I was tickled pink, blue and purple to read Sonakshi Sinha’s statement that she cannot start her day without listening to Yo Yo Honey Singh’s songs. We grew up feeling the same way about Lata Mangeshkar. Times have changed, I guess.
Heroines earlier used to feel if Lataji didn’t sing for them, they had not really made it big. We are fast approaching a time when heroines are likely to feel career-challenged if the man with Yo Yo in his name doesn’t swing with them. From Deepika Padukone in the lungi dance to Kareena Kapoor in “Aaja Maazhi Satakli” to now Sonakshi in “Desi Kalaakar”, they are all tripping over their high heels to be seen in music videos with Yo Yo Honey Singh. He’s the first true-blue musical superstar who is not a product of Bollywood.
So who and what is Yo Yo? (I can’t bring myself to call him Honey; just as addressing Sonakshi’s brother as ‘Luv’ is a bit iffy.)
Flashback to early 2012 when Yo Yo was already a big name in the Punjabi bhangra-rap scene but was a nobody in Bollywood. Producer Sunil Bohra introduced him to me, describing him as a “very bright Punjabi singer…Sir, aap sunoge toh paagal ho jaoge.” (Sir, you’ll go mad if you listen to him.)
The first time Yo Yo called me, he sounded like any other wannabe: polite and filled with sky-high ambitions. “Sirji, main Bollywood hi nahin, Hollywood bhi jaoonga,” he said to me. “But on my own terms. I won’t go there and start singing like the gora and kala log. I’ll take my own Punjabi music to them.”
Two years later Yo Yo is doing exactly what he had planned. And the world is listening.
Yo Yo says I’ve played a big hand in his success. I laugh that off. But I will say a lot of people in the film industry and media were wary of Yo Yo and his music, to the point of shunning it. Just a year back, one of the above-mentioned heroines, who is now tripping over with gush over the rapper-singer-composer, had told me, “Gawd! Where do these people come from? He should just stay in Punjab.”
A sleazy reputation of a guy who sings lewd rap preceded Yo Yo into the Hindi film industry. Many graphic songs on the net were credited to him. To this day, he denies having anything to do with them. Two years ago when I pushed Yo Yo into the limelight, a tabloid that I contributed to told me, “We’ve banned Honey Singh for his misogynist songs. So please don’t send us anything on him.” Now Yo Yo is regularly featured on the front page of the tabloid, with full honour. In fact, he’s become their blue-eyed boy.
When did Yo Yo’s sounds get Bollywood’s approval? Kareena Kapoor played a big hand in this. Yo Yo told me, “’Angreji Beat’ was Kareena’s favourite track and she was very keen to have it for Saif’s film Cocktail. It took me three months to arrange the NOC from various recording labels.”
Yo Yo’s fan base in Punjab is massive and despite this, he decided to saunter into Bollywood with a song; only because a friend had asked him to make the shift. “I was happy where I was,” Yo Yo told me once. “But when my friend Sunil Bohra heard and liked my first Hindi song and said he wanted to use it in his Hindi film. I said, take it. It’s all yours. He came to Delhi, heard my entire catalogue and liked at least 190 of my songs.”
But the roots of Yo Yo’s stardom reach far beyond Bollywood. He began as a music producer in 2005. “In 2006, my single went to be no1 in the BBC world charts,” he recalled. “I used to sing in English. Then on the audiences’ request, I began to rap and sing in Punjabi. I was in the UK for 9 years. After that, for the last five years, I created my music in Punjabi.”
Singh may King in Bollywood now but he hasn’t lost his head with all this fame. “Bollywood is a bonus,” he said. “I headed to Bollywood only when the offers came with respect for my art. I am not here to sell myself. Whether it’s Hindi or Punjabi, I will sing only in the language of our country. Why is it that abroad songs in Spanish and French are sung with such great pride? Why are we so apologetic about singing to the West in Indian languages?”
He’s outspoken enough to challenge those who think it’s a good idea to bring in foreign artists like Akon to feature in Hindi songs. “Too much value is attached to American and British music in our country,” according to Yo Yo. “I want to change that. I started rapping in Punjabi to create a sense of pride in our youth for our own culture. In every part of the world, there’s pride in its specific culture. Why are Hindi and Punjabi songs not reaching out worldwide? Why do we invite Western musicians to sing in Hindi films? Every time musicians from Pakistan sing in Bollywood there’s an uproar, when Pakistani and Indian artistes are like-minded brothers. Then why should we invite some American singer to do che-che-pe-pe in our country?”
Yo Yo feels Indian popular music has lost its way because singers lost their identity and became stagnant because of their fascination for the West. “We’ve so much talent here,” he said. “I want to bring back an identity to independent music in India. Let’s sing in Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi , Bhojpuri. Do you know an international remix of a Bhojpuri song Loote La is played in clubs all over the world? We lost Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Jagjit Singh. Before we lose the other legends, let’s take them to an international level.”
He’s also convinced that Indian audiences will flock to see local talent, rather than foreign artists. “Arrange a concert on the same day and at the time, in the same city for Akon and me,” Yo Yo challenged. “See who attracts a bigger crowd. I’ve seen the connectivity I’ve with live audiences. Call Akon or Enrique Iglesias. I’m willing to take them on, man to man, musician to musician. If I don’t attract twice the number of people, I’ll give up music. It’s an open challenge. The only international artiste I’d have feared to take on is Michael Jackson.”