From the Trenches: Helly Luv Takes ISIS —to the Club

“From the Trenches” is battle cry. In a globalized world that criminalizes the rebellious in spirit, it’s easy to forget that change-minded activists and organizers are tallying up tiny victories against sociocultural and economic oppression on the regular. The column will serve as a weekly reminder that we not only can win, but we do, often. So hasta la victoria siempre and all that.


The Islamic State is pretty fucking horrifying. We can all agree on that, yes? And while those Islamofascist, insecure-in-their-masculinity, jobless sons of bitches are one, an embarrassing reality for Western governments whose so-called war on terror has—surprise!—brought about roughly a bagillion fundamentalist jihadist groups. But while Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is unlikely to come knocking on your door, IS is probably no picnic for those living under the caliphate proper.

Imagine living under an armed and vindictive Tea Party.

Luckily for the rest of us, Kurdish fighters across the region are working to make the transition to paradise easier for Islamic State combatants. (One badass man allegedly took out 30 IS fighters, solo.) But much of the Kurdish resistance has been anchored in the autonomous region of Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan, also known as every left-wing intellectuals post-Zapatista wet dream.

The women and men of the YPJ and YPG are holding it down in the fight against IS, but every war has its setbacks (though yesterday Kurdish forces allegedly recaptured areas of Hasaka, Syria). I look forward to writing about broader Kurdish victories against fundamentalists and for autonomy in the future. But because pictures of armed brown people never go over well with the media, the Kurdish cause—which aside from victory over the Islamic State, also includes an independent Kurdistan—could really benefit from some positive press in the West.

And it seems the Kurdish forces are about to get some positive attention on the international stage, if not in the way they’d expected.

Enter Helly Luv, or Helan Abudulla, an Iranian-born Kurd and pop singer now living in LA. You may recognize her name from back in February 2014, when the video for her song “Risk It All”, which featured Abdulla dancing with YPJ women fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan, prompted threats from Islamists.

Revolution,” Abdulla’s latest video, which was filmed “2.5 kilometers from ISIS” in Ebril, Iraq, opens with an assault on a Kurdish village. Over the past month, the video has received over one million views, which has snowballed into a wave of media coverage for Abdulla, as well as the Kurds fighting on the frontlines. Hell, a few hours ago, VICE even published their official interview with Abdulla, who I should mention is unapologetically gorgeous and unlike most Americans, manages to look cool in camo.

Abdulla’s brand of danceable pop music has the ability to sneak Kurdish perspectives into the mainstream. “While you’re popping in the club, you can’t be thinking that this war doesn’t affect you just because it’s far away from you,“ she told Refinery 29. And though she looks oh-so-LA in very many ways, Abdulla openly considers herself a part of the fight against IS and for Kurdish independence:

My part as an artist isn’t the weapon that you use on the battlefield; my weapon is my music and my voice. Through that I could get through to millions of other people who might not know what is going on here. I felt like, “I have to fight, I have to put my life in this.” I have death threats, I’ve been listed on the Most Wanted list by ISIS, so I’m fighting here the same way the peshmergas there are fighting.

But not all would have Helly Luv’s music as their battle hymn. Besides her Islamist haters, Abdulla has received social media criticism from some Kurds who believe she is using their cause to propel her career. That her music cheapens their struggle.

To some extent, that’s probably true. Her dance moves are a little hokey and the over-the-top bright red hair is pretty 90s. But maybe it’s not all that important whether or not Abdulla is, like most in the entertainment industry, in it for herself, for the dough. Because the Kurds can and will benefit by sharing their struggles against jihadism, their hopes for independence, the horrors of war in an accessible way with the rest of the world. And we in the West won’t be getting that story on CNN.


Nyki Salinas-Duda is a Chicagland-based writer and editor who has been a Public Media Institute contributor since 2012. Her work has appeared on ROAR, Chicago Reader, and In These Times, where she was an assistant editor. Salinas-Duda holds a degree in Latin American history from the University of San Francisco. 

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