When I was 15 years old, my brother and I went to a System of a Down concert and met some other Armenian kids who were carrying our country’s flag. As we were chatting, a stranger walked by and pointed at the tri-color cloth saying, “Hell yeah.” He wasn’t Armenian, so obviously we asked him how he knew our flag, to which he responded with a smile, “I’m a SOAD fan.”
I was shocked. If, like me, you didn’t grow up in an Armenian community, you would have been too.
All my life I’ve had to explain my origins to every single person I met. I’ve had to explain our complicated history, because there is no way around it when someone asks you, “So your family is from Armenia?” And your answer is, “No.” Essentially, I’ve had to explain myself.
Before that show, I had accepted my fate as troubadour of the Armenian cause, preaching to rooms of five people or less. But System of a Down showed me that there is another way of making our voices heard, and little by little I realized others had taken that same route, people like Charles Aznavour, William Saroyan, Tigran Hamasyan and Alexis Ohanian, to name a few.
We boast their origins whenever someone mentions their names, yet we wouldn’t be able to do so if it wasn’t for one thing: they all transcended the Armenian community.
They reached and touched Armenians and non-Armenians alike. They subtly injected Armenian themes into their work and fed it to the world. They used their notoriety to bring awareness to our history, our culture and our causes. They created allies around the globe. In other words, they entered the mainstream.
The word “mainstream” has a negative connotation to it, but it really shouldn’t. It doesn’t mean you’re “sacrificing” or “diluting” your Armenian heritage. Rather, it’s a sign of growth, reach and influence which 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 that if I made apparel that looked great and that they would want to wear, I’d be able to raise more money than by asking them to donate directly.
It worked. Friends, colleagues, clients and acquaintances purchased our first design. And most importantly, they started asking questions. What’s the meaning of the logo? What’s a khachkar? What’s Artsakh?
I never in my life felt so fulfilled.
The best part is seeing non-Armenians wearing the symbol of Artsakh. It’s like when an Armenian name shows up in the credits of a film, or when Kanye West became Armenian (that’s right Ye, there’s no going back).
Every Armenian knows that feeling because we’ve been in the shadows for so long.
I’m going to chase that feeling, I invite you to as well. Inject your heritage into whatever it is that you love, be it art, music, food, poetry, sports or engineering. Then put it out for the world to see. Everyone knows about challah bread and lo-mein, kimonos and the oud. It’s time for them to know about khachkars, choreg, our traditional taraz and the duduk. We have so much value to add to the world. The US recognition of the Armenian Genocide has given us more leverage than ever to do so.
After I launched Azadenk, an acquaintance of mine bought one of our sweaters after stumbling upon it on Instagram, simply because he liked how it looked. It was not long before he asked me if I could tell him more about Armenians. This was the day the Artsakh War ended, and he had never really heard about us before. After my 30-minute pitch (which is on point by the way; I’ve honed it for the past 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 damn 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 inspire this piece!)
And all the others who carry their culture with them in everything they do.