Hirdesh Singh goes by the name of @asliyoyo on Twitter and Yo Yo Honey Singh on stage. The yo yo is a spool disk toy and is also internet slang for “You’re On Your Own.” Singh sure knows a thing a thing or two about branding, bouncing back like the toy every time there is a dip in his popularity.
After being recently diagnosed as bi-polar, the rapper took an 18-month sabbatical from the music scene. He will re-appear as an action hero in the Punjabi film Zorawar, which will be released on May 6. Singh plays the role of a special agent who solves crimes in South Africa, London and Punjab. It’s one of his many roles in the production: he has also composed the music and sung the tracks, including the one in which he claims to be “Superman”.
Singers such as Sonu Nigam and Himesh Reshammiya have tried their luck in films without much success. Singh previously made cameo appearances in two Punjabi movies and The Expose (2014), which starred Reshammiya in the lead role. The fate of Zorawar at the box office will decide whether audiences want Singh to be in front of the camera or stay behind the microphone.
Singh was born on March 15, 1983, in Hoshiarpur in Punjab. He studied music in London and moved to Delhi to work as a producer and singer after his return. He started out with rap songs in Punjabi and Hindi. His first stint as a composer was for the album Peshi in 2005, and he showed off his American hip hop-inspired swagger in the music video.
In 2011, Singh released the album International Villager, and got a massive push into the mainstream when YouTube named the song “Brown Rang” as one of the most trending music videos of the year. The song “Angrezi Beat” was reproduced in the hit movie Cocktail (2012), which further established his Punjabi hip-hop credentials.
Notoriety kept step with fame. Singh’s unimaginative lyrics, which often reduce women to sex objects, have been frequently criticised for their crassness and misogyny. St Stephen’s College student Rene Sharanya Verma launched a memorable attack on Singh at a poetry slam event in Delhi in 2015.
The criticism has only helped Singh build up his anti-establishment reputation. The well-publicised war of words with rapper Raftaar over song credits and parting of ways with his previous collaborator Badshah have furthered Singh’s image as a bad boy of Indian hip-hop among his fans and the Hindi film industry. A needless Honey Singh “item number” has been deemed necessary to reel in audiences. The placement of songs such as “Lungi Dance” in Chennai Express (2013) and “Horn Ok Please” in Dedh Ishqiya (2014) has nothing to do with the scripts.
Fortunately, the reality check begins at home. Singh’s worst critic is his wife Shalini Talwar Singh, who claims that she is not a fan of his songs. In a 2014 interview, Singh said, “She doesn't likes any of them. I guess she hates them but never says so.” There is, however, hope that she might be able to veer his music from ear-blasting to heart-warming. “She mostly likes romantic songs, which I haven't sung any so far,” Singh said. “She really likes ‘Brown Rang’ and makes me sing it every day for her.”
The music of Zorawar holds a clue to this much-needed shift. The mellow sound of the romantic ballad “Call Aundi” is unlike the usual high-decibel output. Even the rap segment in “Call Aundi” is delivered without a tirade of complaints. Is Yo Yo Honey Singh getting soft around the edges?
In a recent interview, Singh said that his long vacation from films and music has in no way changed how he thinks. Like the yo yo, he will bounce back soon, if only to heckle detractors with his songs.