"A lot of my family on both sides was exterminated," System of a Down drummer John Dolmayan begins. "My great-grandfather was shot in front of his family. Women and children were killed. People were raped. Everything horrible you can imagine happened."
Dolmayan calmly recites the laundry list of atrocities committed against his family when the Ottoman Empire began systematically exterminating its Armenian minority exactly 100 years ago. His neutral tone is hard-earned, the product of years of talking to journalists about a trauma that has been buried in history.
This month, System of a Down embark on their Wake Up the Souls tour, which kicks off April 6 at the Forum and culminates with the band's first performance in Armenia's capital city of Yerevan on April 23. "The goal is to raise awareness about the Armenian genocide, and also to put the idea into people's minds that justice can prevail, even if it's been a hundred years," frontman Serj Tankian says.
The Armenian genocide is one of the best-kept secrets of the 20th century, although it was not marginalized at the time it took place. In 1918, Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, wrote in his memoirs: "The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915." But for the past century, a campaign of denial orchestrated and perpetuated by one Turkish administration after another has purposely obscured the historical record.
On April 24, 1915, Ottoman authorities, high on the nationalist rhetoric of the Young Turks movement, rounded up Armenian intellectuals and community organizers and executed them. A ruthless propaganda strategy vilifying the Armenian population, which might as well have served as the Nazi Party's template, helped justify what was to follow. From 1915 to 1918, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were massacred, and hundreds of thousands more were driven from their lands.
"The most common misconception is that the genocide was part of a war," says Dolmayan, who was born in Lebanon, where many Armenians fled, and moved to the United States as a child with his family. "When you have 1.5 million people from one side die, it's rarely a war. The Armenians fought back, but the people who were killed weren't soldiers. They were kids, women, the elderly. They were farmers and craftsmen. They were put in caves and fires were lit in front so they would asphyxiate. It wasn't like the Armenian army was beat by the Turkish army. The intention was to wipe out all Armenians."
To date, 23 countries have recognized the Armenian genocide. The United States is notably absent from that list, although 43 states have officially recognized the genocide, including California. "It's the ugly side of realpolitik. It's shameful to use genocide as political capital," Tankian says. "We become apologists for those in Turkey denying the genocide, for those who put journalists in jail for questioning the official stand. It encourages more oppression."
Becoming the poster band for the Armenian genocide was not part of the plan when System of a Down formed in L.A. in 1994. But history was an undeniable part of the alt-metal group from the beginning. All members — in addition to Tankian and Dolmayan, System of a Down includes guitarist Daron Malakian and bassist Shavo Odadjian — are from Armenian families affected by the genocide.
"When we first started touring, people in the U.S. didn't really know who Armenians were. This was long before Kim Kardashian," says Dolmayan, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. "There wasn't a lot of sympathy toward the cause, especially with Turkey being an ally to the U.S. and NATO. Armenia had been a part of the Soviet Union for 60 years." (It became an independent country in 1991.) "There was an education process that had to happen."
For Tankian, it's all about learning from history's mistakes, but he says that's impossible so long as Turkey won't acknowledge the genocide. "If you go to the third floor of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., there's a quote from Hitler on the wall. As he was about to invade Poland, he said to his generals, 'Who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?' He thought he could walk away with impunity from all of the atrocities he was about to commit."
At its heart, the Wake Up the Souls tour is about preventing such atrocities from ever being swept under the rug again. Both Dolmayan and Tankian also stress that the denial of the genocide continues to shape Armenian-American culture and identity.
"Turkey's refusal to recognize the genocide is a very unique historical fact," Tankian says. "It's become part of [Armenian] culture to try to fight this injustice. It's time for Turkey to come to grips with its past so we can all move on from this psychological trauma. Armenian culture is very old and rich. We want to move on and celebrate that, but we can't until there's recognition."
"Being a victim of genocide, especially one that hasn't been recognized, makes you more sensitive to injustice in general," Dolmayan adds.
Although System of a Down have a huge Armenian fan base, the April 23 concert in Yerevan will be the band's first in its ancestral land. "Armenians have been waiting for System of a Down for years, so this is going to be big," Tankian says. "As part of the show, we will have a three-part video presentation introducing the genocide and different elements of it in an artistic fashion. It's all still coming together." The band also is looking into streaming the concert online for fans worldwide.
"My No. 1 personal goal with the tour is to raise awareness about this catastrophe and make an impact on Turkey and other nations," Tankian says. "I'm looking for results, to put it plainly. There is more awareness today. I'm proud to say that the band has been a part of that change. The importance of this event is how it affects us today."
Since forming System of a Down more than 20 years ago, Tankian and his bandmates have received countless emails and letters from people all over the world, asking for more information about the genocide. "It would be nice if Turkey accepted responsibility, but they're probably not happy about restitutions and giving land back. It will be costly for them, but avoiding it won't make it go away," Dolmayan says.
Proposals for reparations differ greatly. Key to all of them is the demand for land return: Many argue that the Turkish-Armenian border as designated in the unratified 1920 Treaty of Sèvres should be restored.
In Dolmayan's opinion, this is about more than just what happened to Armenians a century ago. "The worst thing isn't that people don't care about a genocide that happened a hundred years ago," the drummer says. "The worst thing is that people don't care about genocide happening today."
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SYSTEM OF A DOWN | The Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood | Monday, April 6, 8 p.m. | fabulousforum.com