Helly Luv and Kurdistan's fight against terror
The clicking of high heels on marble flooring announces the arrival of Helly Luv as she sweeps through the lobby, her manager trailing behind. Businessmen in dark suits turn their heads, drawn by a cloud of perfume, cascades of brilliant red hair and an armoury of jangling gold bling. Taking a seat on a leather divan, the Kurdish pop star introduces herself and orders a coffee.
Black, with a jug of honey on the side. A hotel lobby is an unremarkable interview setting, and the Erbil Rotana, with its crystal chandeliers, grand piano and attentive staff, promises familiar levels of comfort expected by a celebrity anywhere in the world. This sense of normalcy ends at the edge of the hotel grounds, though, where high concrete walls shield against potential bombings and armed guards at the gate check every incoming vehicle and visitor for weapons and explosives.
Outside the hotel’s blast-proof perimeter, Erbil is the capital of a region at war. Kurdistan, an autonomous region in the north of Iraq, is at the forefront of the war against ISIS. Just 30 kilometres from the city, Peshmerga warriors — whose name means “those who face death” — face off against the terrorist group that has made sex slaves of Yezidi women, burned alive a caged Jordanian pilot, beheaded journalists, and thrown alleged homosexuals from buildings. The group also bans music and demands women cover up in public. All of which makes Luv an unlikely celebrity in an unusual situation.
Born to Kurdish parents in exile, she grew up in Finland before pursuing a pop career in Los Angeles. She became a sensation after returning to Kurdistan to film her first music video “Risk It All”, which mixed standard pop imagery of choreographed dancing in skimpy clothing with symbols of Kurdish independence. Four million views later, Helly Luv is an internet star and a symbol of the Kurds’ strong spirit of resistance.
Many in her Western audience see her personifying much of what they see in Kurdistan itself: a secular, freedom-loving bastion of stability and a reliable ally in a tough neighbourhood that is rife with religious fundamentalism and the repression of women. But Kurds themselves are divided over Luv. In a society struggling to define itself, opinions contrast sharply on what Kurdistan should look like and to what extent Luv represents that vision.
English pop songs are becoming popular with the youth, she’s very patriotic and a lot of girls look up to her
Some see her as a foreign import looking to make a name for herself by exploiting the Kurdish struggle, whereas others see in her a reflection of what the region could be — glitzy, up-and-coming and filled with promise. Reacting to the controversy which followed “Risk It All”, Luv has upped the ante with her latest single, “Revolution”, shooting the video on Peshmerga front lines.
In the clip, Luv returns in a tank to fire at ISIS, her face and hair covered by a red keffiyeh scarf, chains of machine gun ammunition adding to her gold jewellery. In the background is a cast of hundreds, including real Peshmerga, displaced Kurds, and actors dressed as terrorists. It’s a paean to the Kurds fighting ISIS on behalf of the world, but it’s also shrewdly timed and calculated for maximum impact. “After ‘Risk It All’ I was supposed to shoot a video for ‘Love and War’, which is a love song, but when ISIS came, obviously everything changed,” she says, once she’s settled in the lobby with her coffee.
“I decided that I could not give people a love song right now. I needed to give them a song which would encourage them, give them power.” She recounts the significant challenges of filming with a crew in a war zone and, occasionally, the real dangers. “A lot of times we had to cancel the shoot because ISIS started to attack,” Luv says. “You could hear the bullets flying over and it was just ‘‘Get out, get out!’’ and we’d pack our stuff quickly and leave.” For Luv, though, it was important to show the world what was happening and to also show support for her people. Even though she has spent much of her life outside the country, her story reflects many aspects of recent Kurdish history.
The daughter of a former female Peshmerga guerrilla, she was born Hellen Abdullah in an Iranian refugee camp in 1988. This was the same year that Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army gassed some 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja, the largest ever chemical weapons attack against civilians. When she was nine months old, her parents escaped, walking with her over the mountains to Turkey. “My mother wore the same outfit for a month,” she says. “When we got to Turkey the only thing we had was a plastic bag with some milk and clothes and diapers for me.”
Her family was granted asylum in Finland when Luv was two years old. Summarising that time, she says simply: “We ran away from Saddam — the same story that we Kurds all have.” Growing up in the small Finnish city of Lahti, Luv always stood out as being different. “There were only two immigrants in my school, so I faced a lot of racism growing up.” She found an outlet in music, which become her escape from life as an outsider.
“When I was on stage and people were clapping and happy to see me, I felt accepted. I got hooked on this feeling.” Having decided to pursue a career as a singer, at 18 she moved to Los Angeles, “a place where you could easily get eaten by wolves.” Dark times followed as she struggled to make a name for herself in a city filled with predators keen to exploit a naïve young foreign girl with big dreams and limited English.
The way Luv tells it, she was living in an apartment with no electricity and surviving on crackers before she caught the attention of producer Carlos McKinney (Los da Mystro). To prove her talent, she sang Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” over the phone to him. When she finished, the line went quiet for a long time. “He said: ‘Helly, pack your bags, I’m flying you to New York City tomorrow,’ and that’s how I got away from that dark time.”
Kurds like to say they are the world’s largest stateless ethnic group, with some 40 million people spread mostly across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Today, a diaspora of nearly a million Kurds is dispersed further across western Europe and North America, the result of decades of persecution, most notably during Hussein’s al-Anfal campaign, between 1986 and 1989 that tried to wipe out the Kurds in Iraq.
What had been a backwater was now talked about as the next Dubai
It was this outrage, culminating in the gas attack on Halabja, that started Iraqi Kurds on their long road towards statehood. After the first Gulf War of 1990-91, the United States and its allies instigated a no-fly zone over northern Iraq to protect the Kurds. Cut off from the central government in Baghdad but also under the international sanctions against Iraq, they built a nascent state while in isolation. In 2003, Iraqi Kurds welcomed the US intervention as a liberation. With the rest of Iraq mired in violence, investors flocked to the Kurdistan region, attracted by its stability, tolerance and untapped oil reserves.
The Kurdish diaspora took notice too, returning home in their thousands. What had been a backwater was now talked about as the next Dubai, and although still a long way off, Kurds looked to the new five-star hotels, Pizza Hut restaurants and Range Rover dealerships as evidence that their dreams of statehood were becoming a reality. In 2013 Luv also decided it was time to return, recasting her pop persona by bringing her Kurdish identity to the fore.
“I saw what was going on here and I felt like it was time to bring out Helly Luv.” Her fanbase exploded as a result, with hundreds of thousands following her on social media. Luv interacts with her fans regularly, calling them her “Luvs” and updating them about her favourite food (sushi) or any forthcoming releases. “I’m so happy that you are my idol,” reads a typical fan response. “I really, really love you… I can’t explain how much I love you.”
“Her Instagram speaks for itself, she has a lot of fans, a lot of support,” says Shalaw Qaradaghi, who hosts a morning radio show in Kurdistan’s second city, Sulaymaniyah. The station plays “Risk It All” regularly and Qaradaghi says young Kurds welcomed the arrival of a Kurdish pop star with a Western flavour. “English pop songs are becoming popular with the youth,” he says. “She’s very patriotic and a lot of girls look up to her as a role model.”
Qaradaghi also grew up between Kurdistan and the West, spending much of his childhood in Washington DC. He says that while her style may not be unusual elsewhere (the over-the-top swagger and appropriation of Middle Eastern cultural symbols will be familiar to MIA fans), in Kurdistan she created a stir. “It’s still very uncommon in Kurdish culture to have dancing on TV,” he says. His comment reveals one of the fault lines of today’s Kurdistan.
Look past the glass skyscrapers and planted boulevards in the main cities and the country remains a conservative society. The diaspora Kurds, such as Luv, who return with their western experiences often find themselves in conflict with these traditional values. The role of women is a particular flashpoint. While Kurdistan’s regional government representative in Washington DC, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, is a woman, at home alarming numbers of women fall victim to honour killings – the murder of women by relatives for supposedly bringing shame on a family.
Most Kurds are proud of their (non-combatant) female Peshmerga units but also expect a woman to give up her career once she is married. Sama Dizayee is young Kurd of a similar age to Luv, working as a journalist for Voice of America. When Dizayee started writing, she says it was a big deal for her family to even have her byline appear in print. For a woman to dance on television is deeply suspect for many Kurds. “She’s not afraid of being out there on TV, God knows what she does outside of her work, she has no shame,” is what Dizayee says people think. “People are asking ‘What is wrong with this girl? Doesn’t she know our traditions?’” It’s understandable, then, that the video for “Risk It All”, which also featured a scantily clad Luv balancing on stilettos, cavorting with lions, and hurling Molotov cocktails against a backdrop of Erbil’s ancient citadel, would court controversy.
“The Islamic radical groups definitely weren’t ready for it,” says Luv, adding that she received death threats after its release. So is part of Kurdish society just not ready for Helly Luv? Perhaps, but there are also a number of progressive young Kurds who take issue with Luv, accusing her of benefiting from Kurdistan’s war against ISIS.
“She just exploited a situation where her music became more marketable as ‘resistance’,” writes Ruwayda Mustafah, a young Kurdish-British journalist. “Her entire persona is perpetuated on dishonesty, serving to prolong her career, not a nationalist cause.” Patriotism permeates the region, with the threat of ISIS convincing more Kurds than ever of the need to pursue full statehood. Kurdish Region President Masoud Barzani says independence is inevitable and a referendum will be held when the war is over.
Meanwhile the Peshmerga defending Kurdistan against ISIS are revered –posters of fallen martyrs fill the streets of many towns – making many extremely sensitive to any hint of exploitation of their image for commercial gain, especially by outsiders. Ahmed Jaleel Jani, a 25-year-old who grew up in a town called Khanaqin to the east of the region, listens to Luv but understands why others don’t like her.
“People say, ‘She comes from Europe and she doesn’t hold the culture of the Kurds,’” he says. Luv herself sees no conflict in promoting the Kurdish issue at the same time as her career. She explains how, growing up she longed for a Kurdish pop idol “who would look or sound like Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson or Michael Jackson.” Eventually, she decided to become that herself — “an international Kurdish English pop artist.” But more than that, Luv argues, she is just being herself. “In my blood I’m Kurdish, but I was raised outside — I’m both. You cannot take anything out, it’s just who I am.”