Study Honey Singh, don't shut him down

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 04, 2013 20:25 hrs

The recent attack on Honey Singh as part of the continuing sound and fury that is characterizing most of the protest around the rape case in Delhi is symptomatic of how much of this protest is counterproductive and dangerous.

First, the attack is simply factually incorrect because Singh is being attacked for songs he never wrote or performed. Singh is a rapper most often accompanied by other Punjabi artists from the region and the diaspora. Some of the 'obscene' songs floating on the net under his name are clearly not by him given that they are mostly sung and the voice is recognizably not his - They have no videos and are predictably anonymous.

Singh, by contrast, has regular songs with videos and albums, more and more of which are freely available in the market and show that he is no explicit pornographer which is what he is being called.

Honey Singh's lyrics and videos may be frequently sexist and deeply problematic. But they are not any more sexist or any more problematic than those of any Hindi film song and any pop/rock/rap Indian icon. To single him out and shut down his performances, call for a banning of his songs and a culture of censorship is hypocritical when that call is not extended to the representation of women, sexual minorities and children in practically every form of cultural representation we have, whether films, advertisements or songs.

More importantly, his lyrics and videos are not uniformly sexist and offensive but actually delineate the contradictions of North Indian masculinity in exemplary fashion making them perfect texts for gender study.

His latest video in which he is the Satan figure, destroyed by a woman-Christ is hardly sexist and offensive. Indeed, its naive moral vision is interestingly gendered and it is he who is semi-naked in most of it.

Honey Singh is actually one of the most interesting phenomena in our cultural landscape. A study of his lyrics, his videos, his personae, his attitudes and his body would tell us much about North Indian masculinity, the political economy of Punjab, the coordinates of upper caste/upper class Punjab and the tensions and contradictions that ravage its subconscious.

As such then, far from shutting him down, we would do much better to study all that he represents, often in spite of himself.

Honey Singh is also part of a sub national and simultaneously international diasporic formation of Punjabi Jatt culturalism, the hallmark of which is a certain mythical masculinity.

This culturalism is precarious: insecure (it is telling how it does not engage with the Indian nation-state at all or US racist readings of the Sikh as Muslim), fantasmatic (it is telling how most of the videos do not engage with an identifiable Punjab at all but take place in characterless urban landscapes elsewhere with a surfeit of super-expensive foreign cars and semi-clad foreign women) and delusional (it actually disregards the region completely, even as it occasionally dips into the myths of lush fields and demure women that surround it, in ignoring all the bleak realities of it), this culturalism requires urgent study too.

The mythical masculinity at the heart of it is clearly under attack and this plays into the configurations of the woman in the videos (almost none of whom barring the rural girl going to school through the fields and protected by a patriarchal father are identifiably Punjabi) and the lyrics which create an Other of her, an unmarked urban woman who has no agency other than the sexual and whom the mythical man wants to satisfy and invariably cannot.

Some of this is the stuff of popular culture across the board (the anxieties around women are common across region) and need study as well but the specific account of Punjab (through precisely its absence) is what needs tracking, its class and caste specificities need unpacking.
But, finally, what is most disturbing about this attack is the fact that it actually invites the moral brigade back in which is the last thing we might want.

Punjab has a long history of moral policing. To offer one relevant example, recall the the brutal assassination of the husband-wife duo of Dhanni Ram (also known as Chamkila) and Amarjyot, Dalit singers well-known for their raunchy and socially relevant songs, often called 'obscene.'
Honey Singh is no Chamkila (the latter had a strong base in Dalit and lower caste and class communities and, in many ways, was a singer from below) but both share this charge of obscenity which leads to a culture of censorship and moral policing that not only reasserts patriarchal and sexist ideas, it leaves unexamined the cans of worms the 'obscene' as a category might open up for us.

Honey Singh's world is a dystopian world and, in crucial ways, is the culmination of the dysfunctional world Chamkila had started showing Punjab to be in the eighties. Both worlds had the sexual as a key component of their representations of dysfunctional patriarchy.

Feminists surely should engage with these cultures and offer strong critiques of them as much as mine them for the potential they offer for a reading of the sexual (or the 'obscene') as inhabiting an affirmative, political and, on occasion, productively combustive place in culture.

Just calling it sexist and offensive and attempting to shut it down only offer collusion with the moral police that is ever-ready to shut all manifestations of the sexual down, especially when it comes to women and sexuality.