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System of a Down: music for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

To many, new music from System of a Down is like world peace; something that everybody wants but seems impossible to have. The prospect has dangled before fans for years, ever since their return from a four-year hiatus in 2010, with conflicting comments about this possibility floating out of the SOAD camp. Some fans have even reviled them for it, accusing them of riding off the coattails of nostalgia as a solely touring band and taking up space that younger bands might have deserved more.

Then it happened. On 6 November, System of a Down released new music for the first time in fifteen years in the form of double A-side singles ‘Protect The Land’ and ‘Genocidal Humanoidz’. Those who believed it would take something big for the band to release new music were correct: it took a war. On their Bandcamp page, the band explained that the songs were released to raise awareness and money for victims of conflict in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh war taking place in Armenia – all four members are of Armenian descent.

System of a Down have done it alone, speaking up for a cause not enough people were talking about in one of the most authentic and genuine attempts at musical fundraising that has been seen for some time

“On September 27,” they wrote, “the combined forces of Azerbaijan and Turkey (along with ISIS terrorists from Syria) attacked the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, which we as Armenians call Artsakh. For the following 44 days, civilians young and old were awakened day and night by the frightful sights and sounds of rocket attacks, falling bombs, missiles, drones and terrorist attacks.” Worse still, the band went on to explain that outlawed weapons, including cluster bombs and white phosphorus, had been used to set forests ablaze. 

Artists making money for good, of course, is nothing new. Whenever there is some kind of disaster or humanitarian crisis, at least one charity single follows. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ is a classic example, originally recorded in 1984 to raise money for the famine in Ethiopia (and re-recorded in 2014 to raise money to aid the West African Ebola crisis). The Haiti earthquake in 2010 prompted the release of several songs in order to raise money. These have often been collective efforts, but System of a Down have done it alone, speaking up for a cause not enough people were talking about in one of the most authentic and genuine attempts at musical fundraising that has been seen for some time.

‘Protect The Land’ mourns the loss of life and displacement that the war has caused (“Some were forced to foreign lands/Some would lay dead on the sand”)

It would be difficult to think of a better reason than a cause close to their hearts for SOAD to break what some have perceived as a creative stalemate. It lends their efforts extra weight and highlights how vital their cause is that it is enough to bring about a much-anticipated event like this. It is on-brand for them as well; they have frequently condemned war in their lyrics, especially in material released around the time of the Iraq War. They also embarked on the Wake Up The Souls tour in 2015 to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian genocide, playing their first-ever Armenian show on the exact date it happened. 

What makes ‘Protect The Land’ and ‘Genocidal Humanoidz’ even more special is that they go beyond most charity singles. Both songs raise awareness of what is happening in the Republic of Artsakh – ‘Protect The Land’ mourns the loss of life and displacement that the war has caused (“Some were forced to foreign lands/Some would lay dead on the sand”) while ‘Genocidal Humanoidz’ is a sharp-tongued attack on the “prostitutes who prosecute” and have “failed us from the start”.  Their mission, therefore, feels all the more powerful.

It is an admirable and brilliant mission in which everyone wins; the fans get new songs to listen to and those in need get vital funds

Speaking from personal experience as a fan, the band is the only reason I know anything about the tumultuous history of Armenia. I didn’t even know that there had been a genocide until I read a review of one of the UK dates on the Wake Up The Souls tour in a magazine. Indeed, these songs are a hugely accessible way of raising awareness, especially for those who don’t tend to read the news and won’t necessarily go out seeking information. In that sense, these songs were sorely needed and not just to satiate the appetite of fans. 

The band’s efforts have been hugely successful. In the week after the songs were released, they had raised over $600,000 for the Armenia Fund. It is an admirable and brilliant mission in which everyone wins; the fans get new songs to listen to and those in need get vital funds. From a musical standpoint, however, System of a Down has succeeded in another sense. Many charity singles feel a little ephemeral and at times even disposable – when was the last time you heard the Help For Haiti version of ‘Everybody Hurts’ or any of the re-recordings of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’. ‘Protect The Land’ and ‘Genocidal Humanoidz’ aren’t likely to suffer the same fate. These songs will endure far beyond the Nagaro-Karabakh conflict.

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