Why are these fingers – with their immaculately-painted, Chanel-logoed nails – gripping a bullet?
The hand belongs to Helly Luv, the latest Middle Eastern pop sensation. The image is from her music video, “Revolution”, filmed just one and a half miles from ISIS.
Some in the media label her the Kurdish Shakira. This seemed lazy and unfair to us, so we called Erbil (Iraq), to find out more about Helly Luv.
“I’m fine here, but they’re fighting Islamic State just an hour away,” Helly tells us from the administrative capital of Kurdistan: the largest stateless nation in the world.
Helly Luv is Kurdistan’s most-loved pop star and ISIS’s most-hated
We’re talking to the woman who claims to be ISIS’s most-wanted woman. To see how she got here, we must travel back in time to when Helly was born Helan Abdulla on 16 November 1988 in Iraqi Kurdistan.
1. Guerrilla mum
“I was born in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. My family fled to Turkey to escape Saddam Hussein. We spent two weeks begging and sleeping on the streets of Turkey. Then we spent nine months in a refugee camp until we were granted political asylum in Finland,” she recalls.
Helly’s personal history is marked by the character of her Kurdish blood. Her mother was a Peshmerga guerrilla: “one who faces death” for the freedom of Kurdistan. “My mother became a guerrilla when she was 16. My father and grandfather were guerrillas too. Some people think of Batman or Superman as superheroes, but to me, my mother is a superhero in this photo.”
— Helly Luv (@HellyLuv) 11 de mayo de 2015
My mum became a guerrilla when she was 16. She’s my superhero
Helly and her family were the first Kurds to live in Finland. She was the victim of racism there: the driving force behind her career as a performer. “Everyone was blond and blue eyed. I was the only one who was different,” she recalls.
But this dark-haired little girl from a country that didn’t show up on any map began to sing and dance, and soon life took its course. “I was bullied at school, but onstage they loved me,” she says with dignity.
2. One-dollar biscuits and Whitney Houston over the phone
Helly was thirsty for success. As soon as she turned 18, she flew to Los Angeles. There, she lived the typical American dream, going from one record label to another in search of a lucky break, only to be rudely awakened by hearing “no” after “no”.
I was bullied at school, but onstage they loved me
“I didn’t know anyone there. I had no money, and all I ate for two weeks were cracker biscuits.”
Helly was about to take her heavy heart back with her to Finland when, out of the blue, she got a Myspace message from Los Da Mystro (Rihanna, Beyoncé) asking her to give him a call in New York. “I phoned him and sang ‘I Have Nothing’ by Whitney Houston down the line. ‘Pack your bags,’ he said. ‘We’ll buy you a flight to New York for tomorrow.’”
3. First success = first death threats
In early 2014, Helly Luv lit the touch paper. With its scenes of Helly throwing a Molotov cocktail, standing amid a sea of Kurdish flags, and dancing sensually beside a lion, “Risk it All” achieved a level of success unprecedented for a pop singer from Kurdistan.
“The video is about our freedom. All Kurds have the same dream: the independence of Kurdistan,” Helly says. The video was shot with Kurdish refugees from the Syrian war.
A Kurdish woman singing about freedom while dancing in a short skirt: it was clear that “Risk it All” wasn’t going to please everyone. “That was when fundamentalists began making the first death threats. The mullah at the mosque told everyone who I was and called on them to kill me for setting a bad example to young Muslim women,” Helly tells us.
After “Risk it All” she began to get death threats for setting a bad example to Muslim women
A few months after filming the video, ISIS attacked Kurdistan. Helly remembers that “ordinary people, like food sellers, went to the front to fight Islamic State.”
“Our resistance against ISIS wasn’t getting enough international attention. That’s why I recorded my next song.”
4. A revolution one mile away from ISIS
Her next song took things even further. Helly Luv recorded “Revolution” in Khazar, a town near Mosul. Just one and a half miles from ISIS.
“It took three months. It was incredibly complicated. Five minutes after we started shooting, ISIS began raining bullets down on us,” Helly explains. “The Peshmerga troops in the video are genuine guerrillas who fight Islamic State in the area. They filmed with us in their free time.”
“Revolution” is no UN soundtrack in praise of peace, love and understanding. Its seven minutes are packed with images of Helly waving guns and making aggressive gestures while leading the Kurdish soldiers against the evil of the Islamic State. She’s even wearing machine gun-shaped rings on her fingers.
It’s the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world. You can’t fight them with sticks and bunches of flowers
“I’m glad you describe its aggressiveness as a virtue. People have told me the video is too violent, but I had to show the truth, and this is the truth. If you come here and see how ISIS is killing and raping… my video isn’t violent at all in comparison. ISIS is the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world. You can’t fight them with sticks and bunches of flowers,” the singer concludes.
ISIS enjoyed this video even less than they’d enjoyed the first one. “They’ve put me at the top of their list. I think I’m ISIS’s most-wanted woman right now. But I’m not afraid. I knew this would happen. If my voice can reach thousands of people all over the world, I don’t mind putting my life at risk. It’s a privilege; an honour.”
5. Peshmerga pop
Helly Luv isn’t the only courageous woman in Kurdistan. “A lot of people don’t know about our age-old history of equality between men and women. It’s unique in the Middle East.” “Centuries ago,” she continues, “women on horseback led men into battle. Now, Peshmerga women – like my mother in her day – fight shoulder to shoulder with men. As a Kurdish woman, this fills me with pride.”
Her next project – aside from finishing off her debut album in LA – is to visit a support network for women who’ve been abducted and raped by ISIS.
Kurdistan has an age-old tradition of equality between men and women that’s unique in the Middle East
She admits that she finds it hard to sing about clubs and nightlife while her people are suffering, but assures us that Kurdistan will soon be independent.
Before we say goodbye, I ask her about life in Erbil. “People trust the Kurdish defence. We’re not scared of ISIS reaching the city. And if they do make it, we’ll all go to the front.”
Do you ever think about picking up a gun?
“Of course. I’m the daughter and granddaughter of warriors: I know how to handle a gun. I believe more deeply in fighting for peace, which is what I’m trying to do now. But if there was no choice then of course I’d be ready to fight for my people.”
That’s a Peshmerga woman talking.
Surrounded by enemies, the Kurds have no friends but the mountains