The "Kurdish Shakira" Might Be The Most Badass Pop Star We've Met

Photo: Courtesy of Youtube.
Helly Luv has the bright red hair, dramatic makeup, and friendly voice of a typical American pop star. But Luv, who was born Helan Abdulla to Kurdish parents in Iran, is using her history and cultural background to bring unique purpose to her music. She and her family left the Middle East for Finland, and she eventually settled in L.A. at 18. (The Kurds are an ethnic group who live throughout the Middle East, including parts of Iraq where fighters are trying to drive back ISIS, the Islamist militant group that has taken over much of Iraq and Syria.) The 26-year-old's most recent music video was filmed just a mile and a half from where Kurdish forces and ISIS are fighting.

The clip, which starts with an attack on a Kurdish village and features tanks and machine guns, as well as messages of world peace, has already gotten more than a million hits on YouTube. Luv, who has embraced her image as the "Kurdish Shakira," wants to bring her personal mix of global unity and revolutionary chic to an even bigger audience. She talked to us from Erbil, Iraq, where she has been living for several months.

How long will you stay in Erbil?
"I live in Los Angeles, but I have been here for about six months now. It took three months to shoot the music video, which was very, very difficult. We were shooting 2.5 kilometers from ISIS, so it took us a very long time. Now, there are so many journalists coming here doing reports, I’m staying here to make sure that the message gets out into other countries."

Was there anything that was especially scary about filming the video?
"Definitely the days when the peshmergas yelled at us, saying, 'Get out, get out, cancel everything! You have to go!' Because the bullets were flying too close to us. They were throwing tanks; there were bullets.

"I wasn’t so afraid for myself, but I was more afraid for the people I had with me. They all came, and they knew the risk, but I was really worried for them because we had women and children with us. Those were the days when I thought, 'What are we doing? Maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing to do.' But at the end of the day, I needed to show the reality of the war.

"I didn’t want to shoot this in Los Angeles, because I just needed to show the truth of the war. Everybody you see in the video, those are real victims from Kobane and Sinjar [two major Kurdish cities], and there were also Yazidis [a religious-minority group based in the mountains of Iraq]. The tanks are real, the weapons, the peshmergas were real fighters. Nobody was acting, it was all real."
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My part as an artist isn’t the weapon that you use on the battlefield; my weapon is my music and my voice.

Helly Luv
How do you view your role as an artist during such huge upheaval for Kurds?
"The most important thing is that I am a Kurd myself, so when ISIS attacked Kurds the first time last year, I was also a victim. Kobane and Sinjar were victims of ISIS, and I felt like I wanted to take part in this war as well.

"But my part as an artist isn’t the weapon that you use on the battlefield; my weapon is my music and my voice. Through that I could get through to millions of other people who might not know what is going on here. I felt like, 'I have to fight, I have to put my life in this.' I have death threats, I’ve been listed on the Most Wanted list by ISIS, so I’m fighting here the same way the peshmergas there are fighting."

How do you feel like your culture and identity as a Kurd influences your music?
"It’s definitely a big inspiration for me. It’s where my roots come from. I’m different from other artists because I’m not just singing club songs. I think that it gives me another way to express pop music.

"While you’re popping in the club, you can’t be thinking that this war doesn’t affect you just because it’s far away from you. It’s our responsibility to make sure this enemy will be destroyed because it’s really an enemy of us all. And for that, I think, in a way, it’s a privilege for me."


You’ve done other provocative videos, too — why do you keep coming back to that form?
“‘Risk It All’ [her 2014 song, which also prompted threats from extremists] was a celebration of Kurdistan’s freedom from its dark past, and celebrating risking everything for one dream. The one dream for Kurds is independence, obviously, but it was [also a song about] me risking everything for my dream of becoming an artist.

“I remember when I was doing the song, I went to Los Angeles and I said to my staff, ‘Hey let’s do this song, “Revolution,”’ and they were like, ‘What is ISIS? What is peshmerga?’”

“I’m so passionate about my people and my country, and I just really feel like it needs justice. I’m a pop artist, so I have to make sure there’s a balance between the catchy pop song or my style or dancing and the political message that I want to carry. I would never do a song that was like, full political, like I want to make sure there are still things that are interesting.”

Even today we have Kurdish female fighters next to male fighters in the war, with equal perspective.

Helly Luv
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What would you like everyone to know about your people that they might not be aware of?
"One thing I’m very proud of, being Kurd, if you look back in Kurdish history, we’ve always had very strong women leaders who have led the male army on horses to war. Even today we have Kurdish female fighters next to male fighters in the war, with equal perspective. Because we live in the Middle East, we know the history of women in the Middle East and how they’ve been treated and threatened.

"Kurdistan is a very peaceful country, and I just want to really tell the story of that. For some people it’s very weird that there is a country in the heart of the Middle East that has been living in peace since forever, but the countries around us are creating war and attacking Kurds.

"The most important thing to me is that we unite with each other. It’s not just a story of Kurdistan, it’s the story of the whole world, because ISIS is an enemy of us all — if together we unite, that’s the only way we can survive this."

What’s next for you?
“I’ll have to see what’s happening. Will there be peace? Maybe I’ll celebrate the peace with a peace song. I’m also finishing my album, and I do a lot of humanitarian work. I’ve worked with the UN, I’ve worked with peshmerga to help orphans, and I want to do more. That’s a lot for the next year, I think.”

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
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