Transcending the Armenian community
When I was 15, my brother and I went to a System of a Down concert and met other Armenian children who were carrying our country’s flag. While we were chatting, a stranger walked by and pointed at the tricolor fabric, saying, “Damn yeah.” He was not Armenian, so obviously we asked him how he knew our flag, to which he responded with a smile: “I’m a fan of SOAD.”
I was shocked. If, like me, you had not grown up in an Armenian community, you would have been too.
All my life I have had to explain my origins to everyone I have met. I had to explain our complicated story, because there is no way around it when someone asks you, “So your family is from Armenia?” And your answer is “No” Basically, I had to explain myself.
Before this show, I had accepted my destiny as a troubadour of the Armenian cause, preaching in halls of five people or less. But System of a Down showed me that there was another way to make our voices heard, and little by little I realized that others had taken the same path, people like Charles Aznavour, William Saroyan, Tigran Hamasyan and Alexis Ohanian, to name a few.
We brag about their origins every time someone mentions their name, but we couldn’t do it without one thing: they all transcended the Armenian community.
They reached and touched both Armenians and non-Armenians. They subtly injected Armenian themes into their work and passed it on to the world. They have used their notoriety to publicize our history, our culture and our causes. They have created allies around the world. In other words, they have entered the mainstream.
The word “mainstream” has a negative connotation, but it really shouldn’t. This does not mean that you are “sacrificing” or “diluting” your Armenian heritage. Rather, it is a sign of growth, reach and influence that can only ensure the success of our community.
I started Azadenk on a whim to encourage my non-Armenian friends to support Artsakh during the 2020 war. I thought if I made clothes that looked great and they would like to wear, I might raise more money than I did. by asking them to donate directly.
It worked. Friends, colleagues, clients and acquaintances bought our first design. Most importantly, they started to ask questions. What is the meaning of the logo? What is a khachkar? What is Artsakh?
I have never felt so fulfilled in my life.
The best part is seeing non-Armenians wearing the Artsakh symbol. It’s like when an Armenian name appears in the credits of a movie, or when Kanye West becomes Armenian (that’s right Ye, there’s no going back).
Every Armenian knows this feeling because we have been in the shadows for so long.
I will chase that feeling away, I invite you to do that too. Inject your heritage into everything you love, be it art, music, food, poetry, sports or engineering. Then put it in full view of the world. Everyone knows about challah bread and lo-mein, kimonos and oud. It is time for them to know the khachkars, choreg, our traditional taraz and duduk. We have so much value to add to the world. American recognition of the Armenian genocide has given us more leverage than ever to do so.
After launching Azadenk, an acquaintance of mine bought one of our sweaters after falling on it Instagram, simply because he liked the way he looked. It wasn’t long before he asked me if I could tell him more about the Armenians. It was the day the Artsakh war ended, and he had never really heard from us before. After my 30 minute pitch (which is on the verge by the way; I have perfected it for 30 years), he asked me: “Isn’t it tiring to have to explain your story every time?” ? “
Our culture is rich and, let’s face it, pretty cool. Collectively and creatively, we can make the world genuinely interested in us. Support will always follow. And one day we won’t need to explain ourselves anymore.
system of a Down
Levon Brunson (for helping to inspire this play!)
And all the others who carry their culture with them in everything they do.