Serj Tankian with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at a rally in Armenia

Musical Luminary Serj Tankian Gives His Take on Armenian Issues


By Michael Melkonian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

LOS ANGELES – Serj Tankian, a revolutionary musician, founding member and lead singer of one of the most iconic bands of modern rock, System of a Down, has started to transition to full-time Armenian philanthropy and activism. Tankian, an Armenian born in Lebanon and raised in Los Angeles, California, has been a staple of the Armenian community for quite some time. System of a Down was one of the most known bands in the world in the early 2000s, having sold over 40 million records while garnering MTV nominations and wins along with multiple Grammy nominations and a Grammy win for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2006.

This type of success made him a role model with a cult following around the world, including within the Armenian community, but Tankian’s influence didn’t stop there. Most famously, Tankian was involved in the recent Armenian Velvet Revolution, which encouraged acts of peaceful civil disobedience by Armenia’s people to overthrow the ruling party. Tankian over the years publicly spoke about the injustices in Armenia and the need to address them peacefully. He wrote open letters to President Serzh Sargsyan and was unabashedly critical of his leadership.

Tankian’s hope was that the people of Armenia would one day feel empowered and know that they had the ability to make a positive change and create an Armenia which they deserved. When he saw the youth finally become ignited in a peaceful movement, led by prominent journalist Nikol Pashinyan, to force out of power the ruling elite, Tankian showed his support and encouragement through posts and videos on social media. He backed Pashinyan for prime minister and was involved in many rallies promoting him.

Serj Tankian

“I believe the whole Armenian nation supports Nikol Pashinyan,” Tankian said early this August. “I have always supported true egalitarian justice and economic opportunity, which was lacking in the former government. I wanted this revolution to happen also to stop the scourge of corruption in the Armenian government, so young people can get more opportunities to succeed. This revolution took only 40 days to accomplish, but was built on the efforts of 30 years of demands for change.”

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Tankian credits his vision for a free and democratic Armenia along with his view of the hypocrisy of the US government on the issue of the Armenian Genocide for spurring his transformation from an iconic music artist back into an Armenian activist. “I was an activist before I was a musician,” Tankian said. “My activism for the Armenian cause transitioned into my music, with political ideas such as the US government ignoring the Armenian Genocide being included heavily in it. This led to my vision now for Armenia, which is a free and creative Armenia getting ready for the future.”

Tankian’s grandfather, Stepan Haytayan, was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, who fled Turkey and settled in Lebanon. An affiliate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and a member of multiple school and church boards, Tankian cites him as being one of his main influences when it came to Armenian issues. “My grandfather was an Armenian patriot through and through,” Tankian said. “I can recall him reading us stories of the Armenian fedayi and the history of the Armenian Republic, which really made him become an inspiring older figure for me.”

Tankian supports Creative Armenia philanthropically as a board member with the goal of creating a more creative and innovative Armenia. Creative Armenia is a non-profit arts foundation founded in 2017 to rejuvenate the arts and build creative industries and programming while providing opportunities for artists across all creative fields. “Creative Armenia was started a couple years back by a few friends of mine, who invited me to be on their board,” Tankian said. “They have done a couple of cool challenges which have included writer/director Terry George and myself to help promote creativity in the Armenian music and film industry. Examples of some of the challenges would be to tell a human rights story in 60 seconds with no dialogue or to finish a composition that I wrote the first seven notes for. It truly is a great idea because it is a non-profit organization that helps sponsor artists from all over Armenia.”

Anthony Bourdain, the host of his widely successful television show, “Parts Unknown,” tragically took his own life earlier this year during production of its 11th season. Before that, however, he took a trip to Armenia to film an episode for his show. Tankian was instrumental in getting Bourdain to go to Armenia.

“Many months ago, I was watching ‘Parts Unknown’ with my wife, which we are both huge fans of,” Tankian said. “My wife suggested to me that I should contact him on a possible episode to Armenia, which I thought would be a great idea. I got his email from my friend at William Morris and sent him an email regarding filming an episode in Armenia and how I have his back if he went there. I thought I would never hear back from this guy again. He responded in 10 minutes saying ‘you’re on, I’ll have my producers reach out to you over the summer,’ which they did, and I helped them behind the scenes on where to go and who to meet. We then flew into Armenia in October of last year to shoot ‘Parts Unknown: Armenia,’ which came out on May 19. Of course when I heard about Tony’s passing, that really threw me off and it has been tough to deal with.”

Before Nikol Pashinyan, velvet revolutions, and Anthony Bourdain, Tankian was known primarily for his role in the band, System of a Down. The band was known for its “unique charm,” as Tankian put it, which helped increase its popularity. “When the band started, we came to the L.A. music scene as a very unique band, with our style of music being different from the one being listened to on radios and from what was going on at the time musically,” Tankian said. “However, people started to enjoy our style of play and that led to many sold-out concerts in Los Angeles and us being signed by a label. Even with that, it was still a challenge since we had to tour everywhere over the first few years, but that also got us a strong and loyal following which then translated into the music charts. So it was a methodical and long-term working effort, but even so, there still was an element of surprise because there are many bands that did the same thing we did, but did not reach critical success. In a way, sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you envision things. Sometimes there’s also a matter of chance involved in the success.”

Tankian is an Armenian American with deep Armenian roots. When asked what made him passionate about Armenian issues, Tankian stressed the importance of knowing one’s history. “Armenian is who we are. If we’re not interested in who we are, we won’t know who we are going to be,” Tankian said. “I believe the question that should be asked is why are we not all connected to Armenia in regards to the Armenian diaspora. I think that we need a revolutionary change in the mindset of the diaspora toward our role as a race, a community of people, and our perspective of Armenia. This has to be changed immediately, because the danger of not doing so and our ignorance to not being able to properly connect to people in Armenia can harm our newly won revolution in Armenia.”

Serj Tankian promoting his new coffee brand, Kavat Coffee

Serj Tankian has played many roles throughout his career. From lead singer of System of a Down, to movie producer, to Armenian revolutionary, the titles that he has earned are immense. Tankian was candid about what the next chapter of his life will hold. “I’ve got a lot of balls in the air. I am doing a lot of stuff in Armenia, from environmental, to political, to social, and a music festival that I am thinking about taking on,” Tankian said. “On my own, I am working on a coffee line that we are about to introduce in a few months called Kavat Coffee, with a major Southern California coffee company. We are going to release Armenian coffee to the general public and show them the Armenian coffee culture. I also have two films that I am working on, one is a revolutionary film and the other is a music film that I have been putting together for years. I’ve got a tour coming up in October with System of a Down for about five to six dates, most of them in California, one in Phoenix, and one in Nevada.”

“I’m working with a few friends in New Zealand and the Australian Armenian National Committee to push a motion of recognition of the Armenian Genocide in New Zealand. I am on the board of a number of nonprofits that I am working with, such as TUMO and the My Step organization in Armenia founded a few months ago by Anna Hakobyan Pashinyan. I can’t even think of all of the stuff to be honest. I just go email by email and phone call by phone call. However, I do love doing all of this and it all just stems from a true place of passion within me to keep doing what I love in the best way possible.”

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