System of a Down's Serj Tankian Talks Musical Activism & the Armenian Revolution

Amy Harris/Invision/AP/Shutterstock
Serj Tankian of System Of A Down performs at the Sonic Temple Art and Music Festival at Mapfre Stadium on May 17, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio.

I Am Not Alone, the documentary on the 2018 Armenian Revolution was the first runner-up of The Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award after it had its world premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 5-15). System of a Down’s Serj Tankian executive produced the doc, and cut an English-language acoustic version of the theme song, “My Step.” 

The film, directed by Garin Hovannisian — who is working on a musical activism doc about Tankian — does have relevance to U.S. audiences in that it shows the power of the people to affect change — significant change.  Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of a small political opposition group who started the march and other clever protests against the Republican government, is now the prime minister.

“My Step” was composed, arranged and performed by Hayk Stver, and the lyrics composed by the now-prime minister, Pashinyan, as a motivating protest song before they embarked on their first march. The English version is sung by Tankian and the director’s wife Larisa Hovannisian, and arranged by Tankian.

“I did it on an acoustic guitar, instead of a full rock arrangement. That became the credit song in it. It came out really well. I'm happy with it,” Tankian told Billboard when he was in Toronto for the film’s premiere. “The lyrics are very powerful because the whole thing is he [Nikol] starts alone, and you have to have so much faith and belief that people are going to join you.”

Tankian also composed the score, which he says is “actually louder in terms of the volume than any documentary I've ever scored. Garin wanted it to help with the pace of the film and I think it does its job well in that sense.”

As background, Armenia has both a prime minister and a president. What got Pashinyan so riled up was after serving the maximum two terms, President Serzh Sargsyan approved a change to the constitution allowing him to serve another term as prime minister. The peaceful uprising —  a velvet revolution — is a slow but remarkable rally of Armenian citizens, many of them young, spearheaded by Pashinyan with ingenuity and resolve.

In I Am Not Alone, we see the unique “decentralized civil disobedience” approach work. It ousts a government.

But before they set out on their first march, they needed a protest song, of course.

“Well, these guys were like young idealists,” says Tankian. “Mkhitar Hayrapetyan [brother of musician Stver] basically says, ‘We need a song,’ and here's Nikol going, ‘Shit, I'm about to start this protest of my life movement and now I have to write lyrics to a song the night before. I still have to go get a backpack.’ [laughs].”

Tankian, who lives in LA, was born in Lebanon. His family moved to the U.S. when he was seven years old, but his grandparents all fled the Armenian Genocide (1914-23, which led to the murder of an estimated 1.5 million people) and he felt “this mystical connection” to the country, he says. He first went there in 2001. 

As the 2018 Armenian Revolution came to a close — Facebook Live had been a major tool for allowing the world to follow along — Tankian went there with Hovannisian last May, just to have footage for the activism doc they’re working on together.

“Like everything in my life, I stumble into things that I'm supposed to do and then I find myself in the middle of it doing it,” Tankian says.  “For years, I've been shooting my own kind of POV footage with cameras and spy glasses from shows, interesting encounters, political events — not so much personal life, but more professional stuff. I want it to make it into a film and I needed a good editor.

“I thought, ‘My friend Garin would be great at doing this music film with me and going to Armenia would be great because this is such a unique situation to get a camera guy at the airport and cover some of this.’  He was there with a cameraman, did all that, and while he was there, he's like, ‘You know, I've shot the whole revolution?’ I'm like, ‘No, you're kidding me. I didn't know.’

“So, a new government comes in and I go, ‘We've got to make a film out of this.  No one's going to believe this.’ We're doing interviews there with BBC, Al Jazeera, but coming back to the States, no one knew about it. I'm like, ‘This is a magical thing that happened. People have gotten to know the universal message.’ So we ended up working together on both films.”

The musical activist doc on Tankian is in partnership with Live Nation, he says.

“Basically, it starts from my childhood and my activism and how I became an activist with the need to spread information about the Armenian genocide, with a government that's a democratic government, that's using it as political capital with Turkey as a NATO ally, et cetera. Then it grows to System Of A Down and how our messages became disseminated with our popularity, and my further activism and growth.”

Tankian, who started a non-profit called Axis of Justice with Tom Morello back in 2002 but says it’s not active now (they also did a radio show for 10 years on Pacifica Network’s KPFK), adds that the film is “about activism and how it's disseminated and how a message becomes reality. The Revolution is at the end of it becoming the reality because I was also involved in challenging the corrupt regime in Armenia as well over the years. 

“I don't want to get into the other film much,” he adds, “but there's always been a point in my life where I've gone against public opinion because the truth was against public opinion. I was challenged as an artist, as an activist, and there were a lot of Armenians that didn't want to speak about corruption in Armenia because in the diaspora we want to look good. You don't want to air your dirty laundry so that became an issue. So, we deal with those kinds of issues in that film.”

And the all-important question for System Of A Down fans, will we ever see new music from the band? The last album was 2005’s Hypnotize. 

“The status has not changed,” says Tankian. “We tour. We do shows together. We haven't been able to see eye to eye to continue as far as creating new music together. Maybe one day that will change, maybe that won't, but we're all close friends and we enjoy each other's company and we're like family at this point, after 25 years. We'll be announcing some new shows soon.”


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