Helly Luv: The Kurdish singer who made a video on the frontline with ISIS

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Originally published on Noisey, VICE’s music site.

At the start of 2014 the Kurdish pop star Helly Luv, real name Helen Abdulla, went into hiding. She released her music video for “Risk it All” that February, an anti-war, pro-Kurd anthem, which prompted death threats from Islamist groups in Iraqi Kurdistan and condemnation from members of her own family. Speaking to The Guardian, her manager, Gawain Bracy (Chief Executive at G2 music group) said: “[She’s had] various death threats … mainly through social media […] We do not wish to publish names of these Islamic groups because we do not wish to glorify [their] actions.”

The “Risk It All” video has since received over four million views on YouTube, and features Luv draping herself over a lion and dancing with AK47-waving female Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdish army) soldiers. A report by Reuters suggested it was met with praise for representing the Kurdish spirit and struggle for an independent state, as well as criticism for what some saw as provocative imagery accompanying the modern mix of dance, hip-hop and traditional Middle Eastern music.

“It feels very unrealistic, to be honest with you,” Luv says, looking back at that period. “I try to not think about it, because I feel like what I’m doing is so much bigger and so much more important.”

A bit like a Kurdish Shakira with the political temperament of M.I.A., Luv was born in Iran and grew up in Finland before moving to Los Angeles in a bid to become a pop star. Now 26 years-old, she spends part of her time in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, 55 miles from the Isis base of Mosul (part of the autonomous area claimed by the Kurds). Even in the face of multiple death threats, Luv vowed to continue filming music videos in Iraqi Kurdistan – an unwavering stance that lead to the making of her second single “Revolution”.

Released in May this year, the trailer for “Revolution” gave a pretty good taste of what Luv is about: Kurdish nationalism meets vibrant pop diva. In a 50 second clip, we see Luv – in gold heels, draped in bling and bullet chains, and wearing a red keffiyeh – write “Revolution” on a shell in red lipstick before loading it into a tank and firing it into the distance.

The full video, released a few days later, was filmed by Luv and her crew just 3km from the frontline of the war between ISIS and the Peshmerga in Iraq. It features real Kurdish troops on the battlefield charging towards civilians, and Luv – decked out in full Peshmerga uniform with striking thick red hair – toting a golden AK-47 next to real tanks, and leading marching soldiers into battle. In the seven-minute long epic that’s as much about the political message as it is about the music, the video sees Luv and her comrades face down an army of masked jihadists. Unsurprisingly, it led to her being placed on the ISIS “most wanted” list.

“I really wanted to show the truth of the war,” she says. “I could have shot it in Hollywood and Los Angeles where I live but I couldn’t get the real emotions and the real struggle out. I needed to show the truth of it.”

Obviously, an active battlefield isn’t the easiest location to shoot in, and it took three months to get all the footage they needed. The Kurdish high command were initially very reluctant to let them film at all, saying it would be far too risky and that they were too close to the battlefield. Every day they prayed for their safety, says Luv, and they were constantly being told to keep their heads down and bullets often came extremely close to the crew. At the end of the video, she tells the camera they’re “about three kilometres” away from ISIS, before ducking to take cover from an incoming barrage of fire.

“First of all they told us we were crazy, and they told me ‘You’re out of your mind, are you serious?’,” she says. “I made it clear to them that what I wanted to do, and what was my message and I promised them that this message has to go international and people need to know what is going on here.”

Since being released in late May, “Revolution” has racked up over 1.2 million views, and Luv has given interviews with everyone from Israeli TV to Channel 4 to talk about the situation in her country and how she got into music. In a few short months, Helly Luv has become something of a pop culture ambassador for Kurdistan and the Peshmerga fighters.

“My weapon is my music and my voice because I feel like with my voice I can get it to millions of other people,” she says. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

With major populations in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, the Kurds have fought for an independent state for decades. And with a massive election victory in Turkey, where the Kurdish HDP party played a huge role in denying President Erdogan a parliamentary majority, and their ongoing against-the-odds fight against the so-called Islamic State, they’re becoming increasingly influential.

During the early days of the new Iraqi civil war, many were surprised when the Iraqi army simply surrendered to the invading Islamic State forces. Amid the chaos, in northern Iraq at least, the only ones left to fight were the Kurdish Peshmerga, whose name translates to “one who confronts death”. Having carved out the beginnings of an independent state for themselves after the American invasion in 2003, there was no way they were going to let ISIS take it from them. Since August, they’ve been the only force preventing the ethnic cleansing of the region’s numerous minority groups.

The Kurds’ historically left-wing, secular and broadly egalitarian politics also defy many Western stereotypes about the Middle East. The presence of women in the ranks of the Peshmerga, for example, and their equal role within Kurdish society, subverts a lot of orientalist expectations.

“If you look back on Kurdish history we’ve always had strong powerful female fighters and leaders, that have even lead the men to war,” says Luv. “[ISIS are] very afraid of female fighters, and they should be.”

Helly Luv comes from a family of strong minded women. She was born Helan Abdulla in 1988 in Iran amid the country’s brutal war with Iraq – a conflict which saw the notorious Al-Anfal chemical weapons campaign against the Kurds, who had attempted to claim their independence amid the chaos of the war and were seen as enemies by both sides.

Her family escaped through the mountains on horseback and paid smugglers to get them into Turkey. But when they arrived, along with the over 100,000 other Kurdish refugees in the country, they were homeless and forced to live on the streets until they eventually gained admission to a refugee camp. After nine months the family were granted asylum in Finland, where they became one of only a handful of Kurds living in the country. Helly spend her childhood there, but was treated like an outsider by racist classmates.

Music and performance was an escape from the isolation and cultural detachment she felt, and when she turned 18 she hopped on a plane to the US. After a depressing few years in LA, where she saw “the ugly side of the music industry”, Luv was finally picked up by Grammy-winning producer Los da Mystro (known for his work with Rihanna and Beyonce) and offered a record deal. However, it was her decision to sign with independent record label G2 in 2013 and shift from a more mainstream R&B style to a sound more influenced by her roots, which led to her music garnering more serious attention.

“My problem was that the music I was doing in Los Angeles wasn’t the type of music that I really liked and wanted to do,” she says. “I felt like the music wasn’t honest, and it wasn’t real, it was fake. I wanted to really bring more Middle East into it.”

These ideas turned into “Risk it All”, her first major single and an optimistic tribute to her country’s dreams of independence and her own newfound fame. Filmed in Kurdistan before the rise of ISIS, the success of the song saw Luv perform in Erbil, Kurdistan and appear on Rudaw, Iraqi Kurdistan’s major news channel. But the song also illuminated her as a target, and after receiving death threats from religious extremists, she took a step back. In many ways, “Revolution” was her in-your-face comeback.

Despite criticism from more conservative voice of her provocative videos and short skirts, people in Kurdistan like what Luv is doing. She says “Risk it All” and “Revolution” received huge amounts of support from the international diaspora of Kurds, with many thrilled that their cause is being so widely promoted by one of their own.

“Kurds have been very supportive of the song,” she says. “It’s their story, it’s their message and I’ve really made sure that I’ve delivered their story, with the video, but obviously with the balance of pop artist and with the political message.”

That political message is that the Kurds need help. They need weapons, she argues, and, with the 1.8 million refugees now living within their borders, humanitarian aid to support the new state they’re building. Their ranks are finite, she says, and everyone who can fight is at the frontline doing their bit. This contrasts strongly with ISIS, whose slick social media propaganda has drawn thousands of volunteers from across the world and gives them a seemingly limitless pool of jihadists. Apart from select bands of Western mercenaries, the Kurds have no such international support.

“How is Kurdistan going to support all these people and at the same time fight against ISIS?” Luv asks.

Aid is also badly needed to promote basic infrastructure in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Luv’s trips to the region also led her to set up her own NGO, Luv House, which works to improve the lives of the region’s animals. While she hasn’t saved a lion from ISIS, yet, the group radically improved the conditions for animals at Gilkant Zoo in Erbil – once labelled one of the worst in the world.

“Obviously one zoo is not gonna change a lot of things, there’s so much more Kurdistan needs,” she says. “We need international animal organisations to come here and do projects, but a lot of people are afraid to come here.”

But even with only a small amount of Western help, the Peshmerga are beginning to turn the tide of the war against ISIS. “A couple of weeks ago I visited the frontline next to Mosul,” Helly says. “From what I heard and from what I saw it was much better, definitely the Peshmerga have been very good, very brave and they’ve been really taking over. ISIS has been kind of quiet –  they are becoming very weak from what I’m seeing.”

When Noisey spoke to Luv over a grainy Skype line, she was just a few miles from the frontline in Erbil, Kurdistan. The call was interrupted more than once by internet and power cuts. But despite the danger and the threats on her life looming over her, it’s where she’s staying for the time being, helping to do her bit by spreading the world.

“As an artist, I felt like I had to do something as a part of this war,” she says. “And I often say that my weapon is not the weapon, my weapon is my music and my voice.

“I feel like with my voice I can get it to millions of other people and that’s exactly what happened, or I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”

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