease public opinion and, as you put it, after 9/11 there was this kind of reactionism prevailing in the US. The piece that I wrote, Understanding Oil, is actually being used to teach essay writing around the world right now in universities, and it was a very sober look at American foreign policy 50 years prior to 9/11, looking at the dictators that were being propped up because of influence, or resource acquisition, or whatever reason. I was calling for lateralism as an approach to dealing with the terrorist attacks on whoever committed them – at the time, it wasn't very clear who was responsible – but I was like, ‘This has got to be done smartly, in a multinational way.’

Instead, the US and the UK went into Afghanistan, and then Iraq, and at least Bin Laden was in Afghanistan, because he definitely wasn’t in Iraq. There was no connection to Iraq, there were no WMDs, as we know – and we know that whole story now. That's what I was saying back then. I was saying that this is a farce, that it doesn't smell good, and [System of a Down] got nailed. [“Chop Suey!” was pulled] from the radio and I had to defend my words on the Howard Stern show in the US. We were on tour a week after 9/11, stressed out with warnings of further possible terrorist attacks on the news. It was a really dark and difficult time, and that's the price that you pay for being an artist and an activist. You know it's not gonna be an easy road, and that's what the film shows.

I get the feeling we're in a transitional period at the minute. It's very clear to a lot of people that the world as it is now is completely unsustainable, but it feels like every effort to build an alternative gets suppressed very quickly. Do you have any thoughts or predictions for what the next few years are going to be like?
One thing that COVID has done is strengthen my resolve for knowing that we can’t go “back to normal”. We’re already in a very difficult carbon output situation, so quarantine was a good experiment because we were able to see clean skies all around the world – in Beijing, in Los Angeles, in London – which was something many people hadn’t experienced in a decade or so, and know that there could be another way of living. Coming out of COVID, it's important to really take these lessons and apply them universally into a new type of lifestyle, where everything is grown locally, where there's less shipping, less travel – everything done in a way that our lives become more sustainable on this planet. If we don't learn the lesson and just do the bare minimum of The Paris Agreement, or the bare minimum for carbon emissions or all of those things, we're fucked.

The Armenian revolution of 2018 is considered to be one of the most successful non-violent revolutions in recent memory. You point out in the documentary that some of the tactics the protesters used, like the chase they had going with the police, were actually quite funny in how they played out. Humour is really central to a non-violent revolution because it makes things more accessible, and that's what keeps people involved. I was wondering if you could speak to that a little more?
The 2018 peaceful velvet revolution in Armenia was an incredible occasion, because they discovered something called decentralised civil disobedience, which hadn't until then been successfully used in revolutions. That’s when [you protest] in a naughty but peaceful way, by blocking roads or doing things that make the cops come after you, and then running away and doing it again and again. Basically, you’re using the numbers of your population around the country to overwhelm the system. [The cops] can’t come after everyone, so eventually they have to give up. And that’s what happened. It was a beautiful thing to watch. Garin Hovannisian and I have another film called I Am Not Alone coming out later this year, which I scored and helped to produce, and it's about that revolution – how it happened, the whole journey. 

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What do you think other protest movements can learn from the Armenian revolution of 2018?
I think it's a very strong lesson to other protest movements around the world. I think it'll give them hope, because [it shows] there are other options to gathering in one spot and getting arrested or killed. Unfortunately, the highlight of this revolution as part of modern Armenian history has been completely decimated by the war that Azerbaijan and Turkey started against the Armenian people of Artsakh [Nagorno—Karabakh]. The war has created a humanitarian catastrophe and created divisiveness in our society, and the post-revolutionary government has been dealing with the fallout. There are still Armenian POWs in [Azerbaijani] jails right now. Azerbaijan has not released them and is refusing to release them, creating complete chaos within Armenia – and they're doing it on purpose, obviously, to create that chaos. So talking about the revolution and its high points is really incredible, but unfortunately all of that positivity has been reduced to all of this negativity from countries that attack during COVID, of all times, using banned weapons and committing war crimes. I'm hoping for better days again soon for Armenia. Progressive movements are a long, long fight.

These examples of nonviolent revolution in Armenia, the Arab Spring, Serbia, Georgia – all the colour revolutions, basically – were successful in their own ways, because they employed non-violent collective action at a grassroots level. It's interesting that these tactics just don't seem to work as well in countries like the US and the UK, where we have a democratic framework but still experience injustice and corruption. Do you think a revolution of that scale could ever occur in a western democracy, or is the artifice of democracy too powerful? 
That’s a very good question. In the US and the UK, we pride ourselves on our democratic principles and guidelines, but we’ve seen huge movements – including BLM in the last year – who are trying to make that kind of change. I think, to answer your question bluntly: yes, it's completely possible. What the revolution in Armenia taught me is that a small percentage of the population [can be on] the streets, go all around the country and block roads and do all these naughty, fun, cultural things as young people to reclaim their own country.

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At the time, I was saying, “Imagine 36 million Americans going out into Washington DC, blocking every intersection and telling Trump to go home” – the power of that is immense! You have the numbers, but you also have this tactic of spreading out and being able to overwhelm any system. Even the military couldn't stop it. The US military wouldn't be able to stop 36 million Americans that wanted to depose someone they thought was unfit for office – if they took that tactic, specifically.

Another aspect I really liked about the film is that it gives this slice of American-Armenian life. You get the food, the schools, the social aspect and the importance of music woven throughout the film. What does being Armenian mean to you, and what are your hopes for Armenia long-term? 
I've always said, and I do believe, that the most beautiful thing about different nations is not our flags, it’s not our borders, it's not how big our military is or how strong our economy is, it's our culture. It's the food that we eat, the music that we play, the art that we create, the way in which we hug each other, the way in which we kiss each other, the way in which we greet each other. And what that's based on is thousands and thousands of years of traditions – if you're an old race, like Armenians – and that's the beauty of our difference. That's what I like celebrating. Being Armenian, to me, is coming from a very small nation and trying to share that culture through music, art, film, whatever we create – not just so people know about Armenia, but so I can add that colour to the universal palette.

How did it feel to finally see US Congress formally recognise the genocide in 2019? 
I thought of my grandparents. My grandparents weren’t born in the US, but they passed in the US, and I thought of them and how it vindicated their story. It made me feel proud to be part of a community that was fighting for justice. But recognition of the Armenian genocide in the US, again, is only the beginning. We need Turkey to properly recognise the role of its ancestors and the truth of its history and making amends having to do with Armenia, rather than helping another genocide-denying nation of Azerbaijan attack Armenia and kill young people. That’s the complete opposite of what I would love to see Turkey do, but then Erdoğan [President of Turkey] and Aliyev [President of Azerbaijan] are dictators. One day their people will depose them, and hopefully they'll get the type of democracy that we saw in Armenia in 2018, peacefully. 

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Earlier, you asked me a question of what I see for the next couple of years, which kind of stuck in my head, and now I'm ready to answer that. I see huge changes. A lot of these protest movements that are happening around the world, the reason for them is that the new generation is no longer complicit. Our generation would complain, but we couldn't make the change. We were impotent. The younger generation isn’t, partly because of climate change and extinction. You don't have time for dictators. We dealt with them, but you don't have time for them, you know? So all these movements in the next number of years, in my opinion, are going to resettle the world in a more egalitarian format. It’ll be a hard few years, but I think we're going to see a positive kind of change after COVID and all this shit. So I'm hoping for a brighter future.

There are a lot of grim bills being pushed by the UK government at the minute, but I guess the optimistic lens on that is that it’s validation that change is inevitable. You can tell a government thinks it’s in trouble when they start trying to increase police power and pass bills attempting to crack down on the right to protest.
It’s very Orwellian, the fact that Parliament is actually considering that. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head that those are people afraid of that kind of change. I mean, there's still people in the UK sticking to the Empire and the theories behind it, which is horrible. It's time for change, and it's the younger generation that's going to make it happen.

You've been plugged into all these issues and keeping up on all of these wars, atrocities and injustices all around the world for so long now. I imagine it can be exhausting or demoralising at times. As someone who's entire artistic identity is tied up in political activism, how do you do it? How do you keep going, and where do you get your inspiration to keep pushing back?
I get my inspiration from other people fighting for change. I get inspiration from seeing different protest movements around the world trying to make change, people standing up and even dying, like in Myanmar right now. It makes you want to do something, it makes you want to help. Creatively, I get my inspiration from making something new. So for me, it's a combination of that creative drive and chasing the truth. In a lot of cases, art is my saviour, because if you deal with injustice all day it’s depressing, and it’s an unjust world, you know? You need the music as a getaway. I’m lucky that I can get into this mode and create, and then my mind is in a relaxed and meditative state, and then I can go back to the fight.

@emmaggarland

Truth To Power is out now via Oscilloscope Laboratories; ‘Elasticity’ EP is out now via Alchemy Recordings / BMG.