Helan Abdulla, stage name Helly Luv, is not your normal twenty year old. Her latest music video shows her dancing on top of tanks while bombs go off around her, angrily pointing a rifle at her all-too-real enemy. It and others like it have reached an audience of millions.
But her childhood was different. Helan Abdulla was born in Iran during the Persian Gulf War, but soon fled with her Kurdish family to a refugee camp in Turkey. A few years later, she and her family were approved to become citizens of Finland – one of the first Kurdish immigrant families to live here. Her memories of her early life in the southern town of Lahti are not warm.
“I had a really hard time. I was bullied all the time as a child, so I couldn't concentrate at school. I didn’t have many friends and I was beaten up all the time,” she says.
Abdulla had to repeat the third grade twice and eventually changed schools. At long last, she found a way to vent her frustration: music.
“I felt accepted in my dance and singing lessons. When I performed on the stage, people would watch me and clap. It was additive. I knew then that I wanted to be a singer when I grew up,” she says.
As soon as she turned 18, Abdulla left for the US to do just that. Her years in Los Angeles were tough, and her big breakthrough never came. But just before she started making arrangements to return to Finland, she received a message from Grammy-winning record producer Los Da Mystro, who had previously worked with big-name stars Whitney Houston and Rihanna, asking her to sign a deal with his production company.
“I'm really stubborn. I never give up,” says Abdulla when she remembers back to that time.
“ISIS wants to destroy the world”
The girl who used to be called Helan Abdulla is now Helly Luv. The artist divides her time between her two homes, one in Los Angeles and the other in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil.
“ISIS doesn’t want to just destroy Kurdistan; it wants to destroy the entire world. We need help desperately,” says Luv.
Luv considers herself a peshmerga, a self-described freedom fighter in the Iraqi Kurdistan. Her mother and father also belong to peshmerga, who maintain security in the Kurdistan region. But Luv has found that her contribution to the fight is better made on a different front.
“My weapon's not a gun, it's my voice and my music. They can carry my message to millions of other people,” she says.
Helly Luv’s videos have been viewed millions of times on social media sites. Her pop songs carry common themes of Kurdish nationalism and revolution. They have also aroused the ire of the Islam extremists.
“The lives of both me and my family have been threatened. I have received death threats.” Luv says that ISIS has even placed a 100,000 dollar price on her head.
Security forces follow her wherever she goes in Kurdistan, which means she must always consider the necessity of her trips outside her home carefully. When she does move around the city, she rides in an armoured vehicle.
“I have to be on my toes all the time and think hard about where I'm going and what I'm doing there. My family's had to suffer greatly because of me, but I know they're proud of my work,” Luv says.
“I dress differently”
Helly Luv offends more than just ISIS rebels with her videos, however, as members of the Orthodox Kurdish community are also put off by elements of her persona.
“I don't dress like ordinary women here and I’ve got a lot of criticism because of it,” she says.
Nevertheless, she intends to stay true to herself and keep her singular style.
“A lot of young people look up to me and understand my work. It's time that Kurdistan had a pop artist who dresses differently and dares to sing about things that used to be banned. It's an honour to assume that responsibility. Whatever happens, I can take it.”