System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian is no stranger to backlash, death threats, making enemies with various governments and even being labeled a spy on his quest for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and his work to bring true democracy to his homeland. The documentary “Truth To Power” lifts the veil on Tankian’s life, his rise to fame with System of a Down, his prolific solo music career and showcases his tireless activism.
Tankian’s grandfather, Stepan Haytayan, was five when he witnessed his father’s murder during the genocide. He went blind from hunger and finally arrived at an orphanage in Lebanon. Serj was born in Beirut, Lebanon and his family fled to Los Angeles during the country’s civil war in 1975. Before his grandfather passed, Tankian vowed to put awareness and recognition of the genocide at the forefront of whatever he did with his life. With his help through a decade-long campaign, the United States finally recognized the Armenian Genocide in 2019.
The film follows Tankian’s journey of pursuing his goals of political change and social justice, while providing an all-access pass with exclusive interviews and original footage highlighting the power of music and celebrity for real political change. Directed by Garin Hovannisian, who also helmed “1915” and the award-winning documentary “I Am Not Alone,” about Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, “Truth To Power” is available in virtual cinemas and in select theaters worldwide on February 19.
Variety spoke with Tankian ahead of the doc’s release:
Can you tell us about the genesis of the film?
I was always interested to share something from the artist eye, but I was interested more in the activist story. What happens to an activist before he’s got a big audience and what happens after the repercussions of speaking truth to power. Does music change the world? All these things became the real focus, not so much a biography, the rock stardom or backstage thing, although there’s a bit of that obviously. … It was important to tell the story of an activist who turned into an artist and had a bigger platform and the change that was brought from having a small voice to a large voice. How people can change their reality with inspiration with the arts, and how culture can be a potent force in our progress.
Can music change the world?
It’s a very subjective question. The way I see it is that music inspires, so an artist is inspired by the muse and then they inspire other people listening to that music and those people are viscerally changed in terms of their intuitive sense, because music is an intuitive medium. It’s a right-brain kind of action, and then lyrically the logic goes to the left side to make sense out of the words. For example, System of a Down’s “Prison Song,” you might be rocked by the music and not know what’s going on at first, but you start listening and it’s a fucking essay on the Three Strikes program in the United States. So, that can change your mind about what you feel about the [justice and] prison system and move you to action. If you actually act as a fan of the music then you are connecting dots and you are changing something. … Most activists, I always say, never see the fruits of their labor. We are lucky as a band to be able to see some of it with the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Congress in late 2019 and some of the work that we’ve done in terms of awareness. So, my answer is yes, but it is very subjective.
In the film, you go back to your Armenian school in Hollywood for the first time since graduating. How was that experience?
I went through Pilibos in Hollywood from 3rd to 12th grade and I hadn’t been there since. The director of the school was my classmate and I hadn’t seen her in years. She took me around the school and showed me what had changed and what’s new. Then there was the gathering at the auditorium and they had a surprise for me. They sang the Song of the Stork, “Bari Aragil,” which I had grown up singing with my Dad, which is a musical underlying theme throughout the film and it really, truly brought me to tears. I was overwhelmed.
Back on September 13, 2001, just two days after September 11, you wrote an essay called “Understanding Oil” and posted it to System of a Down’s website without the rest of the band’s knowledge. There was a massive backlash not only from the public, but from your bandmates. In hindsight, the backlash was intense but short-lived. What do you attest to that?
It was short-lived because soon thereafter it was discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a lot of the things that the government was claiming came out to be untrue. A few years later George W. Bush’s rating as a president had declined and no one believed what was going on. So, everything I had said was true in the essay called “Understanding Oil.” You know, it just changed… people realize that they were full of shit basically.
It’s not easy being an activist, I’ll tell you that and the band looks at me going, “What are you fucking nuts? You’re trying to get us killed.” I don’t regret my writing. I don’t regret it, because it was the right thing to say and there were only a few people saying it at the time. I remember Madonna, Maynard from Tool, The Dixie Chicks… there were just a handful of people speaking truth to power at a time where it was really difficult to speak anything but just supportive statements of the government.
How was it playing your first show in Armenia?
On April 23, 2015, System of a Down played for the first time in Armenia, which was for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide that was committed in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks, and we had this incredible free show. I think they limited it at 50,000 or 55,000 people outside and it was raining. Before the show, I remember the guys huddling and going, “Wow I can’t believe we’re doing this, it’s amazing.” I felt this incredible calmness. I just felt so at ease, because I knew that we were walking the exact footsteps we were supposed to walk. It felt like if there was no other reason that the band was ever created musically, politically, in any way. The band was created to be there and it was like the climax of our career in a way, a climax of us as individuals and artists. It just felt like that was incredibly important. I remember from the stage seeing the audience and the youth and looking in their eyes. I could see the future of Armenia and I knew that things would change. I didn’t know how long it would take, but it was around the corner.
The 2018 Velvet Revolution in Armenia was a peaceful protest that ended with the resignation of the corrupt Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. What was it like to return to Armenia, following the revolution, and to learn how much impact you had on the country?
The whole thing was just 40 days. You know from the first time Nikol Pashinyan (Former member of Parliament and now Prime Minister of Armenia) started his protest walk in Gyumri, Armenia, it didn’t have a lot of momentum as you can see in the film. When they called me (to join them), I was completely sick and I was still sick when I got on the plane to go to Armenia, but it was at the tail end of the revolution and Serzh Sargsyan had resigned. I got there and man… the look in people’s eyes was elation. I had seen happiness before and thrill and excitement, but the word elation had never been personified visually to me until then. People were extremely happy at the notion that their vision can come true in their lifetime, in terms of creating a country that they want to be a part of, is just beautiful. It’s something you would be lucky to experience once in a lifetime.
System of a Down released two new songs in 2020. Are there any plans for the group to record an album or more music? What’s the future of the band?
We released two songs recently because of the  attack by Azerbaijan and Turkey using Syrian mercenaries on Armenian lands and historical lands. A lot of people died. Literally Turkey was attacking us 100 years after the genocide. We donated all the proceeds and raised $700,000 for three different humanitarian organizations that are dealing with prosthetics and laser therapy for soldiers with lost limbs or who had got burned by white phosphorus weapons that Azerbaijan used. So, we’re doing what we can. The work continues… it doesn’t stop with the documentary.
A couple of years back we were talking about working on a new record and I had these songs from “Elasticity” that I had played for the guys and they even worked on some of them on their own while I was in New Zealand. That’s why, if you look at some of the press done by the guys over the years, they say we recorded music but they were just rehearsals. So, there is music that has been worked on.
Because we were unable to see a way forward creatively and philosophically, I decided to release the songs myself, the five songs that I had written with System in mind, not specifically for System. They’re rock songs, I had thought would work well for System, so I am releasing those as “Elasticity.” We just put out the first single and the video and the rest of the songs will be out on March 19. You know, what System’s future entails is as much a mystery to me. … Time will tell.