Protest Against Punjabi Hip-Hop Artist Reveals Who Gets Sympathy and Who Doesn't

4 years ago

In early August, a petition was circulated trying to stop a concert featuring Indian hip-hop artist Yo Yo Honey Singh in Toronto. The petition’s creators, a Canada-based Sikh religious organization, argued that his lyrics are too violent and misogynistic for Canadian Punjabi youth. But was Singh being treated differently than other hip-hop artist with similar lyrics or actions? The outrage is an example of the tensions as Punjabi Canadians navigate the many influences -- from both India and Canada -- on youth, and what exactly is an acceptable kind of Canadian.


MUMBAI, INDIA - DECEMBER 12, 2012: Singer Honey Singh (right) at the launch of his new album ''Satan'' in Mumbai on Wednesday. (Credit Image: © India Today/

The 1,194 petition supporters were not enough to stop the performance, but they did cause a stir in the local media. According to the Toronto Star, one of the main concerns, outside of how his presence might affect Toronto’s South Asian communities, is the recent violence against women in New Delhi and Mumbai:

Concern over Singh’s objectification of women, which has been growing for years, erupted last December after a young woman was fatally gang-raped on a bus in New Delhi. Shortly after the attack, a track attributed to the rapper titledMain Hoon Balatkari” (I am a rapist) surfaced on the Internet, prompting police to investigate. Singh denied writing the song. His case was dismissed in July on the grounds that there was no certain proof he had authored the tune, which was never officially released.

From the Petition:

Honey Singh is a prominent face in the Punjabi Music Industry. His music is vulgar, promotes gun violence and sexualizes Punjabi culture. Keep the Punjabi culture PUNJABI and help us keep Honey Singh off stage at Canada's Wonderland.

What does “Keep Punjabi culture PUNJABI” mean? Does Singh’s hip-hop music represent a way of life that is beneath their traditions? While the Toronto Punjabi community has every right to be upset at what this artist represents, there is a larger issue that in general, people  only get upset when a issue of racism or misogyny directly affects their own community. This mindset of “everyone else be damned…” is not conducive to eradicating the issues that cause such offenses to take place.

Hip-hop culture has not always had a woman problem in terms of rampant misogyny, but it has long been unable to properly narrate their experiences. In the early 1980’s, while male artists might rap about the distrustful women whom they felt were loose and out to take their money or break their hearts, there was room for women (see Roxanne Shante’s “Roxanne’s Revenge,” a response to UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne” or even Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First”) to retort. In the early 1990’s there was a sea change, with lyrics becoming more violent and degrading. Perhaps the rampant misogyny of underground artists became more prevalent with the introduction of hip-hop publications which wrote about previously obscure artists. Hip-hop lyrics that were focused on women taking action against physical and sexual abusers, or simply served as a slice of “urban” or “dysfunctional” life, gave way to gangsta rap in the mid 1990’s. The nihilistic narratives portrayed by primarily black and Latino hip-hop artists were used to racially stereotype entire communities.

The misogynistic lyrics reflected a growing resentment among black and Latino men that women in their communities, while they may be physically weaker, were seen as intellectually superior and better able to fit into white society. In addition, dressing like a hip-hop artist or openly listening to their music -- hell, havingbrown skin or living in an urban area -- became synonymous with being intellectually or emotionally stunted.

I would also argue that until hip-hop became a global influence, there was little to no public protest about women, specifically black and Latina women, being victimized by misogynist lyricism outside of their own marginalized communities. Because this issue did not affect other cultural communities, no one cared - or, to be more accurate, any assault was blamed on the victim to justify the actions.

When The Onion posted a satirical, yet offensive piece on the Chris Brown and Rihanna domestic abuse case, BlogHer’s T.F Charlton analysed the response from white feminist writers who dismissed the piece as simply satire and then attempted to explain why the piece should not be taken as seriously by black communities. In doing so, Charlton argues that not only was it paternalistic, but that their opinion was more rationalized and measured than the previous arguments by black bloggers:

But when black women on Twitter criticized The Onion’s piece as racist and misogynist, some white feminists saw these responses overreactions to effective satire. They berated critics as humorless, misreading the joke (the title of one called The Onion’s piece a “reading comprehension test), “almost deliberately obtuse,” even prudish.

By petitioning to cancel Singh’s appearance, it looks to me that the protesters unwittingly showed their cultural bias against hip-hop culture and by association, black culture.  And using hip-hop as a scapegoat for offensive behaviour is not new (for example, Don Imus’s hip-hop defence in calling black women ‘nappy headed hoes’). I’m sure that within the 15,000 attendees (including politician Ruby Dhalla, the first Indian woman in Canadian parliament) who flocked to Canada’s Wonderland located on the outskirts of Toronto to see Singh perform, there were some fluttering hearts caused by anger instead of admiration.

There seems to me a sense of embarrassment surrounding Singh’s appearance and, I would argue, the music he chooses to perform. Would his lyrics promote violence among Canadian youth? Would (white) Canadians then stereotype Punjabi or South Asian men as being violent? While there is a bit of credence to the worries of the protesters - even though I think that young men who victimize women have a predilection to do so, versus simply being compelled through lyrical content - the whole debate seemed a bit suspect. In Canada, as well as the United States, South Asians are often held up by conservative politicians as a "Model Minority". While Singh's protesters don't overtly mention hip-hop's association with blacks or Latinos, the "keep Punjabi culture PUNJABI" seems to suggest a cultural bias.

Also, after highly publicized gang rapes in India, the panic over Singh might also stem from South Asians feeling pressure to dispel new racial stereotypes. A recent CNN iReport account written by a white American woman travelling in India, identified only as RoseChasm, exemplifies the suspicion surrounding South Asian men. A response by a Black female college student on the same trip calls out those assumptions about Indian men:

So why should all Indian men be subjected to judgment for the rapes that some men have committed? RoseChasm does not address the fact that there are warm and honest men in India. When we do not make the distinction that only some men of a population commit a crime, we develop a stereotype for an entire population. And when we develop a negative stereotype for a population, what arises? Racism.

Critics of Singh say that despite his popularity, there is a larger problem:

Singh is a product of the women-hating culture that permeates our society. His popularity is also undeniable, and uncontainable. No matter how many television panels condemn him, Yo Yo Honey Singh is, till the next big thing rolls around, here to stay.

How do we stop violence against women, regardless of culture or class and ensure that every case is properly documented? How do we stop blaming the victim, and how do we dismantle cultural hegemony that places certain races or ethnicities on a higher social platform than others? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

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