Yo, Yo Honey Singh and Other Implied Learnings: Aprajita Sarcar
Guest post by APRAJITA SARCAR
Kudiye ni tere brown rang ne, munde patt te ni saare mere town de…..Hun bach bach ke, tenu rab ne husn ditta rajj rajj ke/Main keha kaali teri Gucci, te Prada tera laal/ Kithe challo oh sohneyo, sajh dajh ke ke/ Tere wargi naar ni honi, mainu munde kehnde si /Hoge ni tere charche Star News to BBC /Ho brown brown skin wali, let me tell you one thing /Rab di saunh you so sexy!
(Hey girl, your brown complexion, has transfixed boys throughout my town… excuse me miss, how many kisses are you going to run from/ Trying to escape/ God has been generous in granting you beauty/ I say, black is your Gucci, and your Prada is red/ Where are you headed, beautiful, all dressed up?/ There could be no other like you, boys would tell me/ You’re the topic, be it Star News or BBC/ Hey, brown-skinned girl, let me tell you one thing/ By God, you’re so sexy!)
– Honey Singh, Brown Rang, from the album, International Villager
I was introduced to Honey Singh relatively late in his singing trajectory, when he was already a cult figure within the Punjabi noir in Delhi, and as my friend Vanessa Chishti noted, in Jammu. She had posted somewhere about a campaign in Jammu (which she had helped organize) around preventing Singh from performing there. Her campaign struck me as odd, as I could not differentiate Honey Singh from Mika in terms of gendered slang, or why he would come across as particularly offensive. I posed this doubt to another friend, who is familiar with Punjabi hip hop and he asked, “You haven’t understood his songs, have you?” He then translated some phrases from the song above and from another one called, “Dope Shope”. It was then that I began to think seriously about Honey Singh as a prominent contemporary cultural artefact.
The idea of this post is not to attack Singh’s songs as recklessly masculine – although they may well be that – but to try to map how Honey Singh, his persona, work and audience are ways of rendering visible the sons-of-the-soil invocation. His hip hop style is unique in the way it works in Punjabi and yet, his music arrangement and styling attracts the cosmopolitan in us. As comments on his youtube videos will tell you, many are hooked to his songs even without understanding them. You type his name in the search bar, and one of the drop-down listed phrases which are popularly searched with his name are, “Honey Singh songs translate”. As listeners are telling each other, Honey Singh is a phenomenon – giving way to a young breed of hip hop artistes, especially those who use a form of Punjabi not very accessible to the Hindi-speaking audience and yet manage to appeal to them. However, it is in the lyrics, and in the rap that you hear a certain message. It was while listening to the songs after understanding the words that I saw how gendered the invocation to seek your roots turns out to be. It is within the logic of this call to come back to your roots that the potential Other of Singh’s songs is set up – the hypersexual girl lost in the Free World. This logic is certainly not limited to Honey Singh, but is most readily available through him at this particular moment in Punjabi pop/hip hop.
What makes Honey Singh more than just a successful pop artist is his constant refrain of instruction: what will become the cultural icon of the ‘young’ of the land and thereby distinguish them from the old, particularly the liberal old, who didn’t know better, who were so busy trying to aggrandize capital and cross over to the Free World that they did not understand the impact of the cross-over on their homes and identities. Honey Singh explains how Dope-Shope is not just not good for your health, but also harms your Punjabiyan di Shaan (pride of being from Punjab). He tells you how not to sell your land away, buying gifts for women and running after them; he makes fun of the brown girl hooked on Angrezi Weed (there is a debate raging about whether he sings Angrezi ‘beat’ or ‘weed’ or both – a confusion which Singh has not cleared), and also tells them to take pride in their brown skinned-sexuality. The cult figure that he is today however, launched itself to iconic status with the song Choot (cunt) – a song that his young fans may experience as ‘subversive’ not merely for its open use of sexually charged abuse but also for the way it seeks to teach the young floundering woman a lesson. Singh knows the power of subversion well – in a concert at Delhi University, Singh egged his audience on to question Shah Rukh Khan – especially as to why Khan had to borrow Akon for the music of Ra.One when there are so many hip hop artistes in the country. Indeed, Honey Singh’s cover of Chammak Challo sounds distinct from the original in the way it subtly introduces Punjabi rap and closes quietly, cutting out the kitschy crescendo of the original.
What exactly is intriguing about Honey Singh? It’s his strain on the good Punjabi, which sits perfectly well with a commentary on the deteriorating values and morals of the ‘young’, especially the brown girl hooked on Angrezi weed (yes, I am in the group that thinks he sang weed). Who all fall under this rather wide ambit of ‘young women’? Girls who come out late after a ‘drunken brawl’ in a discotheque? Girls who are found ‘half-naked’ and ‘in compromising positions with many men’ in a hotel? The brown girl who infact, forgets that under her Prada and Gucci, she is still brown. I see this strain of instruction as resonating with cultural artefacts of varied contexts, but similar modes of functioning: from Operation Majnu in the gardens of Meerut, to the Ram Sena in Mangalore, to Madhur Bhandarkars’ films about hypersexual women who lose themselves to their ambition. What makes Honey Singh particularly evocative is the added mix of what all is in danger with these reckless women: the soil, the land and the pride of being rooted. I place him as an artefact that fits within a contemporary cultural economy – one that wants to foster a sexually disciplined cadre of youth who will learn to abstain from the pleasures of a market economy, even as it builds that market. The insistence on the brown skin, therefore serves to remind you of all that has to be recovered from the plague of the fetishisms of the West. There is an aggression in his songs which borders on anger even as he flaunts his cosmopolitanism. He teaches you, in short, how to be an International Villager.
Unearthing this wild ambition-flavoured sexuality of contemporary times that must be curbed, one can see how this impulse to educate sits very comfortably next to talk about breaking gender barriers; of improving India’s sex ratio at any cost; and of fairness creams giving away scholarships to the ‘young women’ for studies abroad. So, the morale strain seems to be saying the following: please grow your wings, get educated, fight hierarchies and harassment while going to and in the workplace, but that does not mean you ‘behave irresponsibly’ and take this freedom to mean sexual promiscuity. The underlying implication being, you need to constantly remind yourself to not give in to urges that the Free World has to offer. And when you do slip and make contact with the wrong sorts, be prepared to be punished.