ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Not even war can stop a good pop star. In northern Iraq where soldiers are battling ISIS, a fiery singer is on a mission to stir up patriotic sentiment. The response has been mixed. NPR's Alice Fordham met Helly Luv in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The crimson-haired Iraqi singer Helly Luv has a recording contract in the U.S., but she didn't want to shoot her latest video in Hollywood.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REVOLUTION")
HELLY LUV: (Singing) United, united, we're marching, yeah.
FORDHAM: The track is a tribute to the men fighting against ISIS, and so she took a video team to a frontline village.
LUV: Yeah, we shot the video right there, and it was so crazy, like...
FORDHAM: Bullets flew. Battles raged.
LUV: And sometimes we had to leave. They said, like, you have to get out of here.
FORDHAM: Shooting the video took three months, but Helly Luv says it was worth it. Like most people in northern Iraq, she's ethnically Kurdish, and she wanted to glorify the Kurdish fighters called peshmerga.
LUV: Like people didn't know outside how powerful and how - oh, my God - and how strong they are.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REVOLUTION")
LUV: (Singing) Rise up 'cause we're so much stronger as one breaking the silence as loud as a gun. Brothers and sisters...
FORDHAM: The video sees a bejeweled Helly Luv dancing in a traditional Kurdish soldier's outfit and in a tank firing a shell. It plays all the time on TV here. As she sits with me in a hotel, the 26-year-old explains that this role as a warrior diva comes after a long, hard journey for her family.
LUV: My real name is Helen Abdulla, and I was born '88 in Iran.
FORDHAM: The family was escaping Saddam Hussein's attacks on Kurds and went through Turkey to Finland. As a teenager there, she saved up cash and moved to LA seeking stardom, picking the name Helly Luv from Helen. She landed a role in a movie by a Kurdish director which brought her home to northern Iraq.
LUV: I was blown away.
FORDHAM: She'd visited as a little girl, but this time she was struck by how much it had developed and how serious everyone seemed about the long-standing dream of an independent Kurdish nation.
LUV: I wanted to create a song that would represent my life as well but also the Kurdish people fighting so long and risking everything for a dream.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELLY LUV SONG, "RISK IT ALL")
FORDHAM: And so her first song released in Iraq, "Risk It All," came out in spring last year. For her video, she took inspiration from her mom who had been a peshmerga soldier in her youth. Helly Luv's sexy fighter look was born. Shortly after, ISIS staged a huge offensive in northern Iraq, and "Risk It All" became a sort of anthem as the peshmerga fought back. But the clothes and dancing were deemed un-Islamic by some extremists, and social media lit up with threats.
LUV: People would say, like, she should be stoned and this and that.
FORDHAM: Some of it was in Arabic from ISIS supporters, but some was in Kurdish coming from the people she was trying to support.
LUV: The response from some of the people - really, they just want to destroy it and just break me in pieces.
FORDHAM: To find out what people here think about Helly Luv, I've come to the bazaar after prayers on a long Ramadan evening when it's full of people selling jewelry and ice creams and tea. Her CDs are on sale at a little stall, but Soran Hawleri, an off-duty fighter in the peshmerga, the men she sings about, doesn't care for her.
SORAN HAWLERI: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: He says "she's not representing any of my culture or traditions, and she's making from the peshmerga. She could be supporting their families if she really cared." But a lot of young people like her. Dilpag Thahir, who's 21, is actually a student of Islamic law.
DILPAG THAHIR: She's very good.
THAHIR: Yeah, very, very good.
FORDHAM: What do you like about her?
THAHIR: Because the singing about Kurdistan.
FORDHAM: Thahir likes Helly Luv even though her dancing and clothes aren't really compatible with Islamic law.
THAHIR: (For language spoken).
FORDHAM: She says "that's what she wants to do, and you can't stop her." But the criticism nearly has stopped her. For her safety, Helly Luv avoids public places, and she's only played two concerts in Iraq. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Northern Iraq.
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