The Honey Trap

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Two’s company The Punjabi rapper
Two’s company The Punjabi rapper

IN THE fertile ground of YouTube, it is not unusual to see the fetid take seed amid the sublime, the funny and the genuinely amazing. It should faze no one, therefore, to find a home-video of a young girl, dancing on a tabletop, gyrating to popular Punjabi numbers while her girlfriends take turns throwing money at her. Dancing in a tube-lit hostel room, she laughs self-consciously, half-mocking the camera’s objectifying gaze, half playing to it — until Honey Singh’s track Choot begins to play. Suddenly, she knows all the moves — like the scores of women in Singh’s videos — and all the words. Staring squarely into the camera as she thrusts this way and that, she is both the creature of voracious appetites that he is rapping about, and Honey Singh, as she mouths his lyrics: “They say the whole village has had your ass/my dick is prepared today/If I don’t have you today then I’m not a jatt/You love sex but you scream when I thrust/Your panties will be drenched in blood as you scream ‘Badshah’.”

Singh, who catapulted himself into the popular imagination with a YouTube moment of his own, (the song Choot went viral within days of its release, with over five lakh hits and counting) has transformed from a little-known Punjabi folk and rap artist into the epitome of pendu-coolth in the past three years. Unlike Eminem and his white-trash angst, or Jay-Z’s tales of hard-won street battles, the boy from Hoshiarpur has no tragic backstory to contextualise his rap. What he does have — and what has made him the highest paid pop artiste ever in the Hindi film industry, earning 70 lakh for a single song and special appearance in Naseeruddin Shah-starrer Mastan — is an audience primed on Punjabiyat. To understand the appeal of 25-year-old Honey Singh, one need only recall the million weddings that danced to Singh is Kinng, the cars that blared Shera Di Qaum Punjabi, and the fact that while the last Christian hero we met was probably Amitabh Bachchan’s Anthony Gonsalves, it’s hard to keep track of the number of sardars we’ve seen strutting across our screens of late.

Brightest spark From Patiala to Bengaluru, Singh’s concerts are packed with fans
Brightest spark From Patiala to Bengaluru, Singh’s concerts are packed with fans
Photo:  Prabhjot Gill

Unlike Akshay Kumar’s kingly Singh, however, Honey the rapper is not playing a role on-screen. Always dressed in ‘hip-hop cool’ — tight vests, baggy pants, baseball caps, shades that cover half his face — or depending on the video, in a shiny pinstriped suit, smoking a cigar; Honey Singh is the ‘International Villager’ (also the title of his last album). In a career spanning six years, his music has been no different from the thousands of Punjabi pop songs already on television. There is a slow introduction, a verse enters, and a bass beat drowns out everything apart from the chorus, barely 35 seconds into the song — an endless loop. The sort of music you can’t stop moving to, but one you never really listen to. What separates Singh from his Punjabi peers trying to make it in the mainstream, like the genuinely talented Mika, or his arch rival Jasbir Jassi (who calls himself the National Villager) is that Singh fashions himself as the new generation of Punjab — the one that’s lived outside the country (Singh apparently studied music at the Trinity College of London), has dated white chicks but likes Indians better (as the song Brown Rang will tell you), and one who may not have class or talent but definitely has what counts most — the swagger.

NOT EVERYONE is charmed, though. Last Monday, traffic in Ludhiana came to a halt as members of the Sikh Students Federation went on a march demanding Singh’s upcoming concert with Mafia Mundeer (his musical ‘family’, comprising Punjabi hip-hop artists Alfaaz, Money Aujla, J-Star and Singh himself ) be cancelled. In April, the Progressive Students Union joined ranks with University students and village elders to ban Singh from performing in Jammu. Around the same time, the Istri Jagriti Manch organised statewide effigy-burnings of Singh and the Mafia, stating that his lyrics “commodified the female form” and were inextricably linked to some of Punjab’s deepest malaises: growing violence against women and drug abuse.

Singh used to be defensive. His last press conference in Chandigarh saw him cornered by a bunch of irate journalists demanding an apology for offending Sikh women. Singh finally folded his hands, saying the ‘mafia’ of Mafia Mundeer would now stand for ‘apologies’ and walked out. Success has insulated him and turned him unapologetic. He now refuses to grant any personal interviews, save the occasional radio chat with a female host, or an email response. Simultaneously, his reach grows far beyond Punjab. Mastan’s co-producer Sunil Bohra says he picked Honey specifically because he wanted the film to work in the NCR, where Singh is wildly popular. Last month, he ranked number one on the iTunes world charts. In one month, Singh has performed for packed houses in Mumbai, Bengaluru and New Delhi as well as Patiala, Raipur and Bhopal. His fans now include Shah Rukh Khan’s teenage son Aryan, Anurag Kashyap as well as Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor (the junior nawab apparently called Singh’s UK producers himself to buy the rights for Angrezi Beat for his filmCocktail).

Singh brands himself as the new generation of Punjab, one who’s lived abroad, has dated white chicks and has swagge

The “awaam ki awaaz” (voice of the people) that Singh calls himself is supposedly reflective of the two causes closest to his heart — to stop the youth in Punjab from ‘getting high, and getting out’, or leaving the country for jobs outside (“Why do you want to do gulami for white people? Just for some cash?” he thunders on the radio. If we go by his videos, there are piles of cash sitting around in mansions in Punjab, just waiting for girls to show up and writhe all over them). While a translation of the chorus of Singh’s Dope Shope (Ina vina dope-shope na mariya karo) might seem like he is warning his girlfriend not to smoke too much pot, the girl in the bikini dancing on a yacht belies the message. Singh and his friend take turns gesturing at her body as though she is inanimate, telling her to stop smoking, stop staring at other boys and finally, that they would be happy to buy her if she was on sale.

Dr Ranjay Vardhan, professor of Sociology at the Panjab University, agrees that Singh is selling something not quite as wholesome as he’d have us believe. “You’d think it’s a positive step that at least he doesn’t fetishise the virginal, but at the same time there is a strongly regressive and patriarchal tone telling these women that he’s here to discipline them for their promiscuity,” says Vardhan. While the older and popular Punjabi favourites like Chamkila and Lal Chand Yamla Jatt had their share of risqué lyrics too, Vardhan believes that Singh lacks any context for his misogyny — “The earlier breed of ‘adult’ singers wrote songs in a highly repressed society, where women still weren’t allowed out of the house, child marriage was prevalent, farming was hard labour. If Singh has seen the world and chosen Punjab today, shouldn’t he be even more aware of what needs to change?” But that might be too much to expect from a singer whose words we don’t really pay attention to. For those who do understand his message, Singh is saying nothing different from what all advertisement and popular cinema seem to be screaming anyway. It’s just set to a better beat. Honey Singh encapsulates his own truth when he sings about brown girls — “Jo mile vo chakkho, kuch fresh naiyo milna” (take what you get, there’s nothing fresh here).

Nishita Jha is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka. 
nishita@tehelka.com

17 COMMENTS

  1. Nishita, I am absolutely shocked that so many literates like yourself somehow manage to attribute these rapes to Honey Singh’s lyrics. Are you suggesting that Indians smoke because Shahrukh does, they workout because of John Abraham, heists happen because people get motivated by the “The Italian Job”. Do you or anyone have any scholarly evidence on this ?. Are you aware how many jobs a successful music album/band creates ?. Your ignorance is appalling !

    • Actually to answer your questions, many Indians do smoke because SRK does, John Abraham probably inspires a lot of people to work out. You don’t need scholarly evidence, only common sense to see the kind of people the ignorance of people who have made this music, which is clearly in poor taste so successful.

      • You haven’t answered anything. By simply siding with an opinion without evidence is what we call “being naive”. Music might not suit your taste. Go ahead and ignore it. We live in a democracy and no one has a right to stop people from expressing their opinions, unless you have unequivocal evidence that the ban is justified.

    • There are studies that demonstrate an increase in men’s sexual aggression immediately after viewing violent and graphic porn. The men’s innate inhibitions against rape and sexual violence were lowered immediately after watching violent porn. The control group showed no change in their attitude towards sexual violence.

      Men who consume violent porn are also likely to believe that women enjoy sexual humiliation and violence and secretly “want to be raped”.

      Honey Singh has done what gangsta rappers like 50 Cents successfully did in the US rap scene: cunningly weave male dominance with male sexual attractiveness.

      Honey Singh would have us believe that women like to be pursued by men who treat them like toilet paper. Ergo, young men, don’t bother to be nice to girls, slap them instead. They like it.

      The Delhi rapists shoved an iron rod up Jyoti’s vagina. Where did they learn that particular sexual move from? Old Guru Dutt films?

      In short, the media does influence our thinking, often subliminally.

        • @Mohit: There is concrete evidence associating cancer with smoking. Give yourself 10 minutes and you’ll find enough research delinking or linking media from such acts. As things stand, most of you here are basing your judgments on unproven opinions.

        • ….and to add yet again. YES, there is nothing wrong with selling cigarettes if people consume them. There is clear disclosure on the packets. Are you suggesting that casinos should be closed down because some people become compulsive gamblers ?. Do we live in a free democracy or Afghanistan ?

      • You really believe they learnt the rod-shoving incident by listening to Honey Singh ?. I doubt if any of them would have ever heard his name.

    • Nitin , which sort of world r u living in !! i mean its very easy to see it , had that not been the case then companies would not hire salman , srk for selling their products , spending millions on them , its really common sence man !!

    • what one is saying here is that we dance to lyrics which talk about sexual violence and degradation of women in the worst possible way – which makes what he is singing – acceptable!

  2. Why is this piece so Honey Singh centred, whilst there are so many more in far more influential positions with sickening views on rape? Step out of your comfort zone and analyse them maybe?

  3. Couldn’t help but point out the obvious – the piece was written as a profile of Singh and an analysis of his music way before the gang rape, and before the nationwide decision to pinpoint Honey as the central source of misogyny. If anything, Honey is the symptom, not the disease.

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