System of a Down’s Serj Tankian: “I Was an Activist Before Being an Artist”

This isn’t what Serj Tankian expected for himself. Back in college, he was a business and marketing major and music was just a hobby. At his first job after graduation, he was clean-cut and self-contained, hardly recognizable as the cerebral wild man and staggering vocal talent he would become with System of a Down.

Then music became an obsession, as he discovered a new creative impulse erupting inside himself. In System, he joined guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan to create a revolutionary alt-metal sound that collided Slayer riffs with ancient folk melodies in songs that were complex and confrontational. And as singer, Tankian was as schizoid and unpredictable as the music, shifting from melodic croon to metal howl to nattering diatribe, at times playful, passionate or intensely political.

What wasn’t new was his activism. He already had a lifelong commitment to seeing official U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide, when 1.5 million were killed by Turkish forces between 1915 and 1923. (On April 24th, 2021, the genocide was officially recognized by Joe Biden, who became the first U.S. president to do so.) As the high-profile frontman for a multi-platinum, Grammy-winning rock act, Tankian’s political activity only deepened.

He tells this story in the new documentary Truth to Power, which charts the impact of his political activity and growth as a musician, both with and without System of a Down. It follows him to Armenia in 2018, as the nation finds its way through a peaceful Velvet Revolution and towards greater democratic freedom.

The film, directed by Tankian’s friend Garin Hovannisian, begins with a simple question: “Can music change the world?” The documentary coincides with the release of a new EP, Elasticity, with five songs Tankian originally wrote for a never completed System album. The title song is emphatic and surreal, while the frantic “Electric Yeravan,” celebrates an earlier Armenian protest movement.

After a long hiatus from action, Tankian and System reunited in 2011 and toured the world, but anyone hoping for new music from the quartet were disappointed until late last year, when the band unexpectedly dropped two new songs, “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz,” the first new music from System in 15 years. All the internal discord over how System would move forward on creating new music abruptly fell away for an urgent cause: to rally attention and support for the band members’ shared ancestral homeland as it faced war with Azerbaijan.

The band’s future as a source of new music remains uncertain, but Tankian plans to keep busy, with another EP later this year and the debut of a 24-minute classical “modern piano concerto.” His need to speak out and create is as strong as ever. _REVOLVER MAGAZINE

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