The day before the revolutionary “Wake Up The Souls” concert in Yerevan, Serj Tankian, composer, activist and lead vocalist of the rock band, System of a Down, was hosted for a talk by the American University of Armenia. A few minutes before the AUA talk, The Bridge’s Christina Soloyan sat with Tankian for an exclusive interview.
Having grown up in the Unites States, in an American culture, how has “Armenianness” become a part of your identity? What makes you an Armenian?
Lineage, genealogy, culture, I think, are the things that make you an Armenian. Language has its role in it as well. My friend, Vahe Berberian, gave a great talk recently in the University of Southern California. He had a very interesting take on the importance of maintaining our language, which we all know is necessary. Armenian culture is a big part of me. If you look at history, borders change, heads of states change, the color of humanity changes, but the beauty of culture stays, and Armenian culture is a very old, beautiful one.
You speak up a lot about the Armenian Genocide and other injustices. Have there even been situations when you were afraid that someone would warn or threaten you? As politicians don’t usually like political activists.
True. I think you have to make a choice. My choice was made early; I was an activist before being a musician. It’s the hypocrisy of the Turkish denial that awakened a call for activism in me. I started getting aware of other people’s human rights problems, environmental problems, and it made me just more aware as a human being. Sometimes I am afraid, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t speak truth to power, we all should. In the end, all nations and people who are in charge have to know the truth.
Speaking of threats, what is the thing you fear the most in life?
Fear itself is the only thing to fear. Many things cross your mind when you’re overwhelmed or you’re in a bad place emotionally, but most of them are just unrealized fears; so fear itself is the thing you have to conquer.
We remember the Armenian Genocide with pain and there is still mutual hatred and misunderstanding between Turks and Armenians. How do you imagine future Turkish and Armenian relations, especially between youth?
I think any relationship between two people in order to be healthy, should be based on mutual respect and justice. Nations don’t differ in that way. I do see the future where Armenia and Turkey have a good relationship. I do see a future where there is healing, but it has to be done through justice, it can’t be done by forgetting everything. There is a powerful civic movement that is gaining little fraction in Turkey. That should be very encouraging for us and we should work with it, not just in terms of recognition of the genocide, but also in terms of real democratization in Turkey. That way, journalists don’t go to jail for speaking the truth.
In one of your interviews you said that it’s not enough to have democracy, it is important to have educated democracy. What’s your opinion about education in Armenia?
It’s hard for me to make an assessment on the educational level of Armenia, but I do know that it has got a high literacy rate even from Soviet times. That is why Armenia is a great place for economic development in a positive sense, not in a user sense from outside interests. It’s got incredible potential, because I am hoping that investments in education will continue and it will go up within the country. Because I do believe that stupid democracy is not a democracy at all.
Aside from everything, what is your personal life dream?
I feel like a lot of the things that I’ve visualized have come true and I am very thankful for that. I’m trying to always figure out what’s next, where my vision will take me, and it’s not always popular steps that one has to take. I really enjoy scoring films a lot and I did a score for the film 1915 that a few director friends brought to me, and I’ll probably follow that for a bit, so we’ll see how things go.
Special thanks to Ms. Hilda Grigorian from AUA’s College of Business & Economics for making this interview a possibility.