Serj Tankian, the multi-million selling Grammy Award-winning musician, best known for his work with System of a Down, came to Oxford last Wednesday 22nd April to talk to an issue very close to his heart: genocide. Screamers is a film that follows the band, all of whom are descendents of survivors of the Armenian genocide, as they tour and it points out the horrors of modern genocide that began in Armenia in 1915 and continue to the present day.
The screening of the film, put on by a partnership of the University’s Development Office and the Aegis society, gave an opportunity for students to ask Serj and other panellists Raffy Manoukian – London-based philanthropist and donor to the University who helped fund the film – and Professor Theo van Lint – Oxford’s professor of Armenian Studies and Fellow of Pembroke College – their questions in a panel discussion. We caught up with Serj before the event:
Have you had much time to see Oxford?
I’ve been to Oxford before! We actually played about an hour away in Reading over the summer and stayed in Oxford overnight. It was beautiful.
Not spent much time here today then just been travelling?
No we’ve just got here and have been travelling all day. Haven’t had any time to eat- [eats]
Do you know particularly or have any relationship with the other two men that are on the panel with you at the talk: Raffy Manoukian [London-based philanthropist] and Professor Theo van Lint [Calouste Gulbenkian Professor of Armenian Studies and Fellow of Pembroke College]?
I Know Raffy really well- I met him because he worked with the BBC on the production behind Screamers. I met him through that and became since then and he’s been very very active in promoting awareness about genocide. In terms of pushing the film as well getting distribution for it and screenings and working with different non-profit organisations he’s done a great job. He’s done a lot to be respected.
How did you get involved with making the film?
I was approached by the film maker Carla Garapedian a number of years ago and she was keen on getting System of a Down involved in making a film about genocide. So I met with her and I was really interested in presenting the similarities of different genocide and holocaust because I see a connection between them all. She was down for that idea which was cool and I thought that the uniqueness of the experience of the Armenian genocide in terms of it being denied by the perpetrators still after 94 years.
Urm, so, we kind of had a meeting of minds and I said OK let me go back to the other guys from SOAD and see if they are willing to participate and they were so we, you know, as a band we didn’t do anything differently than we did on a regular basis: our concerts, our activism, our meetings with congressional delegates. Everything that we do we did anyway we would do anyway with or without the film. We allowed her access so that she could film it and tied that into her story. So the film is really about genocide but it involves the band.
A lot of your song writing is affected by your politicization- how did this politicizing come about?
The hypocrisy of the denial of genocide in a well known democracy was the first spark for my politicization as a young adult and made me wonder how many truths there are out there that are being denied for economical or geo-political interests. Since then I’ve found a lot of others truths or injustices I might say that need shedding of light. So that was the first trigger for me growing up.
Was your primary motivation for making this film to raise awareness of the genocide issues surrounding it?
When I first decided to be involved with the film, one of the primary reasons was to raise awareness of the Armenian genocide another was to raise awareness of the human disease of this genocide in general. I think we haven’t realised the importance of prioritizing the reaction to genocide intervention to genocide as a global society and we still allow different interests to supersede intervention regarding genocide- Sudan being a prime example of our times today and how we- when I say ‘we’ I am primarily referring to the western nations and governments- have not really interfered in a major way.
Like you see Sudan collaborating a number of years back with the CIA and US intelligence on Al Qaeda authorities within the country because obviously Bin Laden had spent a quite a bit of time there and it’s purported that Bin Laden was there after it was known that genocide was going on- this was after George Bush Jnr. called the atrocities genocide within Sudan. So you start to think and think OK I guess for America that meant that fighting terror was more important than helping victims of genocide and that is a prime example of how our priorities are misplaced.
Are any of your songs particularly relevant to the issue of genocide?
System of a Down has two songs that touch upon genocide: one is from the first album we ever made and one is from the last album that we ever made. The songs are ‘P.L.U.C.K’ and the other ‘The Holy Mountains’.
Do you think that you could have been part of such a film if you didn’t have your status as a musician?
I would have wanted to have been part of such a film if I weren’t a musician- I’m not sure that anyone would be interested in asking me though!
So, do you consider it important for musicians such as yourself and Tom Morello to speak out on political issues? Do you think that it is an important voice?
I think every artist has his or her own vision- I think that it is important for every artist to follow that vision. I don‘t think every artist should be political. I think that … I’ve always said that a really great love song is more important than any political song ever written: it can change the world in much more interesting ways than any political song. However, that said, I think that music is a great narration of our times. It’s a great truthsayer of our times.
You listen to Bob Dylan’s music of the sixties and on and you see that it’s a great way of presenting some truths and a great way of fighting injustice and power through the arts. So, I think it’s definitely been part of my vision in life to always, you know, kind of bring certain topics to the forefront- you know, whether it’s through music or through conversation. Every artist has their own vision and I respect that.
Which love songs and political songs do you think are the best ones for conveying their message?
One of my favourite – I don’t know whether you can call it a love song – but one of my favourite songs is ‘Yesterday’ by Paul McCartney as one of those songs that is changing. It is a change oriented type of song. It makes you think back in time but it also paraphrases life in such a beautiful way.
But there are a lot of beautiful love songs. I think more sixties- because that’s when a lot of great lovin’ was going on [laughs]. The Summer of Love and a free and open society. But there’s a lot of good stuff being written today or quite recently.
Are there any up-and-coming bands or those of the past that are particularly good at conveying their political message?
There’s a lot more bands touching upon political subjects today than there were, I would say, six or seven years ago. All I remember is that right after 9/11, certain parties, myself inclusive, Tom Morello [Rage Against the Machine] inclusive were questioning some of the actions that were taken and some of the ‘gung-ho’-ness of the flag-waving involved. I appreciate authenticity and emotion in any type of situation but there was a lot of fear-induced flag-waving going on if that makes sense.
Also reactions that were prevailing: ‘Let’s cut them down’ that kind of stuff- very illogical type of response which I guess is acceptable for a tragedy. However, I don’t think that most people understand that the sources of those tragedies were injustices themselves from elsewhere- that it stemmed from somewhere and it didn’t just come out of thin air as a tragedy. It came as a reaction to foreign policy of the US, Britain and a lot of nations post WW2 and 1 having to do with the Armenian genocide and other topics. There are a lot of things that if we go back in history and look at how we’ve interacted as nations we can see how things are affected by that today.
Last term, there was a motion put to Oxford University Student Union amounting to a condemnation of the actions in Gaza. This provoked fierce debate amongst colleges as to whether it was the place of the student union to put forward a strong opinion on political issues- do you think that Student Unions should?
Most activism has started in universities. Historically, you look at the sixties, seventies, eighties, and I think university students are at a prime age and period of cognisant recognition of the world around them to be able to stand up for things and still have the youthful romanticism necessary to not be sceptical enough to actually put in their time and efforts to do so. I think that it is a very promising thing.
I don’t like sceptics of activism; we have plenty of it ourselves in what I do and what Tom Morello does- people saying ‘why should we listen to you you’re musicians and not foreign policy experts. I say I’m a human being beyond my particular job description and I happen to be involved in a number of things that include American foreign policy and I read a lot about that and I have so for the last 25 years so that doesn’t make me an official expert but I’ll sit down with an official expert and I’ll have a good repartee, you know?
Is there anything else that you think is particularly important to say in relation to Oxford students?
I went to university myself – I didn’t go to Oxford [laughs] but I went to Southern California University. It was a time of growth of the mind. I personally don’t think that you learn anything constructive in University. I think what you learn in University is to allow yourself to learn. I think that that’s what you learn. You learn to be open to things and to allow things to enter your mind without critically cutting it down and that openness to learning. You’ll retain some of the knowledge obviously but I think the average is about fifteen percent if at all. I certainly don’t remember anything that I learnt from my business degree in college except maybe a few quotes or something like that from funny professors if anything.
But I think it’s important, though, to have the community where you’re able to communicate with other people about things happening not just domestically but around the world and having like I said the lack of scepticism to be involved in standing up for what you truly believe in.