Of all the nights Serj Tankian has stood on stage surveying a crowd of 50,000 faces roaring his own words back at him, there is one that the System of a Down frontman will never forget. On 23 April 2015, the metal band gave a two-and-half hour, 37-song set to a rapturous audience in Republic Square, in the heart of the Armenian capital Yerevan. For a band formed in the diaspora community of Los Angeles’ Little Armenia in 1994, the occasion could not have been more significant: they had been invited to perform in the country for the first time as part of events marking the centenary of the Armenian genocide, in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1922. “The overwhelming feeling was of belonging,” says Tankian, 53, speaking from his airy home studio in Los Angeles. “It felt like we were created 21 years earlier so we could be there that night.”
For Tankian, whose outspoken political activism often animates his songwriting, seeking international recognition of the Armenian genocide has been a lifelong and personal campaign. On stage that night in Yerevan he told the story of his grandfather Stepan Haytayan, who was just five years old when he saw his father murdered in the atrocities; he later went blind from hunger. Between songs, Tankian railed against Barack Obama’s resistance to using the term “genocide” to describe the atrocities after taking office, before turning his ire on Armenia’s authoritarian president, Serzh Sargsyan. “We’ve come a long way, Armenia, but there’s still a lot of fucking work to do,” Tankian told the audience, before calling out the “institutional injustice” of Sargsyan’s administration and demanding the introduction of an “egalitarian civil society”.