Part History, Part Memoir, Serj Tankian’s Book ‘Down With the System’ Shocks and Enlightens on Every Page

Serj Tankian opens his memoir, Down With The System, in part, with a history of his family’s experiences during the Armenian Genocide. It’s a subject that Tankian has always felt strongly about, and continues to feel strongly about now. And with good reason—the Ottoman Empire denied their perpetration of the genocide around the time of World War I. The Turkish government continued the lie, committing further atrocities against the Armenian people through the years.

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Essentially, a ruling government swept an entire ethnic cleansing under the rug. Serj Tankian made it his personal mission to shake that rug out. He’s known as the frontman of System of a Down, a unique band in which every member is either a descendant of Armenian immigrants or an immigrant themselves. In that way, the band is intrinsically linked to the genocide’s lasting effects. Since 1994, they’ve brought attention to not only crimes against the Armenian people, but to discrimination, bigotry, and power imbalances in the U.S. as well.

The introduction of Tankian’s book, published on May 14, lays out the groundwork for the vibe of the rest of the book—he details a moment in which he didn’t stand up for his words and beliefs. This may seem contradictory to what we know about Tankian. However, he enlightens readers by telling a story in which Howard Stern interviewed him following 9/11. Tankian had published an essay on the band’s website titled “Understanding Oil,” in which he explained that the attacks were “a reaction to existing injustices around the world, generally unseen to most Americans.”

[RELATED: Serj Tankian Recalls the Most Impactful Iron Maiden Concert He Ever Attended]

Serj Tankian’s Memoir Down With The System Presents a Unique Look Into His Journey to Making Music

This, he claimed, tied in with the cover-up of the Armenian Genocide. He writes in the memoir, “The U.S. government had secured oil concessions from Turkey through secret deals after World War I in return for ignoring the Armenian Genocide, which was perpetrated by the Turks … The closer you looked, the less shocking the 9/11 attacks actually were.”

He posted this essay two days after 9/11, and it did not go over well, he says. In his phone call with Howard Stern, he essentially sussed Tankian out—”Are you with us or against us?” he writes. He added, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like an immigrant, an outsider, than I did that day on the phone with Howard Stern.”

Tankian states that, during the interview, “I let my actions be dictated by fear. Fear of ridicule. Fear of ostracism. Fear of violence. Fear, frankly, that my bandmates would never forgive me.” However, he adds, “It’s at those moments when no one wants to hear the truth that it’s so important to tell it. Now I knew what it felt like to hold my tongue when it most needed to be unleashed. And I vowed that I would never let it happen again.”

That’s how Down With The System opens—complicated yet passionate. It’s a testament to how Serj Tankian lives his life. He addresses things that most people would like to ignore, like disenfranchisement, violence against innocents, war, genocide, human rights violations. The book is a history of System of a Down, of course. It’s also a history of Tankian’s involvement with activism.

“You Have To Decide To Be an Artist or an Entertainer”

American Songwriter met with Serj Tankian over Zoom on an innocuous day in late May. We discussed the inspiration behind deciding to write his memoir, as well as what he hopes to inspire with his stories. However, we soon got on the subject of activism, which was Tankian’s pipeline to music. He didn’t start out wanting to be a musician. That came later, after he had already committed himself to the world of activism.

“I started playing music when I was 19 with a little Casio keyboard while I was going to university,” he said. Tankian continued, “I was already an activist from a young teenager, and so by the time music became my life in my twenties and later in my thirties, I was already an ardent activist going into the arts.

“I always say the decision is early on that you have decide to be an artist or an entertainer,” he continued. “An artist can entertain, but an artist always has to grapple with the truth and always has to be honest with their audience. That is not a popularity contest, and you could lose a lot of followers for it. And that’s okay because you’re supposed to do that. Whereas an entertainer just entertains. That’s fine too.”

Down With The System is a Triumph

Serj Tankian and his memoir sparked a thought for this author, then posed to Tankian himself. I have passion for a lot of different causes. But that type of activism where you put yourself out there scares me. Being physically present is scary. But I want to do more in my life and with how I present myself and support other people.

“You could choose to do [activism] just through your art and writing as well without necessarily social media or physical presence or any of that because I think that’s just as valid if that’s the best way you can represent your voice,” Tankian replied. Here was a person who fought for justice through his physical presence, his music, through almost every word. And he was telling this author “whatever you’re comfortable with” in terms of activism. That we can do the work through our art just as well as attending a protest or a march.

Down With The System is a triumph of a memoir. It’s also a history not only of a wildly popular band, but of tragedy, emotional scars, family, and fighting for what’s right. Serj Tankian continues to be an inspiration through his starkly presented prose. It is simple yet captivating. However, it’s the subject matter that really captures the reader, the way he lays everything out with care and compassion. His family history, losing friends and bandmates, and learning what his life is meant for—music, completely and forever.

Featured Image by M. Tran/FilmMagic

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