Shorts In The Dark
Yo Yo Honey Singh is back, but all is not okay
To be diagnosed with bipolar disorder is no small matter. It was brave on the rapper's part to talk about it.
- Total Shares
Where is Honey Singh? I asked this question to everyone I met. I'd wake up in the middle of night, the middle of the afternoon, or early in the morning, when birds would be twittering noisily in the trees - yes, I have a habit of waking up at odd hours - and the question would just pop into my head, like a par avion envelope dropping into a letterbox.
Two years ago, the rapper Himanshu Suri aka Heems, formerly with the rap outfit Das Racist, and I were hanging out at my place in Dehradun. It was Holi. We'd decided to give Holi a bunk. Evenings are always a better time to step out on Holi day. There is the small problem of visiting friends in the evening looking too clean. What?! How come you have no colour on you? Let me get some. And before you know it, you have rouge on your cheeks and a touch of pink gulal on your hair. There's no escaping.
As it happened, we weren't that clean. We'd consumed a small quantity of shrooms and were lying on our backs, listening to music blaring from the parties going on around us. Every second song was a Honey Singh song. It was 2014 and Yo Yo fever was at its peak. "Paani, paani, paani" came echoing back to us from the valley below; each of the six wire-meshed windows of my room was a megawatt wireless speaker. We didn't mind. We both liked Honey Singh.
Though I don't think Heems would go so far as calling himself a fan. Rappers are their own biggest fans
* * *
Rumours flew thick and fast while Honey was MIA. Shah Rukh Khan had slapped him. He'd rubbed Shah Rukh the wrong way and so Shahrukh had destroyed his career. Honey was in rehab. Sightings were reported from Chandigarh, Toronto, New Delhi. It was always "someone's friend" who'd bumped into Honey on his way in or out of a club. "Yaar, my friend called the other day. He said Honey was at this club in Chandigarh. He looked bloated."
As it turns out, Honey was, for all this while, living with his mother in Noida. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, about which he broke his silence in a recent interview. Meanwhile, his old hits kept playing on the radio. They didn't fade away. Honey's success was enduring; he might have been missing but his songs were not. They were still on every playlist.
New rappers arrived on the scene, Badshaah and Raftaar the most prominent among them. They filled Bollywood's commercial need, but none of them sounded like the genuine article. It seemed to me that they were using Honey's favourite tropes but they didn't have anything to say apart from rapping: Yo, I'm the best, I'm better than all the rest, I drive fast cars, I am the biggest heartthrob of them all.
In rap, it's crucial that you have a back story. Rappers talk directly to their fans. Raftaar and Badshaah didn't have a story to tell. It didn't help that they sounded too much like Honey Singh. Good rappers create a persona and then spin narratives around it. The fan follows the narrative from song to song. Each song is part of a larger story - where the rapper came from, where he is right now, where he is headed.
Honey fulfilled these criteria like no other rapper in India, apart from Preet Vihar's Faadu, who is not mainstream yet. If you find the persona interesting you will come back for more. You wait for the new track because you want to know what happens next.
In "Kash Koi Mil Jaaye", Faadu rapped about the sexual frustration of being in engineering college. "Ladkiyon se baat karne ko customer care call karta hoo/ Life mein newspaper nahi padha but matrimonial padhta hoo/ Maxim Playboy even Kama Sutra bhi subscribe ki hai/ It's humiliating par Sarita Grahshobha bhi try ki hai." In "Ek Din" he, or rather his persona, is a working man, a corporate-techie slave in Gurgaon: "Naun ghante ruko/ Bhale hi seat par so jayo/ Sick leave leni ho/ Hafte bhar pehle batao." In "One Night Stand", a girlfriend gets pregnant: "Use le ke jao Fortis Max/ Doctor sab ghoorti rehti/ Nurses bhi door si rahti."
Honey Singh's back story takes centre stage in tracks like "Ise Kehte Hain Hip-Hop": "Shuru kiya maine as a music director/ Aaj mere yaar dost bade-bade actor/ Waise Bollywood mein aati roz picturein/Par superhit picturon ka Yo Yo X-Factor/ Middle class boy aaj superstar hai/Chartered mein ghoome aur chaar badi car hai."
How did people like Honey and his long-time collaborator, Li'l Golu discover rap music? It's not an Indian genre. They didn't have other Indian rappers who set a precedent for them to follow. Golu explains: "Pehla gaana suna maine jab "Ass like that"/ Khud se kiya tha sawaal Golu/ Who the damn is that?/ Raat bhar woh gaana kaano mein bajaaya/ Tab kahin jaake mujhe thoda samajh aaya./ Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Eazy-E/ Bollywood mein nahin Hip Hop mein tha ji/ Hip hop ki samajh mere DNA mein thi."
Swag or bluster is innate to the genre. You brag about the fast cars you own. But rap is also about "keeping it real" or rootsy. Kendrick Lamar and Eminem rap about not forgetting their Compton ghetto/ Detroit white trash origins. So does Honey when he dreams of winning a Grammy: "Mere liye duaa karo, Grammy le aaunga/ Kasam Bajrang Bali ki/ Desi ghee ki boondi, shakarpare batwaaunga."
Li'l Golu, who features in the video for "Ise Kehte Hain Hip Hop", raps about coming from a trans-Yamuna suburb in New Delhi in "Stardom": "It's your boy Li'l Golu Yamuna paar ka/ Chhoriyan chhoti, shauqeen lambi car ka/ Delhi ka local londa/ Dum hai balls mein/ Kal tak ghuma Metro mein, aaj Rolls mein/ Kiraye ki na hai, ye hai mehnat ki kamai ki/ R8 meri, ye lambi gaadi bhai ki/ Madhyam-vargiye pariwar se/ Pitaji in sarkari job/ Sarkari school ka ladka/ Sunta tha hip-hop/ Karle kuch vyapaar/ Kehte the rishtedaar/ Rishtedaaron ke liye middle finger/ Hai ab taiyaar."
The theme that emerges is of a middle class boy from an obscure Delhi suburb, educated in a government school, making it big in the world on his own boota, then showing the middle finger to his nosy and judgemental relatives.
Being self-made is a big deal in rap. Both Honey and Li'l Golu look down on those born into money. On "Stardom", Honey joins Li'l Golu in the final verse and disses scheming talentless upstarts: "Kalaa ki hai kami tabhi to chaalein chalte hain/Ab tak papa ki pocket-money pe palte hain." Rap is a competitive genre. You tackle the "haters" head-on. Honey raps about the jealousy and backbiting endemic to rap music; the charlatans and the pretenders to his throne. He has little time to waste on them: "Mujhe sab pata hai kon kon mujhse sadte hain/ Mere baare me vaahiyaat baatein kartein hai/ Peeth piche bhonkein/ Saamne mujhse darte hain/ Mere aage aake phir kyun paji paji karte hai? / Aise logon ko ram ram meri door se."
To his biggest fan, the Indian college girl living in a hostel with a hundred restrictions or at home, with equally conservative parents, Honey offers an avenue of escape. He will set her free. All she has to do is pack her bags and leave. In "Blue Eyes" he offers to call up the girl's principal: "Suna tere college mein mere gaane ban hai/Padne likhne ka na tera koi plan hai/ Pass kara du, phone ghuma doo/ Teri principal bhi Yo Yo ki fan hai!" In "Desi Kalakar' he asks her to elope with him that night, while her parents are asleep and her dog has been fed a "nashe wala biscuit": 'Take your ID, your passport/ Credit card, pass-code/ Zipper, your slipper/ Your fridge te lageya sticker/ Your glossy lipper/ Mere lai some liquor/Kar na koi fikar/ Just do it, everything quicker/Kamre nu la de kundi/ Naal mere lai pack kar/Thodi roti te bhindi.'
In "Love Dose", he offers to call up the girl's father. What are Indian parents looking for in a groom, when they are getting their daughter married off? A well-settled boy with a house, a car and a steady income. Honey has it all; he is the unlikely perfect groom: "Hello Uncle, Namaste/ Chalo kaam ki baat pe aatein hain/Ab aap ye puchhenge ki/ Aap kitne paise kamate hain?/ Bas jitna aapki beti/ Ek mahine mein udati hai/Ek hafte me meri gaadi utna tel khaati hai/ Hai ghar, hai paisa, hai gaadi/ Ab do jodon mein ladki bhejo/ Ladki hui hamaari."
To be diagnosed with bipolar disorder is no small matter. It was brave on Honey's part to talk about it, especially in the rap game where portraying a mythic invincibility is a part of the act. In his interview to TOI he speaks of the darkness he felt would never lift. But once the right diagnosis is made and the right medication administered, the darkness can lift quickly. Perhaps we will see a new version of Honey Singh. His back story has evolved. He is looking at the world with new eyes rather than "Blue Eyes" and that is good news for his fans. "Badi hai soch meri/ Bade hain plans/ Jo kuch bhi hoon, 'cause of my fans."
We are glad that Honey is back and feeling better. We await his new avatar. The prodigal is home. In the meanwhile, happy Holi, Honey. And welcome back! Bas, tussi apna khyal rakhana!
(The writer's book The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India's Technicolor Youth was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award)