Do You Like System of a Down?

Sami Martasian (Puppy Problems) on nu-metal and the Armenian Diaspora.

Sharing the experience of diaspora Armenians to those outside of it has long felt both urgent and important. As a result of unending genocide, our philosophers, artists, musicians and filmmakers remain a mystery to much of the world, but there is one cultural artifact we have seen ourselves reflected in for the last 20 years, for better or for worse: System of a Down. 

In the back of my dad’s white minivan, I was singing quietly along to the radio, head on the window, until he turned it off and gave me hell for liking a song so dirty. “But dad,” I said “They’re Armenian.” The song was “Violent Pornography” by System of a Down. 

Of course. 

After fact checking my defense at our town library computer lab, he went to Walmart and bought every (censored) CD he could find of theirs. 

I was 12 at the time, and much like now, I didn’t have a clue how to talk to people about being Armenian. I was used to nodding when people posed what they thought it might mean. “Is that like being Greek?” “Russian?” “ Middle Eastern?” A loaded question in my post-9/11 childhood, but I would shrug and say “Sort of.” I was never any one thing — always like something else. 

I did think when I was 12 that someday it would become easier to understand what exactly being Armenian meant. I wanted to find some universal truth to who we are in relation to the rest of the world. I looked to other Armenian people to help me define it but they left me even more confused. It seemed like every diaspora Armenian had radically different ideas about our shared identity. In truth, even writing this now makes me feel tense with worry that other Armenians will tear me a new one because they disagree with my understanding of our heritage. 

Within my own family, I felt a pull between two currents that would become patterns in my community; a desperate and sharp assimilation into American culture, versus an unresolved anger for ever-unfolding injustice and erasure. For some, America offered safety, an assimilation for which they would receive order and comfort after generations of upheaval, uncertainty, hunger, and violence. Think: military officers with -ian last names and big name entertainment lawyers taking on *ahem* high profile cases. For others, the process of hurdle-jumping to find acceptance in America would be another kind of violence. Without having ever owned rose colored glasses of our own, the imperial grip America imposes on the rest of the world mirrored the forces Armenian refugees fled. Depending on how you look, the community around you, or the circumstances following you, assimilation might not be an option. 

So, I’m 12, and there’s System of a Down. The first Armenian people with a definable presence in my little life outside of my family or black and white photos of corpse piles from the genocide that displaced us. They’re angry, they’re political, they’re brilliant and impossibly hip to the heavy, driving musical moment of the late ‘90s/early 2000s. While friends around me become fans, I privately feel as if I have a connection to them, forged in our rhyming last names, that my non-Armenian friends could never know. 

I’m trying to straighten my hair. 

I’m listening to my dad tell a story about how he got spat on at a dinner party when his hosts found out our family’s refugee history. 

My friends don’t believe me when I tell them about how I ended up in Rhode Island, about the Klan neighbors who tormented us or the police who told us to “go back where we came from” in our West Pennsylvania suburb. I don’t know what being Armenian really means, other than expecting violence, but I do know that Serj’s hair is a lot like mine. 

At the time of my childhood, Armenia’s connection to the United States’ military invasion and destruction of West Asia and North Africa¹ was not a straightforward one. Crawling through a turbulent and violent (not to mention unresolved) end of the 20th century, a great deal of Armenia’s mention in the American news cycle would be connected to other powers considered more active political players. Every year, the same question would rise in April (the month in which Armenians observe a time of remembrance): Would this be the year that America would recognize the Armenian Genocide? We would hold our breath and check the news with even more fervor than usual, and each year the answer was no. In order to maintain a diplomatic relationship with Turkey, which ensured a military stronghold for US forces and oil access, the genocide that defined our existence would go unrecognized. 

The constant crunch of news that filled the air in my post-9/11 childhood grinded me down in a way that people around me failed to understand. The military interference with West Asia that unfolded in real time on our TVs left me deflated and hollow. Serj Tankian says it best in his 2001 essay Understanding Oil: 

“…we must first look at our U.S. Mideast Policy. During most of the 20th century, U.S. businesses have worked on attaining oil rights and concessions from countries in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After WWI, secret back door deals by our State Dept. yielded oil rights from then defeated Turkey to fields in what is now Iraq and Saudi Arabia, in return for looking the other way at a crime against humanity, the Genocide of the Armenians by the Turks.” 

The world was silent to our history for the sake of financial gain, but there was Serj screaming,

Revolution, the only solution 
We’ve taken all your shit, now it’s time for restitution.
Recognition, Restoration, Reparation 
Recognition, Restoration, Reparation 

The closest thing to an Armenian community I had growing up came from my mom’s university coworkers, who connected me to parallel foods and traditions from their homes in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. I loved them and saw them as my family, the only people who I knew that looked a bit like me and shared a painful connection to enduring multi-generational loss. 

I was angry all the time. The feeling of those in power both in my political and personal life warranted a universal distrust that still burns in my core. The world looked away from the hypocrisy that arched over every facet of my life, but Serj called out: 

Kneeling roses disappearing 
Into Moses’ dry mouth 
Breaking into Fort Knox 
Stealing our intentions 
Hangers sitting, dripped in oil 
Crying, “freedom” 
Handed to obsoletion 
Still you feed us lies from the tablecloth 

And famously,

Why don’t the presidents fight the war? 
Why do they always send the poor? 

I spent my time scanning any map I could find, as if the geography of Armenia could speak to me with more certainty than the adults around me. I clumsily whispered names of cities and mountains to myself, wanting to know how they should sound in perfect Armenian pronunciation. Serj brought them to life: 

Liar! Killer! Demon! Back to the River Aras 
Someone’s blank stare deemed it warfare 
Liar! Killer! Demon! Back to the River Aras 

As with all preteens, after a few years I turned away from things I had loved as a younger person. My nu-metal days were over, but I still kept coming back to ideas solidified in my cultural upbringing through System of a Down. On a small tour with my own band, my bandmate Joel and I spent an unimaginable amount of time revisiting the SOAD catalog. What struck me as an adult was how unapologetically Armenian the composition of their music is. The winding vocal rises and falls of each verse in “Hypnotize” mirrors a duduk’s sharp notes. The plucky guitar work that sets SOAD apart from other nu-metal bands of their time echoes like an oud. People may not be familiar with Armenian culture by name, but they were subconsciously affected by it; moved by our rhythms and melodies. 

The complex band dynamics among the SOAD members also feels complexly familiar. While front man’s Serj Tankian has used much of his career to critique United States foreign policy, hypocritical politicians and popular culture driven by cognitive dissonance, drummer John Dolmayan would become an outspoken supporter for Donald Trump. There are those two paths again; friction between refugee experiences and an over-correcting want for power. Serj himself would come under scrutiny by some Armenians in more recent years for his close connection to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, a divisive figure whose response to recent Azeri aggression has been found unsatisfactory by many. The political tension in System Of A Down, much like in the Armenian Diaspora as a whole, would lead to some pretty public disagreements and eventually an indefinite hiatus. 

Last year brought another turbulent time for Armenians. Azeri forces moved in to take Artsakh, part of our ingigenous land that has remained ethnically and culturally Armenian through many violent border shifts. The tremendous loss of life, innumerable hate crimes in every corner of the world, and continuation of an intention to destroy Armenians as a whole brought us together. We experienced a temporary unity; Armenians from every walk of life and different political leanings banded together in and out of diaspora to grieve, raise money, and distribute goods to families displaced by violence. System of a Down, like all of us, put their differences aside for a moment to release two songs in response: “Genocidal Humanoidz” and “Protect the Land.”

It was as if this band, in all its contradiction and complexity, summed up the friction, forgiveness and brilliance of the Armenian Diaspora as a whole. 

I was at my favorite Armenian grocery store a few days ago, Arax Market in Watertown, Massachusetts. I had a short exchange with a kid who seemed excited to chat with someone who was visibly Armenian, a young(ish) adult, and uh, for lack of a better term, “alt” in some way. We complimented each other’s outfits and the snacks we held in our hands. They took a long, excited breath and asked exactly what I would have asked when I was their age. 

“Do you like System of a Down?” 

Of course. 

¹ While Serj is using the terms “Eastern Europe and the Middle East” to name these areas, recent education led me to understand that “South West Asia and North Africa” is a more correct phrasing.

(Photo Credit: right, Zuma Press, Inc.)

Sami Martasian is a freelance illustrator and teacher in Boston, MA. They are the front person of Puppy Problems, whose album Sunday Feeling is out on Sleeper Records, and are one-half of Rose, Water, Fountain, which just self-released an album this past summer. They can be reached at [email protected].