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Yo, Yo Honey Singh and Other Implied Learnings: Aprajita Sarcar

August 14, 2012


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.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Raahul permalink
    August 14, 2012 5:05 PM

    Yep. Its ‘Angreji Beat’ te. Confirmed. Marjaani paundi pangda Angreji ‘Beat’ te. Here ‘Weed’ would not make any sense.

  2. voyeur permalink
    August 14, 2012 8:46 PM

    How do you think his song “Goliyan” which is a celebration of a gangsta lifestyle of an “international villager” fits in with the rest of this?

  3. Aarushi permalink
    August 14, 2012 9:02 PM

    A subtle reinforcement of masculinity…

  4. August 15, 2012 10:46 AM

    And on the Beat/Weed controversy, with Weed being the slang for Dopey/Shopey or marijuana, it may still be either

  5. Aprajita permalink
    August 15, 2012 8:04 PM

    Voyeur, I dont know. Does it? The idea for the post was to describe some of the themes running through much of work. This is not to say that there wont be songs that dont follow the pattern. On a tangent, I see the gangsta lifestyle of an ‘International villager’ fitting in with the invocation to be a son of the soil, grounded to his regional or national identity, and yet, a smooth operator in the global market (of hiphop, in this case.)

    • voyeur permalink
      August 18, 2012 8:05 AM

      I have erroneously used the term “gangsta” here. Sorry about that. I didn’t realize the links of that term to hip hop. Goliyan is glorification of the gun culture. Not Gangsta but downright gangster. I felt that this is the masculinity which is presented as the ideal for the male after what he preaches to the females. I must admit that as a South Indian I am prone to sometimes misunderstanding Honey Singh’s lyrics (though I did fine with Mika).

  6. Shreya permalink
    August 16, 2012 10:57 AM

    I enjoyed your article because even though you analyze Honey Singh’s songs and his motivations, your post doesn’t finish by casting a judgement on his listeners. Liking Honey Singh’s music is a quizzical paradox that I find myself in. As someone who just returned to India after four years of college in America, I was initially horrified to find what a hit status “Yo Yo” Honey Singh had achieved. I remember having listened to Choot when I was still in high school and being a little scarred by that. Rewind to a few months back, and I found myself playing Dope Shope on repeat for an entire day. And yes, I understand exactly what he means when he says “kuch fresh nahin milda”. Most of Honey Singh’s lyrics go completely against my acquired feminist sensibilities, but then I think the reason why at times I am also attracted to them is because they reflect much of the cultural sensibility that I grew up around. I guess you can really never escape your socialization.

  7. Asgar permalink
    August 16, 2012 5:36 PM

    Aprajita, I didn’t get what kind of position you are trying to articulate in this piece. when you say “rendering visible the sons-of-the-soil invocation,” it sounds a dangerous language smelling of chauvinism! Also, I don’t think you are defending Honey Sigh and trying to tell us the value of his music, And by the way, what is international villager-ism? I guess capitalist structures perverting whatever is left untouched by it! The point is that Honey Singh’s music does no good to anyone, besides a mere sexist pleasure that such music socially constructs , takes it to new levels, and then imposes on a society over a period of time. The consequence is more violence against women! The point that why not Mika Singh makes little sense. One has to start somewhere, and it is just that Honey happens to be the most atrocious of them all…

  8. Aprajita permalink
    August 16, 2012 6:45 PM

    Asgar, thank you for the link to your post. Wonder why I didnt see it earlier, as I was trying to google and read up anything that has been written about Honey Singh before writing this piece. I like your use of the totalising project, but, I feel (and I may be completely wrong at this) that Honey Singh’s crass references to female sexuality is not stand alone. It comes from a logic that resonates with the undercurrents of other disparate events (examples of which I have given), all of which are about trying to teach the reckless young woman, a lesson in morality. This conviction, somehow makes for a proper explanation for what the groups involved (like Ram Sena), unleash on people. So, the idea was not to attack Honey Singh ONLY, but to try and figure what this lesson was about.

    And, taking from what Shreya has said, the idea was not to judge the listeners (Thank You Shreya!), but to understand why he appeals. It is the texture and style of his music, which scars as much as it entertains. Why So? I feel its because the totalising project, to use your words, is not a project which is unique to him, but simply, finds its most visible manifestation in him. Honey Singh would be invoking the Punjabi Pride, where as, others will invoke the Maratha Manoos, Hindu pride or some other such identity, which is apparently rooted to a fixed identity. And all these sons-of-the-soil invocations, have been using very,very abusive language for the young women, of certain kinds. I recall the video of the men who were trying to punish the girl in Assam, for a brawl in a pub. Those men were trying to teach her a lesson, by pulling at her clothes, and forcing her to look at the camera. Clearly, the need to teach this lesson is not limited to the vocabulary that Honey Singh uses.

    Lastly, Mika Singh was a reference to the fact that gendered slang is not unprecedented in the pop music scenario. I had not heard Honey Singh’s songs back then, and I had, frankly, assumed that such references are lost causes: I had normalised my anger against them. Honey Singh is particularly, as you said atrocious and, as Shreya said, scarring.

  9. Nayan permalink
    August 17, 2012 11:19 AM

    Yo Yo Honey Singh……Honey Singh ko to Bharat Ratna milna chahiye…..

  10. tylerdurden28 permalink
    August 27, 2012 2:18 AM

    @asgar and aparajita: i don’t know guys what you’ve found so offensive about honey singh and his songs, especially his lyrics.. i get it that the ch#@t song has lyrics which can be termed offensive, but it is not something new that has come up.. though i’m not much of a hip/hop or rap listener, but even i know that more vulgar and derogatory lyrics are being used by English singers like eminem and 50 cent.. IMO, its just a category of music.. you may not call it art.. but it’s not like the singer and listeners are some narrow-minded perverts who don’t respect and love women.. i also listen to honey singh’s songs and understand them and like them and i also want to beat the hell out of every guy who molested that girl in assam.. i think you people are looking too much “into” the things, where there is nothing to look for.. honey singh is the last guy i would think of as flag-bearer of some chauvinistic agenda against women.. he’s just a wannabe rapper, who thought rap was cool when he went abroad and has a school-boyish mentality for girls, though, he’s growing out of it as i think.. i can understand if girls feel offended by some of his lyrics, but believe me, it’s not promoting anything.. if you look at things this way, then all movies and songs for that matter, which involve sexuality and violence should be banned, as they “promote” them..

  11. September 9, 2012 11:03 PM

    Great post, Aprajita! Saw this when a mutual friend (I think) shared it. Very interesting thoughts, and by the way, I heard the Chhammak Chhallo cover only after I read about it here. I’d still say the likes of Akon are in their own league, and the likes of our very own ‘son-of-the-soil’ Yo-Yo are very different, and yet have a clear place of their own in today’s scene, where I’m glad we’ve matured enough to propagate to the end of the earth stuff we like, and take with a pinch of salt that which we don’t.

    Having said that, I’d just like to point out a ‘good-for-business’ angle to the whole Honey Singh saga. . Think about it. ‘Choot’ in addition to its absolutely foot-tapping beat, came at a time when (I think) Omkara, Gulaal and their ilk had just introduced an entire generation to the joys of hearing abuse on popular platforms, and made it fashionable even. Today, Honey Singh works on the principle that talking (un)favorably about the brown-white skin saga will play well with the scores that lust for it, are activists for or against the cause, and with the others, like me, who are being introduced to an entire language, just through his wonderful user friendly rendition of it! In short, he’s doing just what the market ordered – like the ubiquitous Punjabi Businessman! It’s just ‘good for business’ to do like ‘Yo-Yo-Honey-Singh-u’!

    Having said all of that, wonderfully written, again!


  12. September 18, 2012 12:32 PM

    Reblogged this on burntbutteredtoast and commented:
    I hadn’t heard the song in its entirety. On a road trip this weekend, I did. And then I came back and googled the lyrics. At some point in the song, Honey also begs the girl to “state her rate”. The testosterone invocation can never stop commodifying women, and being liberal is obviously, interpreted very differently for women. Distasteful doesn’t begin to surmise the culture and tone of these songs.

    • June 14, 2015 3:59 AM

      Actually, he asks her to “state” the “rate” of her shoes, her dress, and her Guess watch. The rap meter makes it seem otherwise.

  13. Saurabh singh permalink
    October 13, 2012 12:30 PM

    All song very nice

  14. December 11, 2012 4:04 PM

    People calling him misogynist probaly dont understand punjabi

  15. Nikita permalink
    December 23, 2012 5:59 PM

    Oh we do, very well. Which is why we call him a misogynist.

  16. Rushabh permalink
    December 26, 2012 5:51 AM

    Nice post! He should have named his album Villager much less International Villager! But that is the tragedy of music and lyrics these days. Enter Bhag Bhag D.K. Bose, Karma is a B*tch and God knows what other songs. I doubt if a majority of people really care, though they probably ought to.

  17. Phani permalink
    December 27, 2012 11:18 AM

    I’m surprised you have so little to say about “Chute”, given that it more or less talks about a desire to sexually abuse women, if not outright rape them. While sexism and misogyny runs through much of Honey Singh’s work (and through a lot of pop music in general), “Chute” is extremely disturbing for its direct, explicit and unambigious fantasies of sexual abuse.

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