Helly Luv and her pop activism

Born in Iran amidst the Persian Gulf War, day-old Helan Abdulla was wrapped up in a blanket and taken with her family as they traveled for months to reach safety in Turkey. Twenty-seven years later, she has become a famous pop star, known by her stage name, Helly Luv. The vast challenges that she and her Kurdish-Finnish family faced in order to flee the war-torn area, and the further difficulties that emerged as Helan pushed to achieve her dreams of stardom, have shaped her as a person, as well as shaped her art. She has become an outspoken advocate for Kurdish independence, and through her music she aims to provide a strong message to challenge ISIS and the other forms of terrorism around the world.

Before her birth, Helan’s family escaped from Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran to avoid the Iraqi government’s genocidal actions against the Kurdish people. Her mother had been a peshmerga fighter: a member of the Iraqi Kurdistan military force. After her birth, her family traveled to Turkey where they stayed in a refugee camp for nine months before they were granted asylum in Finland. The Abdulla family were the first Kurdish immigrants to live in Finland, and Helan was forced to deal with the racist attitudes and tauntings of her peers. At 18, she traveled to Los Angeles by herself in search of fame and was soon discovered.

Helly Luv then entered the music scene. Her first big hit, “Risk It All”, was largely popular all around the world and even made it to the top of the billboards in Finland. Part of the reason for its popularity was because of the controversy it stirred up. After its debut, audiences responded with an equal amount of praise and criticism. “Risk It All”, for Helan, was a very personal song; while it represented the risks that she took to move to California and follow her dreams, the message is much bigger than that; the song is a call of support to her native Kurdistan and their fight for independence (Bloom, 2014). The video, which was filmed in the capital of the Kurdish territory in Northern Iraq, shows Helly Luv dancing around her city in dresses that could be considered scandalous by some. Later she is shown dressed in a traditional peshmerga uniform, dancing with female peshmerga fighters with AK-47s (Luv, 2014). Within hours of the release of the video, Helan Abdulla was receiving death threats - some even from militant Islamists. Her unapologetic, progressive attitude struck a chord with her viewers; she was praised for her bravery and inspiring words, and hated for the same reasons.

None of the threats she received could stop her. Her next hit song struck an even stronger chord. “Revolution” was written specifically as a call to the Kurdish communities in the Middle East. The video was shot in an abandoned village near Mosul in Iraq, only a few kilometers away from where the real peshmerga fighters were fighting off the Islamic State (ISIS) At times, they had to interrupt shooting because the gunfire got too close to the crew (Urwin, 2015). The people starring in her video were actual victims of the Islamic State, and many people within the Iraqi Kurdistan community came to volunteer. Helly Luv wanted to send a unifying and empowering message to her fellow Kurds, as well as counter the violent propaganda being produced by ISIS: "If I can fight against [ISIS] with my music, then my song is as powerful as, or more powerful than their weapons” (The Artists, 2015). Since its release, she was put on a ISIS hit list.

Helan Abdulla’s entrance into the music scene came at a time where there was much conflict among the Kurdish nationals and the Iraqi government, as well as the heightening tensions with ISIS. Her straightforward methods of spreading awareness of the challenges faced by the Kurds in Kurdistan have gotten the attention of the international community. Her patriotic cry for freedom is a direct response to the violence which has denied Kurdistan from creating its own independent state. While her stance against ISIS and other factors preventing a unified Kurdistan is courageous, her first single, “Risk It All”, could be said to have been slightly insensitive to the community which she wanted to inspire. It is brave of her to return to Kurdistan, dance around her city in short dresses and inspire her home to “risk it all” for their country, but after the filming is over, she gets to fly home to California. In 2014, she set up a non-profit organization to help get aid to people in need within Kurdistan, so it’s not to say her activism ends when she steps on a plane. But considering that a number of the death threats she received came from conservative people within her own community - a community where “honor killings” still occur - the message she is sending to the youth (particularly girls) within the region, while empowering, could be deadly.

That’s not to say her privilege should be held against her in her fight to support her home country and its people; for a young woman who spends most of her time in the Western world, it is essential to acknowledge that privilege and use it to help those who are disadvantaged in society - which is exactly what she is doing. The way she challenges the cultural norms of the community from which she’s from is only a step towards changing the societal perceptions of what is acceptable for women to do in a patriarchal society. Her unrelenting support and philanthropic actions for the freedom and betterment of her own people and community is admirable. Her career speaking out for the Kurdish people has only begun; despite the death threats, she will continue: "If my life is at risk but I can get the message to millions of people then that is a privilege." (The Artists, 2015).