The World Through Music and Culture

Helly Luv: Freedom Fighter Takes on ISIS via Pop Music for MTV Iggy

“Music is My Weapon and I Know I Will Never Be Safe Again.” 

  • Story by Maria Bakkalapulo and Niall Macaulay

A peshmerga (Kurdish for “those who face death”) soldier sits on the battlefield and stares grief-stricken at a wallet-sized picture of his dead son. Rockets and tank shells light up the sky like fireworks. As the man looks up, his face describes the long suffering of the Kurdish people. Next. the scene shifts to a normal day at the village. Kids run to school as they pass a marketplace in front of a mosque. Two elders sit outside a cafe. Their black coffee suddenly spills as tanks fire, demolishing building and leaving unfortunate Kurds lying dead on the streets, if not fleeting for their lives.

Enter Helly Luv — a singer clad in golden heels and a customized peshmerga military uniform. It’s only then when you realize that this is a pop video. “United, united we’re marching, yah. Rise up ‘cause we’re so much stronger as one. Breaking the silence as loud as a gun,” she sings in “Revolution,” her latest single / music video. “Brothers and sisters, we all come from one. Different religions, we share the same blood.” Pumping her fist in the air, Helly Luv sings, calling all nations to unite and stand up against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — a former al-Qaeda militant group, seizing Iraqi towns while carrying out mass killings.

Helly Luv’s appearance is “Revolution” is jaw-dropping — donning fiery red hair, bling-ed out military garb, gold rifle-shaped rings, and long red finger nails — looking every inch a pop star. She strides through a smoldering battlefield along actual peshmerga soldiers lined up. Everyone in the video is a local Kurd who volunteered to assist the production, and the result are cinematic.

Astonishing, the filming all happened all happened near Mosul, Iraq, just mere kilometers from where Kurdish forces are currently clashing and fighting back the advances of ISIS. “I wanted to make [the music video] as real as possible. I want justice,” Helly Luv says with deep conviction during our interview. “If you come her and see the 1.8 million refugees, and those that are killed, or raped, or their kids are missing — I had to get the world’s attention and show them what is going on here.” The video took there months to complete, as it was frequently impossible to film without the crew coming under fire.

Helly Luv is 26 years old, and has endured the pain and hardship of the Kurdish people her whole life. Born in Iran as Helan Abdulla, she grew up under Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, who brutally targeted and suppressed the Kurds. Her family became refugees and found safety in Finland. Since she was a little girl, Abdulla dreamt of being a pop star, so she took dancing and singing lessons. At age 18, she moved to Los Angeles to follow her wishes, promoting herself through MySpace and YouTube. After no success there, she decided to head back to the Middle East and got her first big break, filming for a role in Mardan, released last year. Abdulla realized too that she could do much more for her people by becoming a peshmerga, a freedom fighter, as Helly Luv.

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Following in the footsteps of her grandfather and mother — both fearsome peshmerga soldiers — Helly Luv constantly challenges and refutes ISIS directly through her outspoke lyrics. Her music antagonizes the coup to the point of listing her as a most wanted. Because of this, and a racy music video (“Risk It All”) she filmed on the conservative streets of Erbil, the capital of Kurdish Iraq, she receives death threats often. ISIS supporters keep sending her graphic images of Kurdhish women being brutalized with messages stating, “one day this will be you.”

At peace with herself, she knows no fear of those who mock her, but accepts they are serious threats, and so she travels undercover with round-the-clock security. In public, she proudly wears the peshmerga uniform, as do many Kurdish women who form several frontline brigades. “Kurds have one dream — independence for our country,” Luv asserts. “I couldn’t fight in the front lines, but I needed to get help for my people. We have to shut ISIS down. To be a peshmerga soldier, you already accept death. My normal life has gone away a long time ago. Music is my weapon and I know I will never be eafe again.”

“Revolution” has already garnered a staggering one million YouTube hits, nearly a month after its release and before her US breakthrough. With this courageous new video and her outspoken attitude, she is definitely drawing the attention she seeks. Meanwhile, as the ISIS battle continues to usurp her people’s homeland, Helly Luv’s brave stance in opposition to the militant coup — as a woman, a musician, and a Kurd — inspires the fight against fundamentalists everywhere.

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