System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian is regarded as one the best vocalists in heavy metal, praised for his unique vocal range and his unconventional delivery. But he’s as much of an activist as he is an artist. Both halves are often fused by his long discography of political songs, many focused on his family homeland: Armenia.
Though System of a Down formed in California, all of its members have Armenian roots. (Tankian himself identifies as a Lebanese-born, Armenian-American-Kiwi). And, like many in the Armenian diaspora, whose ancestors were forced to migrate over 100 years ago, all have ties to the Armenian Genocide: when the then Ottoman Empire systematically killed roughly 1 million ethnic Armenians during World War One. The atrocity sees its 106th anniversary this weekend, on April 24.
While all four System of a Down members have ties to the genocide, it is Tankian who has made the fight for its recognition – which Turkey continues to formally deny – his own personal quest. Now, a new film, Truth to Power is documenting that fight — as well as providing an intimate account of Tankian’s upbringing and creative process.
Produced by Tankian himself, as well as his frequent collaborator Garin Hovannisian – who also directed – the film is by no means an unbiased documentary of Tankian’s activism. System of a Down as a band rarely features, apart from through the frontman’s own viewpoint. This is Tankian telling his story through his own words.
“The idea started in 2011. It was going to be my most professional years so I decided to strap on a GoPro camera and kind of record everything that I did from an artistic point of view. I thought it would be interesting to portray seeing from the artist’s own eyes, as a film, but soon I discovered that I am more like a bird than a human being in terms of the way that I shift my neck. It’s nauseating to watch from my point of view, but we had some really great footage and understanding of the tapestry and colours of the life of an artist on the road and protests and all sorts of stuff,” Tankian tells The Calvert Journal.
Tankian then approached Hovannisian – who was working with him on another documentary at the time, I am Not Alone, on the Armenian Velvet Revolution – about using that footage for a separate film. Tankian says that the two decided that “it was really the activist journey” that was the most important element of this film, which would become Truth to Power.
Fans will with no doubt enjoy the film’s personal heartfelt moments filled with exclusive interviews and archive footage. But it is Armenia that provides the driving force behind the documentary.
One of the film’s most powerful scenes is in Yerevan in 2015, when System of a Down played for the first time in the country to a crowd of 50,000 people under the rain, for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. On stage, as Tankian often does, he speaks about social justice issues close to Armenia, calling out Obama and the US government’s “hypocrisy” for promising to recognise the genocide but failing to do so.
“I always say that it felt like the band was created to be there at that moment, that was the kind of apex of our existence, as a group of four guys working together all those years,” Tankian tells The Calvert Journal.
The concert happened three years before Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution, but Tankian recalled witnessing the promises of change on that night. “I saw that inertia, that energy in the eyes of the young people that were in the crowd,” he says.
Tankian has long been politically outspoken, and not only on Armenian issues. The film charts how, just as System of a Down became widely successful, the US was entering one of the darkest periods of its modern history. On the same week their second album Toxicity debuted as Number 1 on the American and Canadian charts, the 9/11 attacks took place.
To the dismay of many of their American fans and even his own bandmates – who were not warned at the time – the frontman published an essay on the band’s official website called “Understanding Oil” just after September 11, 2001. The singer condemned the violence of the attacks, but also attempted to understand why they happened, questioning the US’s foreign policy in the Middle East and calling on the US government to stop bombing and patrolling Iraq.
To have the frontman of a chart-topping band calling out the US government on the same week as the 9/11 attacks was – as expected – badly received by many. The band received death threats, tour dates were cancelled, and radio stations refused to play their single, even after their music label Sony removed the essay down from the website. Many accused Tankian of justifying the attacks, which he strongly denies.
“My intention was to try to understand what was going on,” Tankian says. “A lot of people didn’t want to hear the sober geopolitical analysis from a young musician with a band, and timing is everything as they say, but the truth doesn’t wait. The truth doesn’t have a good time to come out. The truth is always there. Whether public opinion is on your side or not, the truth is the truth.”
The balance between artist and activist has not always been an easy one. Tankian’s outspoken campaigning soon began to wear thin on the rest of the band
Despite the backlash, the band continued to release songs that were politically conscious, such as the 2002 song “Boom!” directed by Michael Moore, that explicitly protested the War in Iraq.
But the balance between artist and activist has not always been an easy one. Tankian’s outspoken campaigning soon began to wear thin on the rest of the band, who became increasingly wary of releasing songs that would be labelled “protest music” — and thus be pigeonholed. Much to their fans’ dismay, System of a Down has barely released any music in the last 16 years. The frontman himself cites “creative and philosophical” differences for the decision. Though they have tour dates planned later in 2021, no forthcoming album is in the works due to differing visions for the future.
The only songs that the band has released in more than 15 years are on the one topic that unites them all: Armenia. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, they released two songs: “Protect the Land,” and “Genocidal Humanoidz,” which together raised more than $600,000 for the Hayastan All-Armenian fund, an organisation that has supported development projects in Armenia since the 1990s.
The singer still keeps a close eye on developments in the region, but his main raison d’être as an activist remains to fight for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. He says his favourite part Truth to Power is when the US House of Representatives vote to recognise the genocide in 2019.
It was a battle Tankian had long backed through protests, and by putting pressure on US congressmen to pass the bill. The film reveals that the singer was even reportedly under surveillance by Turkish intelligence at the time, which led him to fear for his own life.
Many countries across the world still fail to officially recognise the genocide, often due to their geopolitical ties to Turkey. US President Joe Biden is widely expected to be the first sitting US President to formally recognise the atrocities in what Tankian describes as a “very meaningful” move in the pursuit of justice and reparations.
“The genocide is a very personal thing for us,” Tankian says. “It’s not political at all, because we have survivors like our grandparents and all our families. We all know the horrific stories of how their brothers and sisters and parents perished, and so for us it’s very important for the world to recognise the truth about history for it not to repeat destruction of the past.”
In one of the film’s scenes, the frontman sings an Armenian folk song with his father he learned as a child. It’s a song about a stork – “known as the bird that returns home” – which, for Tankian, is a symbol of all the Armenians who dream of returning home. Ultimately, whether through music, activism, or the other creative projects he now embarks upon, Tankian remains focused on what he believes, staying loyal to the promise he gave to his grandfather to “get the word out regarding the genocide.”
“I don’t think about legacy,” he said. “I know if I could just make people open doors for other people, the whole world would be full of open doors. That’s the change I want to see.”
Truth to Power will be available worldwide on video-on-demand release on April 27.