We never thought the day would arrive when we would fault Baba Sehgal for being too subtle. That day arrived last week when the rapper, who’s now best known for sharing couplets daily on Twitter, published a post ostensibly referencing celebrities’ tweets about the ongoing farmer’s protests.
“Subah subah Sun ko greet karo/Baby tum sweet ho lekin PR wali tweet mat karo,” wrote Sehgal in his characteristic style on the morning of February 3. Was he referring to the flurry of similarly worded posts by Indian actors and sportspersons hashtagged India Together and India Against Propaganda, which they’re widely believed to have uploaded on the behest of the government? Or was he admonishing Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, Meena Harris and Mia Khalifa for their internet-breaking tweets about the protests?
Or maybe his message was directed at the Right wing’s most rabid rabble-rouser Kangana Ranaut?
Groups on both sides of the political divide were quick to interpret Sehgal’s post in their favour. With over 25,000 likes and 4,000 RTs, it’s by far his most popular tweet in months. The hip-hop star could have made his stance clear but this time, the man who seems have an opinion about everything, refrained from saying anything more, allowing those on the left and right to legitimately claim he was in their corner.
Sehgal, after all, is a long-time Rihanna fan. Back in 2016, years before Diljit Dosanjh declared his adoration for the singer and entrepreneur in song, Sehgal had released “Rihanna O Rihanna”, in which he rhymed her name with “thana” and “kirana”. On the other hand, Sehgal was among the celebrities who allegedly agreed to share social media posts in favour of the BJP for a fee, in a sting operation conducted by the website Cobrapost in early 2019.
But public memory is increasingly short, especially when it comes to the shenanigans of celebrities lower down the ladder such as Sehgal. The fact that he has managed to keep himself in public consciousness for so long is an achievement in itself. Sehgal hasn’t had a hit outside of the Telugu film industry, for which he has recorded over 100 tracks, in over two decades.
This has not been for the lack of trying. In 2020 alone, he put out 24 singles on Spotify, or a little less than a tune every fortnight. Even some of the most prolific American hip-hop acts can’t keep up with that pace. While this strategy is in line with the advice of the music streaming platform’s CEO, sadly, none of Sehgal’s recent songs have tallied even a lakh plays. That’s a steep drop from the millions of cassettes he reportedly sold in the 1990s when his popularity was propelled with the aid of music television.
On YouTube, where most people in our country go to watch music these days, only two of his releases from last year have crossed 100K views: “Namaste”, in which he sings about how the traditional Indian greeting is an ancient form of social distancing, and “Kela Khao”, his Hindi remake of the viral Italian smash “Bella Caio”.
They’re both examples of his ability to latch on to a trend and ride it. Most of the time these take either the form of rhymes themed around food and drink, a parody of an existing hit (he turned Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Senorita” into “Sarita”) or some combination of the two. Among his 2020 output were “Biryani”, “Biryani (Party Mix)”, “Biscuit Ko Chai Mein Duba Lo”, “Cafe Latte”, “Chapati Round Banana”, “Roz Khaya Karo Fibre” and “Water Is H2O”. Sehgal appears to be taking a rather literal meaning of the term “snackable content”.
Perhaps this is because even though he launched his 2015 comeback of sorts with a song about “Going To The Gym”, of the 150-plus videos he has put up on YouTube over the last six years, “Aloo Ka Paratha” is the only Sehgal original to have crossed more than a million views. In the video, he raps about the dish while standing atop the wing of airplane. There is no attempt to make the special effects look sophisticated. He knows that his viewers/listeners/readers want to laugh both with and at him.
This is why Sehgal’s music often gets classified as “cringe pop” but it would be unfair to club him with the likes of Dhinchak Pooja. Like it or not, no history of Indian hip-hop would be complete without mentioning Sehgal and his breakthrough 1992 hit “Thanda Thanda Pani”, his unofficial remake of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”, which itself was based on an illegal sample of Queen’s “Under Pressure”. “Thanda Thanda Pani” – which incidentally was also plagiarised – was for many Indians, their first taste of rap, which was then a relatively new genre.
Last year, he gave us another version, “Rice Rice Arbi”, a copy of a copy of a copy. He opens the track by saying, “Let’s try something new” with an absolute and complete lack of irony. Yet, in July 2019, Baba had the balls to criticise Bollywood for making sub-standard remakes.
If you’re appalled by the sheer audacity, then the joke’s on you. That Baba Sehgal doesn’t give a damn has been evident since the start of his career. This is the chap who, in 1993, released an album called Main Bhi Madonna and dressed in drag for the cover. (Though one wondered why he chose such an outdated look of pop’s ultimate chameleon). In 1999, he brought us Abb Main Vengaboy, named after the critically mauled Dutch Eurodance group The Vengaboys, which boasts two of the best-selling international music albums of all-time in India.
Love or hate his antics, you can’t help but marvel at his perseverance and smarts. During the lockdown when both live gigs and film productions were put on pause, Sehgal set up a website on which he sells Patreon-like tiered monthly subscriptions to fans who can receive rewards ranging from exclusive content and merchandise to social media follows and shoutouts. After the TV commercials for the app CRED, which depicted 1990s film and music stars failing their auditions, started gaining traction, he submitted his own.
Where there is an opportunity to get an additional 15 minutes of fame, you can almost guarantee that Sehgal will be there. It’s no surprise that he was part on the very first season of Bigg Boss. If there ever is an Indian version of The Masked Singer, I’m pretty sure he’d be the first to sign up. Sehgal seems to have long learned that after a point, the quality of your work becomes secondary, you’re famous for being famous.
So while his inclusion in the line-up for the 2015 edition of the NH7 Weekender music festival most likely stemmed from the programmers’ nostalgia for their youth, the majority of the crowd at his performance was made up of kids who weren’t born when he released his biggest hits. That they knew every word of his old and new tunes, testified that he serves as a case study of how to sustain a career in novelty rap. (Sir-Mix-A-Lot might want to take notes.)
For content-hungry, celebrity-obsessed media, he’s a gift that keeps on giving. Sehgal’s Twitter feed is a never-ending supply of readymade listicles given headlines like “14 Baba Sehgal Tweets That Are Ridiculous And Relatable At The Same Time” and “Baba Sehgal’s Recent Tweets Are Not Just ‘Life Lessons’, They Make For Hilarious Rhymes Too”.
In retrospect, “Baba”, a term used for both children and sages, has proven to be the most appropriate stage name for the man born Harjeet Singh Sehgal. Is he nothing more than a juvenile jester whose rhymes are on par with those of a first grader? Or is he a garrulous guru readily dispensing homilies to an audience seeking comfort in an increasingly caustic world?
His biography on Spotify describes his music as “safe, inoffensive rap” that “employs a cutesy-pie image”. It’s this image that has enabled him to sugarcoat his politics in humour, without really revealing what his politics are. Like a true politician, maybe he’s been playing us all.