System of a Down was one of the most celebrated metal acts of the early 2000s. The Armenian-American band has gained monumental success throughout the years, and are well known for their outspoken beliefs and the interweaving styles of music hailing from their heritage that they incorporate into their music.
In order to understand this band’s success and their mission goal, you first have to understand the cultural fluidity and politics behind the band itself.
ENTER SERJ TANKIAN
Serj Tankian is the main singer of the band and the driving force behind their political messages. Born in Beirut, Lebanon on August 21, 1987, his early childhood was filled with stories about the Armenian Genocide, of which his grandparents on both sides survived.
He recalls that they would tone down what had actually happened for their young grandchildren, but nonetheless the words they told struck a chord with Tankian, and it inspired a drive for political activism and social justice that would later appear in the music of System of a Down.
THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
In the early 1900s, the Ottoman Empire lost substantial territory due to multiple military defeats. Due to this, fears popped up within the Committee of Union and Progress (the active political party in Turkey at the time) that the Armenian people would see the government’s weakness and attempt to revolt against the Ottoman Empire and reclaim their homeland of Turkey.
In 1914, during an invasion of Russia and Persia in an attempt to gain more territory, the military massacred groups of Armenians as they came across them. If not killed then, many were later rounded up and sent on death marches. Exact numbers are unknown, but an estimated 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed during this time.
In the 2006 documentary film “Screamers” (which you can watch for free here), Tankian’s grandfather, Stepan Haytayan, recounts horrors of the event.
While attempting to hide, soldiers came for Haytayan’s family. His father and grandfather were all tied in chains, amongst the other men they had found in the area.
Haytayan ran up to his father to embrace him, but the soldiers pushed him away. Undeterred, he tried again but this time they brandished their weapons. Haytayan could only watch as his family was taken away, and that would be the last time he saw any of them.
To this day, Turkey and their alley Azerbaijan deny the genocide ever occured. They threaten to close their diplomatic and economic relations with any country that says the opposite. To this day, many Armenians feel unfairly treated, as countries don’t speak up about these crimes or demand payment for what they had done, fearing loss of trade and allyship.
CULTURAL FLUIDITY WITHIN THE BAND’S SOUND
These events of the genocide shaped the stories told within the music of System of a Down, and the connection the band has to them and the culture found it’s into the bands sound.
In Western culture, most mainstream music follows the formula of a 4/4 time signature with four bars. Contrast that to Armenian music, where it might be something in a 5/7 time signature and have five bars instead of four.
In the song “Arto,” off their 2001 titular album, the band forsakes their normal instruments in favor of traditional Armenian instruments, including a reed instrument called a duduk. Along with this, the band also collectively chants a traditional Armenian Church hymn.
Another System of a Down song — “P.L.U.C.K.” — was written about the Armenian Genocide and the lasting affect it had on their race, and included lines such as “a whole race genocide, taken away all our pride” and “took all the children and we died, the few that remained were never found.”