By Dale W. Eisinger
Four Armenian-Americans comprise the GRAMMY-winning, critically and commercially successful rock band called System of a Down. One Armenian-American comprises the media unit called Kim Kardashian, famous for her beauty, media savvy, and fashion sense. Recently, she lugged a camera crew, her husband Kanye West, and their daughter North to Yerevan, Armenia. On April 24, the band (SOAD) will play a free, public concert at Republic Square, in the same city.
The date, April 24, has a distinction for more than the media gamut. This is, beyond comprehension, the exact beginning of the systematic execution of as many as 1.5 million Armenians, starting in 1915. It is one of the most studied war crimes in history, the mass murder that gave us the very term “genocide.” Around 1943, the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin frankensteined the word from the Greek genos, for “race” or “tribe,” and the Latin cide, for “killing,” to describe the legal parameters of “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.” The System of a Down concert, the band’s 2015 #WAKEUPTHESOULS tour, and Kardashian’s visit, all coincide with the 100th anniversary of this travesty perpetrated by Ottoman Turks. Metal bands and reality TV stars: the cross-cultural ambassadors of today.
In a recent NPR interview, System of a Down singer Serj Tankian talked about his grandparents, who escaped the genocide because of extraordinary circumstances. “It’s these incredible tragic stories that we’ve grown up with,” Tankian said. “Some people call it political. Sure, there’s many political aspects to it. But, because all four members of the band are Armenian-Americans, it’s personal.”
As for Kardashian’s typically blessed fashion, The Daily Mail claims her Armenian ancestors, under the name Kardaschoffs, escaped thanks to a warning from a prophet.
Today lets all stand together & remember the 1.5 million people who were massacred in the Armenian Genocide. April 24th, 1915. #NEVERFORGET—
Kim Kardashian (@KimKardashian) April 24, 2012
We occasionally bristle at celebrities stumping for a cause célèbre. With the advent of the Star Activist, a light public eye-rolling occurs when advocacy swallows a conversation that, moments before, revolved around a reality spin-off series or a political prog-metal album. Bono particularly comes to mind for receiving backlash for boosterism but, then again, Larry King would let you say just about anything on TV back in the day, as long as it got the eyeballs on the screen. The cult of celebrity drives scrutiny, which leads to skepticism, which leads to scrutiny, on and on. How can someone who “pretends” (like a TV star) or “plays” (like a musician) genuinely relay their passion to a cause as noble and nuanced as the violence in Darfur, or the Fukushima nuclear disaster, or the centennial of the Armenian Holocaust?
Consider the pressure of translating your passion, unscripted, to an audience of untold millions. Kim does it on a multi-platform scale, and does so with candor. System of a Down does so in a much more articulated way. Take the 1998 track “P.L.U.C.K.” (Politically, Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers) from the band’s eponymous first album. Tankian quite literally calls for reparations, not an uncommon sentiment for the band. The liner notes included this before the track’s listing: “System of a Down would like to dedicate this song to the memory of the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by the Turkish Government in 1915.”
If that dedication passed all but the most scrupulous fans of System of a Down, it didn’t generate controversy the likes of The Dixie Chicks saw for their feather ruffling. Following the attacks of 9/11, that country band received death threats for criticizing President George W. Bush, and still hold fast to their beliefs today.
But the phenomenon of charity scrutiny has waned in recent years. Take Emma Watson—the Brown-educated actress known best for her role as the wizard Hermione Granger—who has recently taken to the stage of international politics, pushing gender equality to the United Nations. In the age of breathless celebrity coverage, it’s not whether we know more or we just think we know more, the issue itself is catalyst enough. It’s this same age, where Kim Kardashian is cultural ambassador and System of a Down named their tour with a hashtag, where the mere articulation and visibility of the issue that serves as political activism. This levels the capitalistic celebrity with the political metal band, at least in terms of 21st Century hashtag activism.
Incidentally, Kim Kardashian and System of a Down are fighting for something that social media caters directly to: awareness and recognition, specifically of the Armenian Genocide. One factor in this battle for official recognition of the genocide is the spread of misinformation. When the very powers that be attempt to instantaneously rewrite history to their benefit, this is a legitimate concern. Turkey has yet to acknowledge the violence as genocide, using the pretext of World War I as an excuse.
Siding with the ally, The United States has done the same, even as 43 US states recognize the genocide. For his part, when presented with evidence of the holocaust in 1915, then-US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau, Sr. recommended US intervention. He later helped to generate $100 million, the equivalent of $1 billion today, by forming the charitable group the Committee on Armenian Atrocities. He wrote a book called The Murder of a Nation concerning the issue. The US government refused to intervene, for political stratagem. To this day, the US has not officially used language to recognize the Armenian slaughter as a genocide, even as the increasingly progressive Vatican and the European Parliament concede to the term.