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System of a Down show their Armenian pride in 2020. Clockwise from top left: Daron Malakian, John Dolmayan, Shavo Odadjian, and Serj Tankian. Image credit: Armen Keleshian

The Role that System of a Down Played in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

You know I’m a big believer in media and entertainment as a platform for social advocacy. Most of the time when I say “social advocacy,” I mean it in an indirect way, where it’s kind of like advocacy in disguise. Like writing a character who has a physical disability into a TV series to raise viewer awareness, à la Steve Way on Ramy Youssef’s Ramy. Sometimes, rarely, entertainment products are leveraged for social, cultural, and political impact in more clear-cut, direct ways. A great example of this would be the slew of music that was released, or that re-emerged, just a few months ago during the height of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Given how media and entertainment reverberate through culture, it’s no surprise that System of a Down saw their own platform as a vehicle to support a conflict that is hugely important to them on a personal level: the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.

What’s Happening in Armenia and Azerbaijan?

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been going on for over 100 years. In 1918, Armenia and Azerbaijan both proclaimed independence from the Democratic Republic of Georgia, and in doing so, claimed territory that they both believed was their own. That territorial dispute led to a war that lasted between 1918 and 1920, when they were annexed by the Soviet Union. In 1988, while both Armenia and Azerbaijan were still part of the USSR, a war was declared over the highly contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region that borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The war broke out between the ethnic Armenians who comprised the majority of the population in that region, with the support of Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

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The ethnic Armenians wanted the region to unify with Armenia, while Azerbaijan wanted to have power over it. This war lasted until 1994, which is when Russia brokered a ceasefire, leading to diplomatic mediation. Despite the ceasefire, disputes have flared up intermittently, although the most recent, and perhaps most significant, began about 10 weeks ago in September 2020. The fighting raised concerns over heavy weaponry use in densely populated areas, and even possible war crimes.

Less than a month ago, on November 9, 2020, a ceasefire agreement was brokered by Russia to end hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Many would argue that the ceasefire was largely in favor of Azerbaijan.

How is System of a Down Connected to the Conflict?

The members of System of a Down feel strongly connected to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict because the band members are all of Armenian descent. Shavo Odadjian was born in Armenia, Daron Malakian’s parents were Armenian immigrants, John Dolmayan was born in Lebanon to Armenian parents, and Serj Tankian’s four grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide. In fact, Tankian even advocated for the recognition of the Armenian genocide while he was the President of the Armenian Students Association at Cal State Northridge.

How Did the Band Respond to this Conflict, and What Impact Did it Have?

You may or may not recall that System of a Down has been flying under the radar for a while. That’s because they hadn’t released a studio album since 2005, or a single since 2006. The bandmates are known to have differing political views; Tankian is known to support democrats, while Dolmayan has expressed support for Trump. However, they put those differences aside during the resurgence of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Odadjian says:

“This is gruesome shit that’s going on… There’s nothing humane about it. They’re not saying, ‘Oh, leave our lands. We’ll be so polite to help you leave.’ They’re massacring people and doing all sorts of cowardly, disgusting things. And that just touches all of us [in the band].”

Shavo Odadjian, System of a Down

In response, the band came together for an unprecedented reunion, releasing two singles to raise funds and raise awareness: Genocidal Humanoidz, and Protect the Land. The two songs generated over $600,000 in proceeds which were directed to the Armenia Fund, a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian aid to Armenia. Funds are used for projects such as rebuilding infrastructure that was destroyed in war, building new community and healthcare centers, and establishing agricultural development projects.

This is a perfect example of how media products can be more than entertainment. These songs single-handedly raised awareness of an international dispute, raised funds to provide humanitarian aid, and probably made more than a couple of people Google, “What is happening in Armenia?” During a time when the news was flooded with coverage of the US Presidential election. Imagine the number of people who took the time to learn more about what was happening on the other side of the world, not because they saw (or didn’t see) what was happening on the news, but because it mattered to a band that was important to them. That is the power of celebrity endorsement, but in the context of social justice and international relations.

If you’re interested in learning more about this conflict, Glendale Community College has a wide array of helpful resources, ranging from scholarly papers, to documentaries, to podcasts, and more. And if you’d like to learn more about the Armenia Fund, you can check out more information here.

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