Despite Serj Tankian and John Dolmayan’s public beef over the latter’s political leanings, despite Tankian and Daron Malakian’s statements against one another’s desire and motivations to create another album, System of a Down came together to record two brand new songs in support of the Artsakh troops fighting against Azerbaijan and Turkey in 2020.
It got me thinking. Why and how did the members of System of a Down get into politics and activism? And since it became clear that not all of the members see eye to eye on politics, I wanted to know who believed what and why.
And while politics may be the least sexy thing about music much less life, we have to acknowledge that it is largely due to politics that System even exists, why they wrote the ground-breaking songs that they did and the fact that they opened the eyes of a lot of us growing up on the evils of the world.
Lacking Innervision (My Bad)
System of a Down’s sophomore album, Toxicity, was released on September 4, 2001 — a literal week before 9/11 — and given the political climate at the time and the political themes that emerge on various tracks, the youth began to ask questions.
Or if you were like me it went right over your head.
Toxicity was the first metal album I ever got and it’ll always have a special place in my heart but my god was I dense. It’s like I heard what they were saying, but I didn’t hear what they were saying. I was aware that the themes were different from their contemporaries but it didn’t really register in my brain.
But I think some folk are just more inclined to politics than others even though the decisions of governments affect us all, and I think that that is the common theme throughout System.
Serj Tankian was born in Lebanon and moved to the U.S. when he was seven. Both sets of his grandparents survived the Armenian genocide, and before I go any further I have to explain exactly what the genocide was all about because it is crucial in understanding Serj and System.
The Armenian genocide was the systematic mass murder of Armenians by the Turkish government from 1915 to 1917. The reason behind the conflict? Religion!
The Ottoman Empire allowed Armenians, Jews and other groups to practice their religion, which in the case of the Armenians was Christianity. But the Armenians noted that their taxes were higher, they were still being forced to convert to Islam and were overall exploited.
Naturally, they expressed the desire for equal rights. This resulted in the sultan feeling threatened not only by the Armenians but also by the rest of Europe who were coming into their own power.
This resulted in the Hamidian massacres of 1894–1897 where 80–300,000 people were killed. But that was just a precursor of what was to come.
When World War I was occurring, the Empire had their back against the wall and the Armenians were an enemy that was too close to home. On the 24th of April 1915, Armenian leaders were rounded up and many of them killed.
Armenians were driven out of their land en masse and led to deserts. The elderly died first, then the children. Those who had the strength to fight were killed.
When a relief fund intervened and brought supplies that totaled over $US 1 billion in today’s currency, there were already thousands of reports attesting to the graveyard of dead bodies that littered the roads. The estimated death toll was over one million people.
So yeah, Serj is pissed off. The entire band is. And rightly so.
When Tankian attended California State University, Northridge, he was the president of the Armenian Students Association. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life but he started to play keyboard during his sophomore year. He found an outlet to express his emotions.
Besides being the frontman of System, he is an activist and was awarded a commemorative medal for his “contribution to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the advancement of music.”
He supports Bernie Sanders and Sanders’ record of fighting for civil liberties, something Tankian talks about, sings about and screams about in his music.
Oh, and he said that anyone who likes System but supports Trump is a hypocrite.
You couldn’t ask for a better segue.
Now, let’s move on to Serj’s brother-in-law, John.
John Dolmayan was the final member to join System of a Down and I remember watching him in music videos and thinking to myself, “Man, this guy is serious.”
I don’t know, he just seemed so stoic to me. But even back in the day, I didn’t see him as being a very vocal person at all, much less when it came to politics. I wasn’t even sure if he cared about it at all.
But then again, when you look at his other bandmates and then you look at John, John looks the most… conservative. And I don’t mean in terms of a political leaning. I mean in terms of literal looks.
Serj has his pantomime performances, Daron is a kid of artists and was expressing himself in different ways and Shavo’s beard says it all. Aside from a mohawk I saw sometimes, John was the most normal-looking.
And when I heard the lyrical themes coming through a typical System of a Down single and I saw their performances in the music video, it lead me to think that Serj, Daron and Shavo had deeper passion about what was being sung, whereas John was more reserved about the whole thing.
As we will soon see, my interpretation wasn’t exactly right.
John and his family moved to the States from Lebanon due to the civil war going on at the time. John was born two years before the conflict erupted. What was the cause of the conflict? Religion!
When it comes to John’s politics, he didn’t seem to have any. When you check out his social media, he of course remembers the Armenian genocide, Armistice and Memorial Day. He shared some fundraisers. Oh, and he really likes the Buffalo Bills.
But then things changed. Slightly.
Donald Trump was elected president and John made an Instagram post congratulating him and hoping he would do the office proud. When he was maligned for it, he expressed his disappointment, stating that one’s opinion doesn’t matter, including his own.
He continued by saying that there were bigger problems in the world than yelling at someone else’s perspective and that it would be better to redirect that energy to helping someone.
At this point, he still wasn’t posting political stuff that much. But then things changed in June 2020 when he posted on Instagram that he endorsed Trump’s message that his administration had done more for the Black community since Abraham Lincoln.
You can look up whether or not that’s true, but ever since that post, he’s been posting political stuff on a more regular basis. But since the conflict in Artsakh in November 2020, many of his posts have been about it and educating his audience on the history of the conflict and the vile acts their enemies are currently waging against Armenians.
However, I couldn’t help but note that he didn’t wish Joe Biden the best when he won the presidency. It seems John really wants a non-establishment guy in the seat over a career politician.
At any rate, Serj and John have butted heads on this political divide. John made a post about how socialism is the same as prisons and Serj commented on the post, trying to explain the difference.
Serj himself has said that he gets frustrated with John, but I’m sure the feeling is mutual.
Nevertheless, John has expressed his desire to resume System and even posts fan made memes about System’s hiatus, so it’s nice to see that someone has a sense of humor about this whole thing.
System was booked to open for Slayer at a concert they were going to play at. There was just one minor problem. The concert was in Turkey.
I don’t know who System’s booking agent was at the time, but c’mon, man. Read the room.
Anyway, System decided to do it but they were met with resistance by the Turkish government (what a shock). They were told that they were not allowed to speak their minds, which in all honesty, doesn’t make a lot of sense because all they would have to do is play P.L.U.C.K. and it’s game over.
And if you think that System of a Down would not play P.L.U.C.K. in Turkey to the Turks, I’m sorry, but that would be the biggest opportunity wasted.
Yes, they would probably be arrested and held in some dungeon below Istanbul and forced to eat rotting kebabs but I can’t see a band as passionate as System not taking the chance to talk directly to the ancestors of the people who murdered their ancestors.
Shavo Obadjian spoke about it in an interview and vented his frustration with Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian genocide and System’s freedom of speech.
Shavo is an interesting one because his politics aren’t super obvious. He was born in Armenia and is the only member to actually be born there. He is a human rights activist and he also mentors youth. He was awarded the “Community Hero” award from the Armenian General Benevolent Union for his mentorship of Armenian-Americans.
In his acceptance speech, Shavo thanked his own mentor, RZA from the Wu Tang Clan. That’s pretty cool but also kind of weird since RZA is only five years older than Shavo.
Shavo also has his own cannabis brand…? Like I said, there isn’t much to suggest exactly what his political leanings are. I assume he’s left-leaning but there’s nothing that really states that he is.
The only thing I can see that he has faith in is that maybe, just maybe System can get together and make another album one day.
But he has stated that System isn’t even a political band. Yeah, that made me scratch my head too. But he explained this in an interview with Campus Circle.
Obadjian stated, “I’m not going to talk about politics, I’m going to talk about us as humans. It’s all about living your life righteously and having other people take example,” says Odadjian. “It can be a chain reaction. We’re a unit, we’re all together, we’re all connected. What I do affects what might happen in Iraq or China or Japan or anywhere else, in time.
An oddly-relevant point in 2020.
Daron Malakian is the only System of a Down member to be born in the U.S. His dad, Vartan, was born in Iraq and moved to the U.S. to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime. And what was behind Saddam’s oppressive regime? Nationalism!
Yeah, it wasn’t religion this time.
Regardless, Daron as you probably know, has written a lot of material for System over the years. So it would stem to reason that he is a political guy, right?
He’s spoken about police reform and incarceration. He also stated that the song “Lives,” which was performed by his side-project Scars on Broadway wasn’t about the Armenian genocide itself, but about carrying on living after the genocide.
But he really doesn’t seem to care which side of the political spectrum people are on. In fact, his characterization of the American Left and American Right seems characteristic of someone who is observing the two sides, not someone who is on a team.
He has his views about things but doesn’t see the need to proclaim it to the world. He sees the good and the bad on both sides.
You know what he really has beef with? Religion!
He noted that politicians use religion to wind people up to further their own agendas. And if I may take it a step further, it was religion that was the primary force behind the Muslim sultan and Turks refusing to treat the Christian Armenians with respect and dignity because Christians don’t accept Muhammad as God’s prophet.
That simple demarcation was enough to view someone as an enemy: you believe something different than what I believe. That’s why I will argue with you, that’s why I will fight you; that’s why you deserve to die.
Still seems so relevant. Too relevant.
Today’s political climate may need System of a Down just as it did in the 2000s, but that doesn’t seem to be possible right now. While the band was able to come together for Armenia, are they able to do it for America? They seem too divided to be able to do so, but who knows? Maybe something will change?
But at least now you know what the band members think, which I have to admit, really doesn’t matter at the end of the day.
Because unless we choose to respect each other as people and not just because we agree on the same things and believe the same things, we are doomed to repeat our history.