Helly Luv Is Kicking ISIS's Ass with Pop Music
"I feel privileged to be attacked by ISIS because it means the message is as strong as their weapons and their violence."
I've been trying to Skype with Kurdish pop star Helly Luv for the past 30 minutes. Both of our internet connections are shit, but one of us is hiding out in her pajamas in a New York City apartment, and the other is hiding out from ISIS somewhere in Kurdistan. While the world's political leaders bash their heads together trying to figure out a strategy of combatting ISIS, Helly Luv is hitting them straight where it hurts with badass lyrics, striking imagery, and some serious fighting talk.
The 26-year-old Kurdish pop sensation is as political as she is entertaining. Her hair is currently bright Rihanna-red, her face striking and contoured. If she's afraid of the threats leveled against her, she doesn't show it.
Helly Luv is on ISIS's radar for her newest music video for the song "Revolution," which features her cat-walking down a war zone in shiny gold pumps, rallying organized troops of young men, and staring defiantly into the barrel of several guns. The mix between pop and politics is a crucial part of who Helly Luv is as an artist and an individual. Days after she was born, Helly Luv and her mother were forced to flee Iran for Turkey, where they lived homeless for several years before finding their way to Finland as refugees. At the age of 18, she came to LA on her own, where she was eventually discovered. Now, she's returned to the Middle East to create music and videos that combat terrorism through messages of unity, pride, and peace. Her "Revolution" video was shot about two miles away from the front line separating ISIS militants and the Kurdish Peshmerga troops. VICE spoke to Helly about growing up a Kurdish refugee, finding fame, and fighting Islamic groups with her music.
VICE: You have a huge fan base in the Middle East and around Europe right now. But are you also pissing off a lot of hardcore Muslims?
Helly Luv: I get this every day from critics from the religion side, saying that I'm doing something wrong and "You shouldn't be doing this because you're a woman, you should behave." But if you come here and you look and you see the young generation, that's where I get my courage from. Those are the same teens who are looking up to artists like Beyoncé or Rihanna. They understand and appreciate the work I'm doing. Growing up, I didn't have a Kurdish pop artist to look up to; I only had American artists. I was looking up to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, but I didn't have anybody on my Kurdish side. Seeing all of these messages coming from Kurdish, or any Middle Eastern, girls and boys makes me really happy. It makes me feel like I'm doing something important.
Tell me about your upbringing.
I was born in Iran in '88, during the Persian Gulf War. I was literally born in the middle of war; my mother didn't give birth to me in a hospital. We were in Urmia, and the day after I was born, they wrapped me in blankets and put my mom on a horse and we traveled for months in the mountains, to go all the way to the Turkish border. We paid a guy to smuggle us across the border; it was a very dangerous and horrible time.
When we got to Turkey, they didn't accept us in the refugee camp right away, because there were hundreds of thousands of Kurds running away from Saddam Hussein's soldiers, so when we first got to Turkey we were homeless on the streets. After that, we finally got to the refugee camp, and we stayed there for about nine months. Luckily, after nine months we got accepted to Finland—we were the first Kurdish immigrants to enter Finland. I basically spent my whole childhood in Finland.
How was growing up in Finland?
Growing up in Finland was really rough for me because we were the first Kurdish immigrants. My childhood was very racist. In school, I was the only girl who had black hair and dark eyes; everybody had blue eyes and blond hair. I got bullied a lot, so I found my escape through music. I got accepted into a famous music school, and I took vocal lessons, piano lessons, dancing, acting, art lessons. Music became that escape and freedom for me. When I was 16 and 17, I worked as a waitress and dance teacher so I could finally go to LA. When I was 18, I packed my bags, I booked my ticket, and I went with my big suitcase and this huge dream to Los Angeles, all by myself.
How did you adjust to living in LA?
The struggles were not what I thought! I thought, I'll just go to Los Angeles and everything will be fine, but reality hit me fast, and I realized that it's not an easy city, especially if you don't know anyone. I had a little apartment that I found on Craigslist, and it was nothing like the pictures! I was pissed off because I was supposed to have a Jacuzzi and everything, but it was nothing like in the pictures, and the place smelled like somebody died there. There were roaches all over, and I didn't have electricity for two or three weeks. The landlord would blackmail me for more money. The biggest problem was that he kept bringing hookers to my apartment, which was really disturbing.
I was really young, and I didn't have anybody in Los Angeles, and I couldn't call my parents because they would have made me come back right away. With all of this, I got myself into trouble. I lost a lot of money because of the landlord and I ended up buying those $1 saltine crackers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner just to fill myself. I think anyone who moves to LA to follow their dream has a similar story!
What happened? How did everything change?
I was walking into record labels randomly just trying to find somebody, and I realized that in LA you're going to get eaten by wolves if you don't know what you're doing or where you're going. I saw the evil part of the industry soon, and I met a lot of producers who offered me big deals, but it was like, "If you do this... then we will do this," you know? And I just didn't want that. I was sure that my dream was over and that I would have to go back to Finland.
I understand that's it's fun to go out to the club, but while you're in the club with your friends, there are millions of people dying and suffering.
It was two weeks before my flight, and I received a message from Los da Mystro and the Dream. I got discovered by them on MySpace—back then Myspace was really poppin'—and I had some videos singing and dancing and they called me and were like, "Who are you and where did you come from?" I told them my whole story, and they were shocked! They asked me to sing on the phone, so I did my audition on the phone. I sang Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing," because that was a perfect song for that moment. The first thing they said was, "Helly, pack your bags. We're flying you to New York City tomorrow." So at 18 years old, I signed a deal with them and you know, you don't become an artist in one night. It took me many years to really develop as an artist and get my English right because I still had the Finnish accent.
"Risk It All" was your first single. What inspired it?
In 2013 I met Gawain. I was looking for something that had that Middle Eastern sound. "Risk It All" was inspired by what was going on with Kurdistan because in 2013, Kurdistan was very close to independence. This was before ISIS. I wanted to create a song that would represent and celebrate the freedom of the Kurds because, as you know, we Kurds have a long, horrible, bloody history. "Risk It All" is a celebration of that, risking everything for a dream, and the dream for Kurds is obviously independence. "Risk It All" is also personal; it's also about risking everything for my dreams.
It's sad that they can't accept me like they accept the modern Middle East. They accept all of the new buildings and malls, but they're not accepting of modern people.
Around the same time, in 2013, I was also asked to do a movie with Bahman Ghobadi. He's a Cannes winning film director, and he asked me to do a female lead role in his movie, Mardan. The world premiere was at the Toronto Film Festival. After that, I did Two Songs of Kurdistan that was more of a documentary movie about my life and about how everything happened after "Risk It All" because, obviously the song was something that nobody over here had seen before. It was very different. I was dancing with a lion in a small skirt, and right after that I got attacked by radical Islamic groups sending me death threats, and I had to hide for about two months. It was a very difficult time in my life. I couldn't go anywhere; I was just stuck inside. But a lot of people stood up for me and I became very known in one night because of "'Risk It All." It was definitely a success for me.
Is there this whole added stress because you have to constantly hide all the time?
Of course it feels unfair, but most people like and understand me. Only some people want to stone me to death. It's sad. It's sad that they can't accept me, and they can't accept it like they accept the modern Middle East. They accept all of the new buildings and malls, but they're not accepting of modern people, and the modern things that come with this. I feel that it's unfair. It's really sad. Because I have all of these young people looking up to me; I'm really doing this for them. People are afraid to do what I'm doing, and I understand that because it's a huge risk, and you really sacrifice everything for this. And I have sacrificed. My normal life is gone; I cannot go outside without having security around me. It's really weird.
The world wasn't hearing Kurdistan's voice and the struggle and the pain we were going through with ISIS. Every day, men and women got up and took any kind of weapon they had and went to fight against the enemy.
What happened after "Risk It All"?
After that, I did a lot of charity work. I closed down the world's second worst zoo, in Kurdistan. I was supposed to do another song, but ISIS attacked the borders of Kurdistan for the first time last June. Back then I was doing humanitarian work for the refugees, but I felt like it wasn't enough; I felt like the world wasn't hearing about Kurdistan's voice and the struggle and the pain we were going through with ISIS. Every day, men and women just got up and took any kind of weapon they had and went on the battlefield to fight against the enemy. The enemy had these strong and powerful weapons and we didn't have anything. They went there because they were so brave and they wanted to protect their country and that inspired me so much. I wanted to do a song about this and really get the world to hear about what was going on here.
"Revolution" is not only the story of Kurds. It's the story of us all, because ISIS is not just the enemy of Kurds; they're the enemy of the whole world. It's our own responsibility to come together, unite, and fight against them. If we don't, then tomorrow they will expand; they will get more powerful. I went to Los Angeles and created "Revolution" with the same producer and the same staff who did "Risk It All," and it was the most difficult song to record; I was basically crying the whole time. Violence and terrorism is everywhere. Yesterday, it was in Germany, before that it was Tunis, and before that it was Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
I feel privileged to be attacked by ISIS because it means the message is as strong as their weapons and their violence.
What does ISIS have to say about your music?
They're very powerful, especially their social media, so my motivation was to make a song that was even more powerful. Obviously it's working, because they're pissed off. A lot of people ask me how it feels to have death threats, but I try to not focus on it and focus on the good parts of my journey. In a way, I feel privileged to be attacked by ISIS because it means the message is as strong as their weapons and their violence.
What is something you want people to know about you?
My message is enough for me. If there's no me tomorrow, then I will be so honored that people got my message out. I think these things are very important to talk about. I could do a song about poppin' in the club and all that stuff but I think it's so useless. I understand that's it's fun to go out to the club but again, while you're in the club with your friends, there are millions of people dying and suffering. You can't be ignorant and just close your eyes from that. As long as there are people dying and suffering from terror and violence, you're also responsible for it.
Where do you see yourself in the next year?
If I'm alive [laughs], my dream is to tour a lot and spread my message. I want to do more humanitarian work—that's my passion, and I want to do so much more. Obviously, because I'm a pop artist, I also want to finish my album. There's another big project that I'm working on, but it's still a secret. Let's say it's about the same subjects I've worked on. Mostly, I'm making sure that my butt is alive!