“I have zero respect for those guys. They're not good human beings.” System Of A Down's Serj Tankian slams Imagine Dragons for ignoring his concerns about 'art-washing' a genocidal dictatorship

Serj Tankian, Imagine Dragons
(Image credit: Travis Shinn | Eric Ray Davidson)

Last summer, while on a family holiday, System Of A Down vocalist Serj Tankian took the time to write a "kind" personal letter to Las Vegas pop-rock stars Imagine Dragons asking them to reconsider playing a show in Baku, Azerbaijan which he argued could be viewed as an endorsement of the country's authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev, stating that to proceed with the gig at Baku Olympic Stadium "would help whitewash the dictatorial regime’s image."

Ahead of the band's scheduled September 2 gig in the Azerbaijan capital, Tankian drew attention to an AP news report highlighting a warning from a former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court that Azerbaijan was preparing genocide against ethnic Armenians in its Nagorno-Karabakh region.

"I really feel that performing in Azerbaijan would have a negative impact on your brand as well," the singer's letter cautioned. "I’m confident that you can decipher all the facts for yourselves to decide whether to cancel your concert."

In an open letter circulated in August '23, fellow musicians Roger Waters, Brian Eno and Thurston Moore also urged the band to pull the show, referencing the American band's "commendable" commitment to inclusion and human rights.

"Performing in Baku under these circumstances, regardless of intent, can only help the government of Azerbaijan cover up its crimes," the letter stated.

When Serj Tankian received no acknowledgement of, or response to, his concerns by Imagine Dragons, he called the group out on social media for what he interpreted as "their disregard for this humanitarian catastrophe." He also urged fans to sign a petition to the band on change.org, imploring them to pull the controversial show.

Despite these pleas, the Imagine Dragons gig went ahead as planned.

Speaking with Metal Hammer, Serj Tankian admits that he was frustrated, disappointed and angry about Imagine Dragon's decision to ignore all entreaties on the issue. "I don't know these guys, but who are these people?" he says. "I don't understand that type of thinking."

"Very close thereafter, Azerbaijan attacked the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and 120,000 people left their historical homes," he states.

“Look, I'm not a judge for people to tell bands where to play, or where not to play," he says. "You have other artists playing in very questionable kingdoms, run by one person, where people don't have a lot of human rights, and I get that they're doing it for money, that they're artists, that they're entertaining, all of that. But when there's a government that's about to commit ethnic cleansing, when Azerbaijan was starving the 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, and not allowing any food or medicine in… you know, as an artist, if I found that out, there is no fucking way I could have gone and played 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're not good human beings, as far as I'm concerned.

"If you are that blind to justice that you will go play a show in a country that's starving another country, illegally, according to the International Court of Justice, according to what Amnesty International is saying, what Human Rights Watch is saying… If you still go and play that country, I don't know what to say about you as a fucking human being. I don't even care about your music. If you're a bad human being, I don't give a fuck. So that's where I'm at with that. I have zero respect for those guys."

"It's not about my ego," Tankian emphasises. "I just wanted to make positive change. I wanted those guys to know that what they're about to do is going to have bad repercussions. I was warning them for their own sake, for their own morality.

"I've been warning different organisations against using Azerbaijan as a venue because, again, if you allow them to have international links in a way where they feel like they're legitimate, they’re going to continue their bad behaviour. You have a dictator who is doing ethnic cleansing, and he's getting more contracts, Formula 1 racing and rock shows, then he's going to think that it's okay to kill people. That's not okay. So you've got to break that link, you've got to let people know."

Tankian went on to say that it's "mind-blowing" to him that Imagine Dragons would choose to fulfil the booking.

Imagine Dragons never made any public response to the concerns of their peers, but during an August 2023 performance at Reading Festival, frontman Dan Reynolds told the audience, "Whatever is burdening you, leave it at the door; politics, religion, leave it." 

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.