Yo Yo Honey Singh has a peculiar effect on people, and it isn’t surprising: he’s got a song titled “Choot” (some attribute “Balatkari” to him too, though he denies it’s his) and lyrics that many see as misogynist and promoting violence against women. Some folks (this includes dudes – famous ones too) are vocal about why Honey Singh’s lyrics are so damaging. Others want him banned and his songs pulled from sharing sites. At house parties, when a Honey Singh song comes on, it isn’t unusual to see women snarl at the dude in charge of the playlist – the drunk guy in front of the computer plugged to the speakers trying hard not to spill his drink while looking utterly pleased with himself.
So how do you solve a problem like Honey Singh?
You can try to beat him at his own game. Like René Sharanya Verma, a Delhi-based student and poet, who decided to give it back to him in verse in a performance at the Delhi Poetry Slam that has gone viral. And demonstrated in the process that spittin’ lyrics is a perfect way to cross swords with art and pop culture. Everybody and their aunty is sharing it, captioning the link with words of encouragement and solidarity.
So we got in touch with Verma to ask her a few things we were dying to know:
What got you writing?
I started writing when I was around six years old. It wasn’t necessarily the most profound, but I was particularly committed to the fantastical back then. I started exploring poetry and rap way back in middle school. I would derive inspiration from things that irked and inspired me, and I would cogitate for hours, trying to make some sense of things like violence and environmental degradation. I do explore other forms of writing as well, for instance, screenwriting, prose and articles. I’m an aspiring Feminist Film Studies scholar so I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to deconstruct pro-filmic realities and elements.
How did you get involved with the poetry slam?
Two years ago, I would watch all these videos of slam poets on the Internet that talked about queer visibility and opposed body-shaming and explored the political through deeply personal ways, and I thought it was brave and powerful and just pure magic. I’m incredibly lucky to have met like-minded people in Delhi Poetry Slam, and in other collectives like Bring Back the Poets, college societies etc., who are really appreciative and create a space for conducive dialogue. Incidentally, this was my third slam, and my first officially public one, and I just ended up going for the event by chance.
Who are your favourite poets?
Whoa, that’s a biggie. So so many. I love Ambrose Bierce, Sylvia Plath, Akhil Katyal, the inimitable Margaret Atwood, A.K. Ramanujan, Dean Young, Clementine von Radics, Stanley Kunitz, Shinji Moon, Rimbaud, Andrea Gibson. Gosh, the list is endless.
Who are your favourite rappers?
So many. I adore artists like Frank Ocean and Big Momma who are instrumental in bringing queer visibility to the hip-hop scene. Missy Elliott, is of course, a goddess. There’s Lauryn Hill, Azealia Banks. M.I.A is brilliant, her works are contextual and powerful. I love Ani DiFranco’s music. Closer home, I admire rappers like MC Manmeet Kaur, whose work I discovered very recently. And of course, Hard Kaur.
Tell us about the Honey Singh poem.
Well, I’ve always been invested in performance art and its relation to policy and society. My piece was never intended to be a takedown of an individual rapper or two, it was a beleaguered response to a culture that privileges narratives of violence, restrictive norms, and ideals of beauty that are often untenable. Pop music, and pop culture at large has been perceived as a sanitized area of operation, where anything and everything goes, but songs and the discourses they promote operate in insidious ways. There is a silencing of body diversity, queer voices, dissent, and anything perceived as ‘not-the-normative’, both in overt and covert ways. I love rap, but I often find myself confounded over the lyrics packaged within these catchy, and annoyingly pervasive songs. This piece was actually part of an inter-college competition where I was given an hour to prepare a spoken word piece on the theme, “Portrait of a ‘Lady’”. And I thought it would be nice to construct a normative portrait of a ‘lady’ through a rap parody and deconstruct it through contrasting voices.
Should Honey Singh and his songs be banned/censored?
I think censorship is tricky business. It operates both at the end of production and consumption of images and cultural products. Songs by artists like Yo Yo Honey Singh or others are hugely popular and it’s simply because a vast majority of people consume these songs and what they represent. I don’t think banning a song, regardless of how offensive it may be to my sensibilities, will necessarily change the social realities we operate within. There are women and men in our country, as in others, who face the ramifications of rampant and internalized patriarchy, the pressures of masculinity, and the rhetoric of violence. It’s crucial for us to recognize that music and films and literature have pervasive and protracted implications, both good and bad. An artist might or might not care about issues like consent, the male gaze, agency and instrumentality, and their complicity in rationalizing systemic subordination, but it’s important to address those questions from within.
Many of us have internalized ideals and values – we need to question ourselves, negotiate those boundaries and generate a dialogue. I personally feel that by responding to art through art, responding to verse through verse, if you may, there is more possibility of a safer space for discussion and exploration. I hope that with a burgeoning spoken word scene in India, we can address these questions, question the questions, and encourage more people to do so as well.
Here are 5 videos from a list of René’s recommendations for y’all to enjoy:
(Image credit: YouTube)