Music can be thought of as being comprised of two fundamentals; music and vocals. Both are, in my opinion, perhaps equally important. It’s easy to lose yourself in the midst of a beautifully constructed instrumental (dub reggae is a prime example of this). Likewise, a set of thought provoking lyrics can also be just as stimulating. If an artist wants to send out a certain message though, they will more often than not use lyrics to convey this.
It’s been well documented since the turn of the year that rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh had an appearance at a New Years Eve concert in Gurgaon cancelled. The reason being the offensive lyrics contained in one of his songs, and that just a few days prior the new year, Dehli rape victim ‘Damini’ had succumbed to her injuries. A lot of people felt there was a link and it was in everyone’s best interests that Honey Singh didn’t perform. Some even went as far as to say he was to blame for what happened to Damini.
What I will say on this matter is this. If his concert was banned out of respect for Damini’s friends and family, then fair do’s. In my eyes, it’s no different from removing scenes containing the World Trade Center out of the original Spiderman movie out of respect for those affected by 9/11. It’s a respect matter. I don’t think he should have been banned if it was solely due to the fact that he uses offensive lyrics. So many US rappers use misogyny throughout their lyrics and haven’t received the amount of negativity that Honey Singh has. Maybe it’s because this kind of sexual content is still seen as more of a taboo in Indian culture. Perhaps the cancellation was a combination of both respect and lyrical content, but it mattered little now as New Years Eve has come and gone.
Only now, this issue has come back to haunt Honey Singh. He has now lost the opportunity to compose a song for the upcoming Bollywood film, I, Me Aur Main starring John Abraham. The source from which this story arose said this:
It was supposed to be a party number, but the producers decided to scrap it at the last minute because of the controversies Honey has been embroiled in. One of his songs recently drew massive criticism for its vulgar lyrics, so the makers didn’t want to risk working with him. This film is John’s ode to women. It deals with all the women in his life. As the protagonist, through the movie, he understands the importance of respecting all of them. So naturally, a song with crass lyrics about women would just ruin the perception of the film.
So it’s pretty clear the song was to blame for this missed opportunity too. Not only that, but it also seems the song has ruined his reputation too. While this is an obvious problem for Honey Singh, it begs a larger debate about songs and their lyrical content. I’ll start with the Honey Singh issue.
I don’t believe for one minute that Honey Singh is responsible for the Dehli rape case. I do think it was the right thing to ban him out of respect for the friends and family affected. However, if his reputation has suffered for something he himself has done, then he only has himself to blame. I just don’t believe that a song can make a person go out and commit a particular crime. This goes beyond music too. I’ve watched Saw films, Final Destination films, and everything by Quentin Tarantino. Not once have I felt the need to go and kill anyone using a gun, knife, samurai sword or anything of the sort. I’ve played all the Grand Theft Auto games and never wanted to steal someone’s car, or murder a prostitute to get my money back. So when I hear Honey Singh say he’s going to do this and this to a woman, it doesn’t make me want to go out and do those things. It makes no difference whether I hear Honey Singh say this, or if I hear Dr. Dre say it, or The Game, or from anyone else, whether it’s misogyny, or violence, or anything else that music, films or games have been used as a scapegoat for. I’m not the only one too. There are millions of others who realise that there is clear line between what appears in the media, and what we do in our lives. The two things do not have to be parallel.
On the other hand, does music do any favours for a society that already objectifies women? Whether it’s in a film, music video, or song lyrics, sexual misogyny is something that surrounds us and always has done. This is an issue in society that most women want rid of, and indeed a lot or modern men want rid of too. If this is the case, why aren’t more artists, producers and writers working to shift this? Is this something that has become so ingrained in our thinking, that it can’t be reversed? Even though I said earlier that I don’t believe a song can turn a normal man into a monster, I do believe that artists (whether they are producers or singers) are fully responsible for the messages they portray in their music, and Honey Singh is no exception to this. If you have as many fans as he does, and are as revered as he is, you have to take some responsibility in what you’re saying through your music.
Here then, lies another issue. Whilst artists are free to say and produce whatever they want (they are artists after all), they should think about what it is exactly that they are saying, but where are the boundaries? At what point do lyrics on particular subjects go too far? The problem is that this borderline threshold is a subjective thing; it will differ from person to person. So many Punjabi songs talk about women. On the broadest of scales, Honey Singh’s lyrics also fit into this category, so where should he have stopped? (If you believe his lyrics are wrong). Do these kinds of lyrics, offensive or not, bring certain issues into light, reminding us that there are still stereotypes and ideologies that need to be challenged?
Messages in music can be a very powerful thing. Think about another genre other than bhangra for a minute. Part of the appeal (on a personal level anyway) about reggae music lies in the positivity within the lyrics. It isn’t for nothing that Bob Marley became such a legend, his lyrics meant something positive. That’s why he had such a following. He gave a voice to a deprived set of people. There’s a similar story with Michael Jackson, who was well into and sang about his environmentalism long before it was ‘cool’ to do so. The messages these artists put in their music resonated with audiences which has a lot to do with why they became so highly revered by fans and critics, so are lyrics like those used by Honey Singh even necessary? Why do singers and artists sing and rap about these kinds of things? Is it for publicity? Perhaps out of a sense of self-importance? If this is the case then why aren’t more singers highlighting issues that plague our own people? To pick out an example, it’s well known to those that are aware, that there is a big drugs problem with the youths in Punjab. Yet there’s only one label who has dealt with this in their music (that I can recall anyway) and that’s 5 Rivers Inc from Canada. Besides this, Immortal Productions and the newly launched Dharam Seva Records are probably the only record labels committed to creating positive music lyrically.
I’m not suggesting that tomorrow, every single song released in our industry has to be politically and socially conscious. Music would become very one dimensional if this was the case. I know, and appreciate, the fact that there is a portion of the market that will solely be meant for dance floors and easy listening. This is music that focuses on production values instead of lyrical content, and that’s fine.
As stated earlier, music can’t make a person go and perform an act worthy of imprisonment; so personally, I see the blame placed on Honey Singh as a little unfair and maybe a little baseless. I do however see the avenue music has to create awareness. Artists should see this too and use their gift of music creation for the greater good. The struggle arises between the need to be free and expressive as artists, and the need to be responsible as artists too.
What do you think? Was Honey Singh’s cancellation the right thing to do? Does he have himself to blame? Just how powerful do you think music is as a medium? Should artists use this platform to send out positive messages and create awareness? Does social and political awareness even belong in Punjabi music? Maybe the problem is something I haven’t even touched on in my article: mental health? Or has this whole debate been blown way out of proportion as a result of the Honey Singh cancellation? Leave your comments below, I’d love to get your opinion, whether you agree or disagree with the points made above!