Bitter Honey: Sexual Violence in Desi Hip Hop
I came across Honey Singh for the first time in Dubai while driving with friends. The rapper had just released a single called “Brown Rang” (Brown-Color[ed Skin]), which almost everyone I knew was whistling, humming, or singing. The track was so catchy that even my non–Punjabi-speaking cousins were singing the chorus at one another or to their romantic interests. “Brown Rang,” made famous in the city because the accompanying music video was shot in Dubai, holds in it several subtle misogynist and sexist phrases that, at the time, went by unnoticed; Singh raps at one point that he wants nothing more to do with “white chicks” after having met the brown-skinned girl. I noticed all this just months before Singh became embroiled in a large media controversy regarding other alleged songs of his that made it hard even for the mainstream to ignore sexism in desi hip-hop.
Honey Singh, also known as Yo! Yo! Honey Singh, is arguably the face of Punjabi hip-hop around the world, comparable to Jay-Z or the Notorious B.I.G. in global popularity. He has almost three million fans in India, 300,000 in Pakistan, and more than a quarter of a million in countries like the UK and the US. An artist much sought after by Bollywood film producers, his tracks have been featured in major blockbusters such as Cocktail. He even acted in the Punjabi film Mirza: The Untold Story.
Not all publicity, however, is good. Since late December, the rapper has been at the center of a media controversy linking two of his alleged tracks to the Delhi gang rape case (Biswas 2012). This high-profile case involved the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi in the winter of 2012 and brought massive public and media attention to the issue. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, the northern region of India, in which New Delhi is located, has the highest number of reported rapes in India (6,227 per 100,000 women in 2011).
Things began to go sour for Singh when two songs bearing his name surfaced on music-sharing sites and YouTube, titled “Main Hoon Balaatkari” (I Am a Rapist) and “Choot” (Prostitute). The latter track includes the shocking line, “You will scream and run, but where can you go . . . I will take your life.”
Youth Ki Awaaz blogger Sumedha Bharpilania called the second track “as disturbing as it could possibly be and . . . nothing but an insult to the XX chromosome” (2013).
The names of the two tracks, as well as their lyrics, made it very hard for anyone to ignore the content and messages of desi hip-hop, especially Punjabi rap. Desi hip-hop seems to have skipped the growing-pains years of politicization that signified 90s–era American hip-hop, and instead has gone straight to a flashy present, complete with expensive cars, macho lifestyles, and representations of women as objects to be used or talked down to.
Although tracks such as “Choot”—or even a generally approbatory attitude toward sexual violence in music—would not necessarily lead directly to rape, they create and reinforce a culture that, in turn, allows rape, facilitates woman-blaming, and disempowers women. In the context of the Delhi gang rape case and the protests that ensued, it is important to note that this culture attacks women just for being women.
With the Delhi gang rape fresh in the public mind (and with the case ongoing at the time), The songs attributed to Singh came under criticism in December and were publicly targeted in early 2013. At first, the rapper stayed silent and let detractors and defenders fight it out over Twitter and other social media (Johri 2012). Then a woman named Kalpana Misra set up a Change.org petition asking for the rapper’s New Year performance at the Bristol Hotel in Gurgaon, Haryana, India to be canceled. Misra claimed victory when the show was eventually called off, but Singh said that he himself had asked for the show to be discontinued for unrelated reasons.
Singh finally made a statement in January about the songs in question, saying that he did not actually produce them (Economic Times 2013). He also made the statement, “What I am going through is another form of rape” (Hindustan Times 2013). The attention was clearly worrying the rapper, though perhaps not as dramatically as he vocalized.
Eventually, the authorities got involved; local police lodged a case against Singh on the basis of his lyrics being vulgar and obscene (Hindu Business Line 2013). The Indian High Court then ordered the Punjabi government to take action against the rapper (BBC News 2013). Given the vagueness of this order, the police have a registered case against Singh but seem to be dragging it out (Daily Bhaskar 2013).
A fair amount of the momentum in the case is due to the pressure exerted by a regional non-governmental organization called the Human Empowerment League of Punjab (HELP), which has pushed regional police to register a case against Singh under Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code. This section addresses obscene acts and songs that annoy others in public space.
Instead of bringing attention to rape culture and resistance to it, the Singh case has led to a furor over censorship. Indian film and music personalities decried that Singh was being singled out, and bemoaned the repercussions for artists (India Today 2013). Tepid reactions called for the labeling of explicit lyrics on music CD covers (Hindustan Times 2013). Singh’s own reaction was to threaten legal action against any publication tying him to the two songs (DNA 2013). Instead of a conversation around the culture of misogyny in hip-hop, the discussion became a heated back and forth over the integrity of artists and the message of the songs.
Regardless of his involvement in these songs promoting rape culture, Singh cannot deny that his more mainstream tracks contain misogyny and sexism. His track “15 Saal” (15 Years) with bhangra artist Diljit Dosanjh blames underage women for getting into trouble by sneaking into clubs. Another track, “Yaar Bathere” (Lovers Galore), which features a collaboration with singer Alfaaz, blames a woman for being a frivolous heartbreaker.
Most of Singh’s tracks exude a sort of machismo that inevitably leads to the labeling of women as either sexy or slutty. In his tracks, women are decorative (as in “This Party Gettin’ Hot” in collaboration with Jazzy B), objects to be pursued (as in “High Heels” in collaboration with Jaz Dhami), or people who get called out for stepping out of the gender lines that he assigns them (as in “Catty Eyes” in collaboration with Diljit Dosanjh). The music videos that accompany Singh’s tracks and collaborations are a testimonial to this approach; they visually represent the power, wealth, and sexism that Singh invokes in his tracks.
Beyond the effort to censor and ban Singh as an individual performer, there is a need to examine sexual violence and other forms of violence in hip-hop culture in India (and worldwide, since the audience for Singh’s music is by no means localized, nor does the problem stop with him). Honey Singh does not exist in a vacuum; his brand of masochistic, sexist lyrical content is the norm rather than the exception. A group of young rappers he mentors, known as Mafia Mundeer, create similar content. Unrelated Punjabi rapper Baba Honey released an album in June of 2013 called Brown Legs, a lyrical catcall to women who wear shorts. These examples and more show how pervasive the culture of sexism is in desi hip-hop.
The fact that other artists emulate Singh’s style of music is due to its catchiness; however, blind acceptance of the lyrical content shows how normalized violence and sexism is in this kind of music. Audiences, for the most part, seem to accept this inundation of music with little question. It took something as blatant as the two aforementioned tracks to grab public attention. Then again, it took something as blatant as the Delhi gang rape case to raise public awareness of rape culture in general, particularly to the attention of authorities. What makes Singh’s style of music so popular are the beats: a mixture of contemporary electronic music, hip-hop, and occasionally traditional bhangra styles. The rapping and lyrics become a background for the beat. Very rarely does the person humming the tune consciously recognize or reflect on the sexist lyrics; the unconscious acceptance of these, however, leads to an acceptance of the world that they create. Only with explicit tracks such as “Choot” do people come face-to-face and mouth-to-ear with the violence that accompanies the lyrics of more subtle tracks.
In February, when the student body at Punjabi University banned music by Singh and others for promoting sexism and violence (including artists mentioned earlier in this article who often collaborate with Singh), they took a large step away from the pervasive culture promoting violence (Singh 2013). Bodies such as the National Students’ Union have also protested the rapper (IBN Live 2013).
Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the fact that major defenders of Singh on Twitter were his female fans, in a curious twist that echoed the reaction of Chris Brown fans after his assault on his then-girlfriend and fellow artist Rihanna. Fans took a spectrum of defensive positions, from denying that Singh could pen songs like “Balaatkari,” to saying that the tracks were not a big deal in terms of the music and media culture already existing around sexual violence in India. Upon closer examination, tracks like “Balaatkari” are more a hop, rather than a leap, away from ones like “15 Saal.” The latter are merely subtler and less shocking. Both songs point to the need for examination and healing of a culture that permits this kind of music.
Among women fans defending Singh, we see the effect of patriarchy and sexism embodied in many of the tracks mentioned in this article. As much as they normalize misogyny among men and foster attitudes that look down at women or see them as objects, they also foster internalized sexism in women. A number of female fans rushed to protect Singh on Twitter, tweeting that he was innocent of creating the two tracks. There was little analysis of the subtler ways in which sexism creeps into desi hip-hop tracks. Contemporary American hip-hop culture is little better; rapper Rick Ross was in the headlines in March and April 2013 for rapping about date rape as part of a track by Rocko.
Because of Honey Singh, desi hip-hop fans across the world now have an opportunity to re-examine the culture around misogyny and violence that permeates Punjabi/desi hip-hop music (while acknowledging that Punjabi hip-hop is by no means the sole genre that perpetuates this culture). As someone who loves this genre of music, I have had to really look at my collection, at what it means if I excuse a track because its content is subtly, rather than explicitly, sexist.
Such a re-examination would mean confronting the level of sexism and violence in music in general, but particularly in the relatively new genre that is Punjabi/desi hip-hop. Confronting Singh as well as similar performers is important, but at the same time, we need to find examples of this genre of music that do not fit the mold, and even directly confront sexism and violence.
The conversation that has emerged is just one part of a cultural shift away from sexism and misogyny in desi hip-hop. The Delhi rape case is the main reason why so much attention was directed at Singh, as well as sexism in desi rap in general. So far, the artists’ and industry’s reactions have been defensive. But the industry’s powerful record producers, labels, and artists could instead open up a conversation about musical content and actually start making music that breaks apart the very culture that has been discussed in this article. The desi rap scene very much needs a Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad.”
The situation is not entirely bleak. Sometimes referred to as the father of desi hip-hop, Bohemia is by no means a feminist but is far less sexist with his lyrics, dealing more with the art of rhyme. The Rap Engineers from Pakistan are an even better example, taking a spiritual Sufi approach to rap, mixing their rhymes with Urdu ghazals. North America–based beat poets/hip-hop artists such as Mandeep Sethi and Humble the Poet even bring a level of conscientiousness to the table. In addition to his other gigs, Sethi promotes a hip-hop project with impoverished youth in New Delhi and Mumbai called Slumgods.
The scene also needs female rappers. Though a few artists like Tasha Tah and Nindy Kaur exist, very rarely do they take on topics like sexism the way Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah did. However, with the spotlight on the desi hip-hop industry, this could be a moment in which female artists who take on these issues are pushed forward. Hip-hop has always been the music of the oppressed. From racism in New York to apartheid in the Palestinian territories, the genre is one that was built to take on heavy issues. Rape culture and sexism should not be exceptions.
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Isaac Komalathukizhakkathil Oommen is Gulf Arab and South Indian, currently based in Vancouver, Unceded Coast Salish Territories. He is a multidisciplinary media activist who writes and creates video and audio around struggles of indigenous and migrant rights. He has a time-consuming fascination with Punjabi, Palestinian, and Arab-German hip-hop. He can be reached and denounced at @isaacoommen.