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.