And Justice For All

JAN 11, 2011

Tyler J. Monroe on Serj Tankian.

Serj Tankian wants to shake up politics. Abolish the electoral college. Limit campaign contributions of corporations to $1,000. Let tax payers decide what percentage of their tax dollars go to which government program. Ban all paid lobbyists. In short, Serj Tankian wants to put the power back into the hands of the people.

Tankian is best known as the growling vocal acrobat who fronted the Grammy Award-winning alternative rock band System of a Down. Switching from an ethereal baritone to an operatic falsetto to a gravelly roar and back again, Tankian has a voice that hits like a Molotov cocktail. As a band, System of a Down defied labels, hoping their music would speak for itself. But with songs like “Boom!” (“Boom, boom, boom, boom/ every time you drop the bomb / you kill the god you drop it for”) and “B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bombs)” (“Why don’t presidents fight the war? / Why do they always send the poor?”), Tankian’s politics are clear.

Born in Beirut, Tankian moved to Los Angeles when he was eight, where he attended a school for Armenian-Americans. He is quick to identify the source of his political activism: his grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide by the Turkish government in 1915. Since the United States and Turkey have refused to acknowledge the atrocity as genocide, Tankian has learned not to trust Washington’s propaganda machine. After System of a Down became popular, he used his success to help promote his political beliefs. The morning after the terrorist attacks on September 11, Tankian wrote an essay entitled “Understanding Oil” in which he argued that U.S. foreign policy dating back decades helped make the suicide bombing of the World Trade Center possible, but that only through promoting understanding, and not armed retaliation, could peace be obtained in the Middle East. In 2002, Tankian allied himself with Tom Morello, guitarist of Rage Against the Machine – another incendiary and political band – to form the Axis of Justice, a not-for-profit organization whose aim is to unite musicians, fans of music, and grassroots political organizations to fight for social justice.

After System of a Down went on hiatus in 2006, Tankian has busied himself with myriad projects: he produced several solo albums (Elect the Dead, Elect the Dead Symphony, and the recently released Imperfect Harmonies – self-produced by his own record company Serjical Strike Records), continued his political activism, and signed on to write music for the A.R.T.’s production of Prometheus Bound with Tony Award-winning writer and lyricist Steven Sater (Spring Awakening).

Why would a man best known for singing aggressive metal anthems write music for
an adaptation of one of the oldest plays in the Western canon? Considering Tankian’s support of Amnesty International, his own Axis of Justice, and other human rights organizations, a play about a man tortured for his beliefs would certainly resonate with him. By adapting the ancient text, Tankian and Sater breathe fresh air into our oldest protest play.

In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Tankian once stated, “Music has the ability to inspire people and change hearts, and the heart has the power to change the mind, and the mind has the power to change the world.” Music and dance were the heartbeat of Greek tragedy, and Greek audiences responded to the spectacle of theater with the same Dionysian frenzy that takes hold when rock stars step on stage. With her direction of Prometheus Bound, A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus will return tragedy to its ecstatic origins by infusing it with the power of Tankian’s rock.

Tyler J. Monroe is a first-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.

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