Last year, in December, after the infamous Nirbhaya Rape case in Delhi, rapper-singer Yo Yo Honey Singh’s concert in a Gurgaon hotel was called off due to public protests. He was expected to peform there on the New Year eve. The vulgar lyrics (that amounts to the claim of the singer/lyricist being a rapist and so proud of it) in one of his songs had apparently spurred the public anger especially in a volatile atmosphere charged with the middle class anxieties and fear regarding the safety of women in private and public domains. Later the Punjab and Haryana High Court dismissed the case against Yo Yo Honey Singh citing that there was no objectionable content in his song and the version that had been available in YouTube was a doctored version by some trouble shooters. I am no legal expert to challenge the court verdict nor am a hyper moralist who would censure Honey Singh at least from my cultural sphere. In the age of mechanical ways to concoct reality, which Baudrillard qualifies as simulacrum, anybody could prove or disprove a reality simply by concocting for and against evidences based on the direction of the case. What I want to argue in this write up is this one liner that came to my mind today while listening to one of the Yo Yo Honey Singh songs in television. I said to myself: Yo Yo Honey Singh is not a disease. He is a symptom.
I would like to argue my case, or rather the explanation of that one liner in a few different ways: First of all I want to analyse the context in which Yo Yo Honey Singh and his songs become relevant or appealing to the mass or in other words, how this rapper’s songs imply the general tendencies of our present mass culture. Secondly, I would see how Yo Yo Honey Singh, the musician-singer-actor operates from within a particular cultural context still transcends the boundaries and becomes an international star through the very playing up of his own ambiguities. Thirdly, I would also like to go a bit in detail about why Yo Yo Honey Singh does not represent a sub-culture or a regional culture but uses the traits of sub-culture to be right in the middle of the popular culture. Before I launch myself into the thought process, I would like to tell you that I am not a researcher in the music culture of the masses hence my observations are based on my experience as a passive consumer of this mass culture. Besides, I am not a Yo Yo Honey Singh fan or scholar. However, my analytical mind has been seeking him out for a long time, perhaps from the first time I heard him a couple of years before in a local gym. The song was ‘Lak 28 Kudi da’. What attracted me in this song was not the shrill voice of a generic Punjabi popular singer (exceptions being Gurdeep Mann and Rabbi Shergil) but the ecstatic outburst of a female voice, ‘nghaa..’ it went like that.
(Shah Rukh Khan and Yo Yo Honey Singh in Lungi Dance still)
Wikipedia tells me Yo Yo Honey Singh is born in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, in 1983. He studied in Delhi and later studied music in Trinity College, London. He lived in Delhi for some years till he found a posh accommodation after success in a plush Gurgaon neighbourhood. He was a music arranger, then a DJ and finally he realized his real strength was in rapping. Hirdesh Singh aka Yo Yo Honey Singh has been around in the scene for the last ten years but he shot into fame, from the Punjabi DJs driven musical and dance nights and the local gyms to the Bollywood mainstream during the last three years. Getting his name associated with the mainstream Bollywood stars and music directors was the first step towards it. In a carefully played strategy, Yo Yo Honey Singh, worked through the cut throat music industry in India and reached the top of the charts and in the meanwhile had already bagged a few awards from Britain where the Punjabi diaspora makes anything Punjabi more than a hit. The latest story of Yo Yo baiting was Vishal Dadlani’s (of Vishal-Shekhar music director duo) disowning of his ‘Lungi Dance’ song in ‘Chennai Express’, the Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone starrer directed by Rohit Shetty. Vishal who had given music to the film and also sang the foot tapping number ‘1 2 3 4 Get on the Dance floor’ accused, like many others did at that time, Yo Yo Honey Singh of misogyny (after his controversial Balaatkaar song) and also said that ‘Lungi Dance’ by the rapper was a later addition to the film without the knowledge or consent of the music directors. It shows that the producers do not care much about the sentiments of the crew members, when it comes to big bucks. ‘1 2 3 4 Get on the Dance floor’ which had been the promotional song for Chennai Express in the initial days, was taken out from the promos and in its place the Lungi Dance song was used. It was one clear victory for Yo Yo Honey Singh, because he knew for the success of a movie, that too of the top star and top director of the Bollywood needed his voice. To underline his success, the Lungi Dance, penned and crooned by Yo Yo Honey Singh himself was re-shot and combination scenes between King Khan and the rapper were canned once again to add to the original print. Today, this version (in an old jargon, this re-mixed version) is used when Lungi Dance is given the airtime by the television channels and FM Radio channels.
(1 2 3 4 Get on the Dance floor still from Chennai Express)
I am not a sociologist however, at times as a writer it is imperative to use empirical data to argue a case which is popular in nature. Today, when I was watching the Lungi Dance song in television I found that the one and only King Khan was almost ‘sidelined’ by the presence of Yo Yo Honey Singh. In the combination shots, one has to really train the eyes to see King Khan on the left of the frame. I double checked it with the frames where King Khan and Deepika Padukone come together. I experienced/felt/saw that in those frames one’s attention remained on the jumping and thumping King Khan rather than on the tall, beautiful and rustically elegant presence of Deepika. Height of the heroine just did not affect the screen presence of a comparatively short King Khan (interestingly, in Chennai Express, his diminutive physical stature is a thing of self-ridicule against his contender for Deepika’s hand, Thangabali, played by a six and half feet tall actor, and again it is an irony played up against the belief that the Pathans are generally tall and hefty). But in the scenes where he is seen with Yo Yo Honey Singh, King Khan just disappears. That means Yo Yo Honey Singh has more screen presence than King Khan, which I would argue as a temporary screen presence but a real one.
The particular screen presence of Yo Yo Honey Singh, which I qualify as temporal but real, comes from our idea of seeing someone of the rapper’s reputation and talent within the given socio-cultural context, which interestingly is out of the politico-legal surveillance (except when it is called for by public demand). I would like to use another empirical data to see this presence in the right perspective. Today’s Hindustan Times newspaper has published so many reports about rape cases including the now hot Tarun Tejpal scandal. From the first page to the last, a cursory counting revealed that the word ‘sex’ is used around fifty times. When a word, which has been considered as a taboo till now finds ample amount of print space, it achieves a sort of neutrality where it’s connotations remain the same while the denotative meanings get submerged in overuse. This is good and bad at the same time. When the word sex is used as we use the words ‘chair’, ‘table’, ‘car’, ‘cinema’ and so on, it gains a sort of normalcy and also a sort of acceptance in the ‘decent’ crowd. It is good as the issues related to gender could be talked freely without attaching any kind of taboo to it. At the same time it is bad because, the overuse could kill its denotative meanings therefore its possible nuances and reducing it to a ‘normal’ thing therefore an offence related to it could turn into a ‘no-offence’. Emma L.E Reeves, the scholar who has written the latest book, ‘The Vagina’ also speaks the same idea when she analyses the origin and use of the word ‘cunt’ in different mediums and in different periods. While she says that the use of the word ‘cunt’ by woman with confidence it could be an act of reclamation of the power and abuse of power related to the word for and by its rightful owners.
(King Khan and Rapper, Akon on a stage)
Yo Yo Honey Singh naturalizes the taboos. The social context in which he operates does not take too much of an offence when he uses the taboo words liberally or expresses misogynistic ideas in his lyrics. He finds the social context automatically becomes a cultural context (with occasional outrages) and vice versa. Hence, he does not find it a problem to call a girl ‘a bomb’ or puns that cut across age and respectability of women. This social turning into cultural and vice versa must have become a necessary evil for the mass cultures to monetize its product. Had it been the singles that got Yo Yo Honey Singh his due attention and later the albums, despite the offensive lyrics he got his recognition from the cream of the popular cultural industry in India, the Bollywood. It is interesting to notice that there has been rappers adding to the regular crooning as a part of the changing complexion of the popular music for the last few years. First time it appeared via Appache Indian and Hard Caur in Indian popular music in the new millennium. The changing pace of the film narratives, mostly aiming at the impatient multiplex cine goers, facilitated by the new age film makers who revel in taboo stories, fast cutting and unconventional songs, made the mainstream film makers to follow the suit and the first major hit was from Ra-One of King Khan where rapper the American Rapper Akon sang Tu meri chammak jhallo for the robotic Khan in the sci-fi movie. It would be interesting to see that Akon (an alien singer with no Indian origin, unlike Appache Indian and Hard Caur) singing for the robot not for the human Khan. Even before that the famous black American Rapper, Snoop Dogg had crooned for Akshay Kumar in Singh is King. The alienation effect was re-iterated there by the intercutting of the singer’s image with the actor himself or bringing both of them together in the same frame but remember as a promotional strategy.
(Akshay Kumar and rapper Snoop Dogg in Singh is Kingg)
It is Akshay Kumar once again does the trick (interestingly not King Khan) in his Khiladi 786 with the Himesh Reshamiya as the music director, in which we see in the ‘Lonely lonely tere bin’ song, Akshay Kumar, Himesh Reshamiya and Yo Yo Honey Singh coming in the same song to promote this comically nasal song. Himesh Reshamiya here accepts the criticism against his voice as nasal and makes it a virtue. This song becomes a vehicle of recognition for not only the music director but also for the rapper and as we all know Akshykumar is not a singer but a ‘lipper’. But from the release of the movie in 2012 December, incidentally the same month the Nirbhaya issue came up, we see a gradual change in the aggressive posture of Yo Yo Honey Singh. In Khiladi 786, he goes along with the loneliness of the hero and the music director. But when it comes to Chennai Express, he plays up his aggression through the character of King Khan. He says, ‘Mere mood mein dance karega, kisi ke daddy ko na darage’ (I will sing my own tune and I will not be afraid of anybody’s father). He goes on to say that ‘mere bare mein Wikipedia mein pad lo or google kar lo’. Here he asserts his own position than that of King Khan. One need to google Khan to know more about him but it is always necessary to do a Wikipedia search on Yo Yo Honey Sing. But what interests me is Yo Yo Honey Singh’s own self-doubt when he plays with two Titans in the field; King Khan and Thalaiva (Leader/God) Rajni Kant. The lyrics go like this ‘This is the tribute to Thalaiva. From King Khan and the one and only yo yo honey singh’. I deliberately use the small cases to write his name here. If you listen the song carefully you could hear the intentional emphasis. While Thalaiva is pronounced as if it were a German word, the name King Khan is stated with the dignity it demands but when he says, ‘yo yo honey singh’ in a Punjabi accent, it sounds like an apology. But in my view, this is a deliberate strategy taken by the singer as he knows that it is his autobiography than a Tribute to Thalaiva. But through this down playing of his own name, he gets the endorsement of both Thalaiva and King Khan.
(Himesh Reshamiya, Akshaykumar and Yo Yo Honey Singh)
Yo Yo Honey Singh continues with the same strategy in his next film ‘Boss’ of Akshaykumar. When he reaches Boss, the rapper knows for sure that he is in demand but he does not want to burn out within that demand itself. So in the introduction song, he raps for Akshaykumar; ‘Mein apni tariff karoon’ (I will say some good words about myself), ‘Upar wale se na darun’ (I don’t even care God), ‘Hum Haryana kelauta king’ (I am the much liked king of Haryana), ‘Bahut hai apni fan following’ (Yet I have a lot of fan following), ... ‘Akshaykumar ho bhai hai apna/bol to sahi, photo kara dun’ (Akshaykumar is our brother, tell me shall I give an autograph). Here, Yo Yo Honey Singh (though he is not the lyricist here) gives an answer to King Khan blow by blow but puts the words neatly into the mouth of the hero himself. It is also autobiographical for him because while Akshay is a Punjabi from Old Delhi, Yo Yo Honey is Sing is a Punjabi-Haryana boy who had been even exempted from a possible crime by the High Court there. This clever play between autobiography and popular demand helps Yo Yo Honey Singh to establish his temporal position where the male chauvinist could dare anything and anybody (including God) provided money, muscle and law are on his side. Yo Yo Honey is accepted in such a cultural milieu. But in the same movie, Yo Yo Honey Sing, in the song, Party All Night comes out as himself in the lyrics at least and even boasts that the girls from Delhi and Haryana come for the party, they all carry Yo Yo Honey Singh CD with them to scorch the dance floor. The party will continue for long and the catch line is ‘aunty police bula legi’. Aunty will call police. That means he knows well that his words are offensive and his song and DJying is going to disturb the neighbour and the Aunty is going to call the police. ‘But still the party will continue all night’. Here one could see the disregard for an ‘aunty’ who suddenly becomes a sexually available woman but restrained by her age and her threat to call police is only a result of her jealous for the young crowd who are out there to enjoy ‘it’. Also, he says that even if the Police come the party is going to continue; means even Law cannot stop Yo Yo Honey Singh. In one of his recent private albums he asks a young girl to leave the class room, tell lies to parents as she is staying out and even her principal is a fan of ‘Yo Yo Honey Singh’.
(Yo Yo and his girls, from one of his private albums)
My second argument is that Yo Yo Honey Singh does not really represent a mass culture. His primary audience is the Punjabi mundas and kudis who understand his language. To give a wider space to him, I would say that it is the ‘new North India’ dominated by the Hindi-Punjabi speaking, politically and economically affluent classes that identify with Yo Yo Honey Singh. Even after studying in Trinity College, London, his Wikipedia page says that he prefers to sing in Punjabi. That is a good stance that he has taken but at the same time this identification with a particular language and a particular region makes this singer’s presence a bit problematic. But he transcends this problem by aligning himself with the mass culture dominated by the Punjabi-Pathan oriented aesthetics of Bollywood. He transcends his Punjabi language and region by singing for the masses (multiplex going and bar hitting masses who think about weekends, shopping brands and life style issues). So the Yo Yo Honey Singh phenomenon is a limited phenomenon though his presence has given birth to so many local Yo Yo’s in various regions and in their respective cultural industries. What makes his success in the industry ambiguous therefore interesting is that he at once identifies with his Punjabi-ness (through language), the affluent middle class youths’ aspirations (through his style, body language and lyrics) and an international community (through all kinds of identifiable symbols of urbane cool, luxury life and a sort of borderless liminal spaces of bar interiors, wide roads which could be in Arizona or in Amritsar, airport lounges, hotel rooms, dining halls and all sorts of nowhere-s). This is what exactly the mainstream Bollywood flicks produce as the urban culture that does not give any damn to God or Dad. Like Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) exclaims, Eh Gad, bad Dad.
(Legendary rappers, Biggie and Tupac Shakur)
I would like to end this article by turning my attention to the third and final argument which says that Yo Yo Honey Singh does not belong to any sub culture but the mainstream culture. There are certain writers or journalists who tend to position this singer as a representative of sub culture. Interestingly, they have mistaken the use of expletives and crude expressions as the emblems of a sub-culture. This misreading happens when we look at the history of rapping in the West, especially in the US. The Black music or the black American music which has taken various forms and has gone through various evolutions, basically had begun as chanting to pagan gods and later on wailing of the slaves. Their wailing and complaints took the form of music and slowly it became the expression of a covert protest. Rapping stood against the sweet, velvety music of the white, and during 1970s and 80s it got its evolution in black ghettos in Harlem and elsewhere in the US. This music of protest, rebellion and even defiance did not mind using expletives and cuss words when it spoke out the angst of the society. It did not speak the mainstream sentiments. It in fact attacked the mainstream sentiments as expressed by the Hollywood movies. This music evolved in ghettos, streets, barbar shops, chicken shops, drug dealing dens and brothels. This was the music of rebellion. The music industry found the potential of this different form of expression and pitted the first two exponents, Tupac Shakur and Biggie against each other and got them killed. While a parallel music industry developed funded by big thugs and warlords, the white world brought out a white rapper in Eminem and he brought rapping closer to the mainstream world in his movies like Seven Miles. He mentored another black rapper 50 Cent and a generation of rappers like Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Ice T and so on became mainstreamers in 1990s and 2000s. Rapping was a sub culture eventually co-opted by the mainstream.
(Rapper, 50 Cent)
Yo Yo Honey Singh, except for his affinity for Punjabi language did not and does not stand for any sub-culture. The kind of sub culture that he portrays in his language and style are co-opted sub-cultures. For example the hair style and the heavy chains worn around the neck, the finger rings and so on are the stereotyping of the American Black culture. The black American wanted to show a sort of affluence even using illegal means to gain them in order to counter dream the Big American Dream of getting richer and richer. Even when they knew that they could not match up with the white chauvinistic world, they dreamt affluence differently. And they used abusive language to drive in a few facts not only to their own communities who primarily enjoyed rapping but to the white world. Yo Yo Honey sing just clones these attitudes in the mainstream urban rich culture of Delhi, Haryana, Chandigarh and the satellite cities like Gurgaon and Noida. His influences could go to Hoshiarpur, Amritsar and Ludhiana. Yo Yo Honey Singh does not address any sub cultures in India as seen in the Dalit Movements or Queer Movements or Environmental Movements or anything of that sort. He is a singer who has identified with the mainstream using the effective tools of the sub cultures. This is how the cultural industries do away with sub cultures. But such phenomena will keep coming up in regular intervals forcing even a lucky singer like Mika (who is a staple ingredient in current Bollywood music even though he is a limited singer with a different voice) to embrace Yo Yo Singh and getting a song recorded along with him. That’s why I say, Yo Yo Honey Sing is a temporal phenomenon but a real one.