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L.A. Band Presses Congress to Recognize Armenian Genocide

System of a Down, whose members are Armenian American, steps up its campaign.

April 28, 2006|Nick Timiraos | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — System of a Down lead singer Serj Tankian and drummer John Dolmayan sit on a black leather couch, signing autographs, chatting about their favorite local venues and waiting to take the stage.

But this isn't their ordinary tour -- it's no Roxy, Astoria or House of Blues. Their fans here are congressional staffers, who ask the rockers to autograph copies of a political magazine while waiting for a congressman to arrive for a political strategy meeting.

The L.A.-based alternative-metal band spent the week in Washington to lobby for congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1918, in which an estimated 1.2 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey. The Turkish government disputes that a genocide took place.

The band members, who all are Armenian American, each had grandparents who survived the genocide and have adopted the cause of winning worldwide recognition and acknowledgment from Turkey.

"My grandfather's 96, and I know he's not going to be around forever," Tankian said at a meeting with Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) on Tuesday. "I'd like to be the one to say to him that Americans have recognized the genocide."

Musicians often express themselves politically in their songs, and have made frequent appearances at rallies and on Capitol Hill. But most of their direct lobbying efforts here tend to focus more on the music business itself -- calling for an end to illegal music downloading, for example. Fewer get actively involved in the political process, as has the successful California group which has won a Grammy and is playing to ever larger audiences worldwide.

In the hurried marble corridors of Capitol Hill, the band members offered a marked contrast. Dolmayan's mohawk haircut topped his sweater and jeans, while Tankian wore a blazer to go with long curls and goatee.

"I'm usually a little more comfortable behind the drum set," a somewhat sheepish Dolmayan said at a Capitol Hill gathering Wednesday as he reached for a microphone and surveyed his unfamiliar surroundings.

The rock band's Washington tour included an annual Capitol Hill observance of the genocide and a protest at the Turkish Embassy on Monday that organizers say drew more than 700.

The band was presented with the Voice of Justice Award by the Armenian National Committee, an Armenian political group, on Wednesday. A day earlier, the band attended a screening of "Screamers," a new documentary detailing System of a Down's campaign for genocide recognition.

Relaxed and laid back, they met Tuesday with sponsors of two resolutions that would officially recognize the genocide, Schiff and Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa), and other lawmakers. Though both resolutions received broad support in the House International Relations Committee, they face an uphill battle. Congressional leaders, following appeals from the White House, do not want to pass the resolutions because they would upset Turkey.

The Turkish government insists that the deaths resulted from ethnic insurrection and wartime clashes with Turks.

"Armenian allegations of genocide have never been historically or legally substantiated," Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy said in a statement in response to a PBS documentary aired last week.

Schiff remains optimistic that this year supporters will win the right to a floor vote.

"With System of a Down coming, with the pressure around the country on the speaker [of the House] ... we've never had this kind of strong support," says Schiff, whose district includes Glendale, a city of 210,000 that is 40% Armenian American.

The issue is prominent in System of a Down's performances. The band has played an annual "Souls" benefit concert since 2000 to benefit genocide recognition efforts. They've also talked about the genocide at their concerts and in song lyrics. "P.L.U.C.K." ("Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers,") from their 1998 debut album, addresses "whole race genocide."

It's not the only political issue the band takes on. They won this year's Grammy for best hard rock performance of their song, "B.Y.O.B." ("Bring Your Own Bombs"), which asks: "Why don't presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?"

System of a Down formed in Hollywood in 1995 and released its first album in 1998. Its second album, Toxicity, debuted at the top of American and Canadian charts in 2001. It has sold more than 6 million copies worldwide.

For Dolmayan, it's not a question of if the resolution will pass, but when. He said the resolution was more than a symbolic act, and would protect the right to teach the Armenian genocide in schools. "It forces Turkey's hand, and that's very important," he said. "If America doesn't recognize it, how can we expect it from Turkey?"

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