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Serj Tankian criticizes Imagine Dragons’ performance in Azerbaijan, cites human rights violations in the country

Serj Tankian criticizes Imagine Dragons’ performance in Azerbaijan, cites human rights violations in the country

Serj Tankian and Imagine Dragons, 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

Serj Tankian, the lead singer of the famous Armenian-American heavy metal band System of a Down, publicly criticized Imagine Dragons for their planned concert in Baku, Azerbaijan on September 2, 2023, which the band eventually held. The controversy escalated into a Rolling Stone In an interview with Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds in July, he defended the concert in Baku.

Tankian’s first criticism of 2023 comes amid a humanitarian crisis in the dissolved Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), where the Azerbaijani government is carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against 120,000 Artsakh residents, including children and the elderly, by depriving them of food, medicine, internet access, electricity and gas amid harsh winter conditions.

After a 10-month blockade, Azerbaijan forcibly evicted the Armenians of Artsakh and then took control of the region. More than 100,000 Artsakh people fled their homeland where they had lived for centuries. For the first time in over 2,000 years, there were no Armenians left in Artsakh.

The situation was and still is so bad that many international organizations officially speak out in support of the Armenian population. This includes: Lemkin Institute for the Prevention of Genocide And Human Rights Watchamong others.

Imagine Dragons, the globally successful pop-rock band with over 74 billion streams, multiple platinum records and numerous music awards including a Grammy, were called upon by Tankian to rethink their act.

In the original public message Instagram “I was sure they were not aware that Azerbaijan’s petro-oligarchic dictatorship had starved 120,000 people in Nagorno-Karabakh, a crime that former International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo called genocide,” Tankian wrote in 2023.

Tankian stated that he tried to reach out to Imagine Dragons through their representatives and sent them “a polite letter urging them to reconsider staging their show in Azerbaijan as it would help whitewash the image of the dictatorial regime there.” Tankian also included several informative articles, including one from Amnesty International.

Tankian said he had been told the group had worked with Amnesty in the past. This is true, as the group headlined Amnesty International’s “Bringing Human Rights Home” concert in New York in 2014. The human rights organization is a loyal critic Azerbaijan and its President Ilham Aliyev reportedly drew attention to the blockade, lack of journalists’ rights and other human rights violations.

Imagine Dragons did not respond to Tankian’s letter, which prompted him to go public with his concerns. He continued by writing:

As the humanitarian crisis worsens with recorded famine in Nagorno-Karabakh, I feel compelled to publicize this letter and their indifference to this humanitarian disaster. Maybe they felt they had a legal responsibility to do the show, maybe they just don’t care. I have advocated for genocide recognition my entire life and have always said there must be a price to be paid for genocidal regimes or deniers. Another genocide is coming in Azerbaijan and while it’s happening, they are enjoying an American band from LV. Fuck it!

This is not true.

Go to my profile Signing a petition If you want to sign I can write to the group on change.org. You can also see the letter I wrote to the group on my Facebook page.

Thanks for reading. Serj

The petition Tankian mentioned currently has 19,421 signatures, but the signatures were not accepted by Imagine Dragons and the show went ahead as originally planned.

Tankian then continued the interview Metal Hammer magazine, he stated that he is not someone who will tell bands where they can and cannot play, but that there are certain circumstances in which he must draw the line: “When you have a government that is preparing to commit ethnic cleansing, when Azerbaijan is starving 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and not letting any food or medicine in… you know, as an artist, if I had found out about that, there is no way I would have gone and done that show. But some artists do. And I don’t know what to say about those artists. I don’t respect them as human beings. Fuck their art, they are not good people from my perspective.”

He stated that he has “no respect for those guys” for making the show and that it’s not about his ego, it’s about creating positive change.

He continued:

I wanted those men to know that what they were going to do would have bad consequences. I was warning them for their own good, for their own morality.

I warn various organizations not to use Azerbaijan as a platform because, again, if you allow them to establish international connections in a way that makes them feel legitimate, they will continue their bad behavior.

You have a dictator who does ethnic cleansing and he gets more contracts and Formula One races and rock shows, then he’s going to think it’s right to kill people. It’s not right. So you have to break that connection, you have to let people know.

On July 2nd of this year, Rolling Stone released report With Reynolds. The magazine asked him about the widespread criticism Imagine Dragons received for their concerts in Azerbaijan and Israel. He said he didn’t believe in depriving fans who wanted to see them because of the actions of their leaders and governments. He called it “a really slippery slope” and noted that there were corrupt leaders and warmongers everywhere. “Where do you draw the line?” he asked.

Rolling Stone When Reynolds was asked specifically about Tankian’s statement that he “doesn’t respect them as human beings” because they play in Azerbaijan, he gave the same general response: “I think I just said it. This is a slippery slope, and I will never deprive our fans of playing for them.”

It is important to note that Imagine Dragons cancelled their shows in Kiev and Moscow, and shared an image of a now-deleted Ukrainian flag on Instagram with the note, “In light of recent events, we regret to announce that our shows in Russia and Ukraine have been cancelled until further notice. Our thoughts are with Ukraine and everyone else suffering from this unnecessary war.”

The group also played the role of: ambassadors For the humanitarian organization UNITED24, a fundraising platform run by the Ukrainian government to raise money for Ukraine in the Russo-Ukrainian War. They worked with Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska on a fundraiser for ambulance supplies.

“We love the Ukrainian people and want to help in any way possible. Such injustices can only be overcome when people around the world come together. We stand with the beautiful people of Ukraine and their brave leader President Zelensky. Together with UNITED24 and local leaders, we will continue to find ways to raise awareness and funds for the people until this unjust war is over. We look forward to the day when we can once again perform in Kiev and celebrate freedom, life and music with the resilient and strong people of Ukraine,” Reynolds said in a statement.

The band even removed its discography from the Russian market. It seems that this “slippery slope” Reynolds speaks of is selective. While we celebrate people coming together to overcome injustices, as in the case of Ukraine, the same idea does not apply to other situations around the world — or, as the implication suggests, precarious or unjust.

Tankian responded immediately to Reynolds’ request. Rolling Stone Interview on July 5th social mediawriting:

Dan Reynolds said: “I don’t believe in depriving fans who want to see us play because of the actions of their leaders and governments, I think that’s really dangerous ground. The moment you start doing that, I think there are corrupt leaders and warmongers all over the world and where do you draw the line?”

Respectfully, I draw the line at ethnic cleansing and genocide. The popularly supported Azerbaijani dictatorship had imposed a 9-month famine blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh, which was described as genocide by former @icc prosecutor @luismorenoocampo, when they decided to play in Baku. Were they going to play in Nazi Germany? Why don’t they want to play in Russia? Because it’s not popular?

They support Ukraine but not the Armenians of Artsakh? The only “slippery slope” is the absurd moral equivalence at the heart of this hypocritical stance. I have nothing against this man or his group. I just hate the abuse of artists to justify genocidal dictatorships.

Reynolds and the other Imagine Dragons members have not responded to this statement, but it’s clear where their priorities lie. While they have publicly condemned Russian fans (who, in Reynolds’ words, could be argued to be “depriving” their fans of their music) and embraced Ukraine, going above and beyond for the country in terms of fundraising and other steps mentioned above, the same train of thought does not apply to Azerbaijan, Artsakh, and Armenia.

Rolling Stone Australia closed Tankian’s answer A representative for Imagine Dragons did not immediately respond to the magazine’s request for comment, according to Reynold’s July 8 interview.

It remains to be seen whether the band will appropriately address Tankian’s concerns in light of their activism in Ukraine, but this public debate within the music industry has undoubtedly brought global attention to the responsibilities of artists in the face of human rights violations.

Melody Seraydarian is a journalist and undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, pursuing a BA in Media Studies with a concentration in media, law, and politics. Her column, “Hye Key,” covers politics, culture, and everything in between from a Gen Z perspective. She hails from Los Angeles, California, and is an active member of the local Armenian community.