Charles Aznavour: Art, empathy and rights for all humanity
With the passing of Charles Aznavour, Europe has recently lost one of its cultural icons. President Macron paid tribute to the artistic legacy of the singer songwriter whilst remarking that “In France, poets never die.” It came as no surprise either to learn that Aznavour’s works were a favourite of Macron at student karaoke nights, as many people across the continent, and across generations, have particular fondness of his music, accompanied by lyrics touching on just about every aspect of human life. In an era when open expressions of homosexual love and sexuality could still lead to criminal prosecution, and issues of gender identity were essentially taboo, he wrote and performed ‘What makes a man a man?’, a heart-breaking song about a lonely gay man who performs as a drag artist, desperately longing for love and acceptance.
Of course, he will be remembered for deeply romantic songs as well, often in several language versions. Many people will have cosy of memories of listening to their parents’ records and being enchanted by the lilting accent in English, and even more so, by the sound of French. Yet this quintessentially French export was the child of refugees, who fled to Paris to escape the Armenian genocide. The Ottoman Empire orchestrated the slaughter and forced labour of able bodied men, and the deportation and death of women, children and the infirm, who were marched into the desert to die of exhaustion, dehydration and starvation. Bearing this in mind, it is indescribably tragic that over one hundred years after this immense human loss, Europe and the wider world are still faced with the horrors of racial and religious persecution, as well as the need to accommodate and care for huge numbers of forcibly displaced persons. Since 1915 we have flown to the moon, unravelled our genetic code and created the world wide web, but we still haven’t eradicated intolerance and mass murder: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Nevertheless, the story of Aznavour’s life shines a hopeful light on concepts of identity, belonging and justice. During the Second World War, he helped to hide both Armenians and Jews from the Nazi regime in occupied France, putting his own survival in jeopardy. The son of immigrants and refugees, he not only became a French cultural institution, but also reaffirmed H G Well’s dogma that our true nationality is (hu)mankind. In the current legal and political storms over Brexit and the European refugee crisis, we are challenged to think about the kind of society we wish to inhabit. Experiences like that of Azanvour’s, and countless others, demonstrate how individuals and families arriving into a country with nothing can embrace and enrich their new context.
Furthermore, his contribution is a testimony to the power of art in shaping our world. Lawyers do not have a monopoly of pursuing freedom and justice, and undoubtedly, imaging and making incarnate the human rights which we enshrine in Constitutions and other instruments is the work of those outside the legal sphere, as much as those within in. For instance, the way in which the Strasbourg Court interprets the European Convention on Human Rights is bounded by the consensus across signatory States, and it won’t force the pace social change. However, songs, poetry, sculpture and other expressions can, and do, move our collective thoughts and attitudes. It is humbling to think that in an indirect, but powerful way, the European understanding of the Article 8 right to private and family life was nudged along by a straight man of Armenian heritage, singing about the pain of an imagined gay performer, and somehow making the all too real anguish of a persecuted minority meaningful and immediate for his audience.
Charles Aznavour, French singing star dies at 94 BBC News (2/10/18)
In France, poets never die: Macron pays tribute to Aznavour The Guardian (5/10/18)
Some Aznavour songs on You Tube