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This Kurdish Singer Is Fighting ISIS with Pop Songs

We spoke to Helly Luv about ISIS, dancing with lions, and her humanitarian focus on helping women.

Randi Bergman

Images courtesy of Helly Luv

If you've done anything other than just sit there, paralyzed with fear while reading the latest news about ISIS, you're one step ahead of me. A few steps ahead of both of us though, is Helly Luv, the 26-year-old pop star currently waging war against the terrorist group with her second single and breakthrough video, "Revolution," which features her in full military regalia alongside tanks and real-life ISIS victims. It was filmed in Kurdistan, within close range of a recent ISIS stronghold.

Dubbed the "Kurdish Shakira," the Iran-born, Finland-raised and Los Angeles-based singer is part of a longtime fighter family: Her mother and grandfather both notable members of the Peshmerga forces, an army which guards Iraqi Kurdistan. Luv's battle cries have garnered over 6 million YouTube views—as well as the requisite death threats.

After a few weeks of failed attempts (shitty Internet and lack of electricity is another side effect of living in a warzone), I finally reached Luv via Skype from her part time base in Erbil, the capital of Kurdish Iraq.

Broadly: Where are you when you're not in Iraq?
Helly Luv: I travel a lot between Kurdistan, Los Angeles, and Europe.

Have you always been political?
Not always.

When you were growing up, what did you want to do?
I wanted to be an artist. I was very interested in music and acting, that type of work. That was my dream from a very young age. I was taking dance lessons, theatre lessons, piano lessons, acting lessons. It's always been a part of my life, but I never thought that it would turn into what they call me now—"revolution girl".

How did you shift your music to politics, then?
It all started when I was here last year and ISIS first attacked Kurdistan. I saw the injustice and I saw how ISIS killed and raped and burned and beheaded innocent people—not just innocent people, but my people. That really lit a fire inside of me. I felt like I needed to do something on my end. I was doing humanitarian work for refugees and victims who'd escaped, but I still felt like I needed to do something more, something bigger, something more effective. Maybe my voice could be heard around the world. As an artist, I feel like my weapon is my voice and music. That's when I decided to create "Revolution."

How has living abroad affected how you're connected to your heritage, your people and their plight?
I grew up in Finland, but my family comes from a Peshmerga family. My grandfather was a very well known Peshmerga and my mother was a Peshmerga before she had me and before she married my father. It's always been a part of who we are and, as you probably know, Kurdish history is full of injustice. We've always been victims of wars. I always felt that way when I was growing up. I wasn't home and there was somewhere far away that was home for me. I was somebody who was different.

In my school, growing up, I was bullied a lot physically. It affected me a lot as a child. In my school, I was the only one in my class who didn't have blonde hair and blue eyes. I definitely felt like I was different from everybody else. I don't know—I had this very thick skin. All that bullying became a power to me in the end. When I finally went to high school, I became more powerful. I didn't let anybody bully me anymore. Growing up, I always had a dream to go to America and follow my dreams. Finland's a very small country and I felt like my dream was so much bigger. I decided that I had to go to Los Angeles and follow my dreams.

To me, the most important thing is that the message really gets to everyone.

How did you specifically start writing "Revolution?"
When the war happened and I went back to Los Angeles to record the song, I'll tell you that it was the hardest song ever to do. I basically cried throughout the whole process. I had to take so many breaks. I'd just come from the warzone where I was helping the victims. I saw how they came with nothing to the refugee camps and how their family members didn't make it. I took all that and went to the studio and let it all out. It was very hard for me. Also, one thing that I noticed when I was in Los Angeles creating the song...I told my staff, "Listen, this is what we have to do. We have to create this song."...It's sad to say, but a lot of people didn't know what ISIS was or what was going on in Kurdistan. That really bothered me. To me, it was crazy that people hadn't heard enough about what was going on. It was very hard to write and record, but I'm so proud of it. To me, the most important thing is that the message really gets to everyone. It did the work that I wanted it to do.

What is your message exactly?
With "Revolution", I had to make sure that I could deliver a message for the voices of hundreds of thousands of people whose voices had been shut down. It was also for the Peshmerga and Kurdistan. We need to unite with other countries. We need help. We need access to weapons. We need to unite with different religions and countries to become one and fight against ISIS. Again, ISIS is not just the enemy of Kurds. Peshmergas are not just protecting Kurds and Kurdistan. They're protecting the whole world from ISIS. For me, it was important that the world heard this message.

Images courtesy of Helly Luv.

When you shot the video for Revolution, you were getting into the thick of it. Can you tell me about the shooting of that video?
I don't know if a lot of people know, but I'm the creative director of the whole video. I'm very much a perfectionist with my work. I do most of the work myself. I really put all the pieces together from the stories and what was going on. It was very difficult because it's such a huge subject. I had to make sure that I wasn't doing a video that was all political, all war. I'm a pop artist. I have to make sure that there's a balance between being a pop artist and also delivering a message I wanted. Especially for teenagers and the younger generation—today they're all interested in fashion and dance. It was definitely a challenge for me to make sure that it would be so popular that the younger generation would really like it.

My music and the message it carries will live forever. ISIS won't live forever.

Basically, what I wanted to do from the first day was to shoot the video where it actually happened with real Peshmergas, real weapons, real tanks, and the real victims of ISIS. We collected the victims—those people in the beginning who are escaping from ISIS are real victims from Kubani, Shingal, and Yazidis. I wanted to make sure that I was doing it right. I had no other option than to go to the actual battlefield. We were about 2.5 kilometers away from them. A lot of the time, we had to cancel everything and leave because the bullets were flying too close to us. The Peshmergas were telling us, "You must go. You guys have to leave because it's not safe anymore." I'm very proud that I made that decision. It really delivers in the video. You can see it and that's one of the reasons people like it. You see the truth of it. One thing that was important to me was to make sure...if you look at Kurdistan's history, Kurdistan has always left peace with different religions: Christians, Yazidis, and I wanted to show that to the world. We are one. We're brothers and sisters. I think it came through in the end.

I read in one of your interviews that you actually fired at militants.
Yes.

How did that go?
That was really good. I enjoyed it a lot. I was proud to shoot a bullet from a Peshmerga tank. It was fun.

Do you know where the missile went?
It went across the river to the other side at ISIS.

I heard that you've had a lot of death threats.
Obviously, I already knew that would happen. I was ready for that. I tried to not think about it a lot because I feel like what I'm doing and the message I'm sending is so much more important. To me—it's probably funny to hear—it's a privilege to be listed on their most wanted list. To me, it's a privilege because it means that the video and message we did is as powerful as their weapons. They feel that I'm a threat to them. It's an honor because I feel that if I can, by myself, take a bullet for hundreds and thousands of people whose voices has been shut down, I'm proud. It's the ultimate weapon. It might not win a fight in the battlefield, but my music and the message it carries will live forever. ISIS won't live forever.

Aren't you scared?
No. Absolutely not. If I were scared, I wouldn't have gone this far. I always say this, and I have it tattooed on my shoulders: it says "no fear" in Kurdish. I believe that nobody will have fear anymore after you see so much injustice. When you see so much bad and ISIS killing innocent people and raping young girls—there's no more fear left in you. It becomes strength and a power. You want to fight against it. There's zero fear in me.

How do you feel, as a woman, being a voice in the Middle East?
There are a lot of people who don't accept what I'm doing. When I did "Risk It All", my first single, I was dancing in a small skirt with a real lion. That was shocking. That started everything for me. Even back then, I received death threats from radical Islamic groups. Mullah, the Islamic priest, was speaking about me in mosque and telling people about how I'm a bad influence for the people and the younger generation. He said my voice should be shut down. It's a power that I have and Kurdistan is ready to have a strong international female artist that isn't afraid of anyone. I think it's very powerful.

Kurdistan is ready to have a strong international female artist that isn't afraid of anyone.

What are you doing next?
I'll definitely try to finish my album. I'm going more humanitarian work. I'm working with the female victims and young girls who were kidnapped by ISIS. I'm trying to help them get their lives back to normal. It's a hard process because what's happened to them is not something that can be fixed in one night. I'm really active with that. I also work with animal rights. I have another video project in the works but, at the moment, I'm not rushing to do it. I think it's important to push the message of "Revolution". I don't know if you know, but I've finished two movies with the famous Kurdish-Iranian film director Bahman Ghobadi. He's a Cannes-winning film director. The first movie we did had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. I was wearing the Peshmerga outfit. People were asking me, "Why wouldn't you wear a gown?" But I wanted to wear the Peshmerga freedom fighter outfit to bring more attention to Peshmergas and the fight that was going on. The new movie that we shot will be premiering at the Busan Film Festival in Korea. That's also something I'm working on.

Are you going to stick to the Peshmerga garb?
For the moment, yes. I feel very powerful with this style. I'm connected to that style. This whole fighter image that I have is part of me. I feel connected to that.

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