During a recent appearance on RT’s Going Underground, System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian reflected on his previous interactions with late Atlantic Records CEO Ahmet Ertegun, who was the son of a Turkish ambassador.
Tankian has been one of the most vocal proponents for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide inflicted upon the Armenian population by Ottoman Turks. The singer’s grandparents had survived the era and Tankian and his Armenian-American bandmates have used their platform over the years to bring attention to the conflict. In 2019, the U.S. House and Senate finally passed a bill recognizing the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks as a genocide.
Speaking on his first interaction with Ertegun, Tankian recalled (as transcribed by Blabbermouth), “I had a band that we had signed to my imprint, to my label, and there were a number of record companies interested in doing a distribution deal. So we met up with Universal Records, Atlantic Records at the time, and a few others in New York with the band. And after the meeting, I remember the CEO of Atlantic saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna meet the old man? He’s still here. His office is right next door.’ And I’m, like, ‘Ertegun?’ I’m, like, ‘Yeah, I’d love to.’ He signed Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin and all these bands. So I went in and sat down with him and had a nice 10-minute chat.”
Tankian continued, “I can’t tell you anything else, but I got an inkling that he had some defensive aspect of me being Armenian. When I said, ‘Listen, just so you know, I’m Armenian. I grew up in Los Angeles,’ and this and that, and he kind of got defensive. And it didn’t really affect me much. So I got on Google and I typed ‘Ahmet Ertegun’ and I typed ‘Genocide’ after, and I realized that he had been responsible for funding foreign policy institutes and chairs at universities who hired authors and writers that denied the Genocide. And that was an awakening for me.”
But, as Tankian revealed, that was not his only interaction with Ertegun over the years. He recalled a meeting at a later date in which music mogul wanted to discuss the topic that had divided their ancestors.
“He called me, and he said, ‘I think the Armenian Genocide should be recognized,'” Serj recalled. “And I said, ‘Okay. Great. Why don’t you write it on a letterhead and send it to me? And I won’t publicize it unless my back is against the wall with my community.’ And he said, ‘I can’t do that, because I have homes in Turkey. I don’t know what would happen to that.'”
Tankian said that he did not want any violence enacted upon Ertegun’s family, adding, “It was very clear that that was an incendiary issue. And even though he was very close, he said, to the prime minister and the government officials there, he didn’t wanna take that step.”
Ertegun’s contemplation of his desire to make a public statement was confirmed after his 2006 death. Initially published in 2006 and later updated in 2011 by Huffington Post, writer Harut Sassounian also shared his recollections he had with Ertegun about the Armenian Genocide recognition prior to his passing. According to Sassounian, Ertegun was considering making a public statement and they stayed in touch, but unfortunately a public statement did not happen prior to his death. Sassounian also shared that he did not want to publish his column while Ertegun was alive, fearing hate mail and threats that would come to Ertegun with the declaration.
See more of Tankian’s discussion below.