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.
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.