It looks like an ad for a luxury timepiece, not a rap album. The walls in the wainscoted room are atmospherically lit. Yo! Yo! Honey Singh, India's most popular rapper, sits on a sumptuous leather armchair in a dark, fitted suit, from which an elegantly folded pocket square peeks out. A large diamond stud gleams on his ear. He may look chic, but the short, well-built musician, whose pencil beard traces his delicate bow-shaped lips and jaw-line, has not forgotten his rural roots. To the right of the ad are the two golden letters IV, which stand for International Villager, the title of his latest album.
It has been a long journey for the 29-year-old Hirdesh Singh, from his home village in the agrarian Hoshiarpur district in the North Indian state of Punjab. In 2010, before his glitzy MTV appearances, an interview with Honey Singh -- a nickname from his mother -- and a fellow musician was shot in a rural, village environment. The video features bucolic backdrops -- Singh speaks before a mud bank; his friend in a wheat field, while a turbaned farmer, resting on a wooden hoe, looks on. Singh was raised in Delhi and later moved to London, where, according to his website, he studied at the Trinity School of Music. His parents did not support his ambitions at first. "I come from a business family. I rebelled from my father to become a musician," he said in an interview with the Times of India. (Singh didn't respond to multiple interview requests.)
Early success might have helped change their minds. In 2006, just one year after he started producing songs for Punjabi folk musicians, Singh won a national award for one of his tracks, Glassi. By 2012, the wildly popular International Villager album had catapulted Singh to national stardom, making him one of the few rappers in India with mass-market appeal. That summer, another of his tracks topped BBC Asian's download charts.
Singh's videos will look familiar to anyone who's ever watched the likes of Jay-Z or T-Pain. Gyrating white girls in hot pants and stilettos. Alcohol-fueled parties on gleaming yachts. Jets of water sprayed suggestively at semi-clad models. Despite all this, Singh is a cultural protectionist. He advocates promoting local musicians over international stars and refuses to sing in English, as he once did. "Whether its Hindi or Punjabi, I will sing only in the language of our country," he told the Hindustan Times, adding "Why are we so apologetic about singing to the West in Indian languages?"
His assertive vernacular identity has helped him win fans. In 2012, Singh was reportedly paid a record-breaking $129,000 for the use of one of his songs in a Bollywood film. One critically acclaimed director, Anurag Kashyap, even wants to make a film about him. "I was shocked to see the hysteria that he creates," Kashyap told the Hindustan Times in self-confessed awe, adding, "Girls were crying and howling to get a glimpse of him. I have never seen this before in India." Adding to the buzz around Singh is the success of his music video "Brown Rang" -- Brown Color. An R&B-style song about the appeal of dark-skinned girls -- Hey girl, your brown complexion, has transfixed boys throughout my town...No one's paying attention to fair-skinned lasses anymore -- it was the most-watched in India on YouTube in 2012, receiving more than 11 million views, beating out Psy's "Gangnam Style" on the subcontinent.
For India, the videos come with a whopping price tag. For Brown Rang, Singh reportedly shelled out $100,000 of his own money to hire a U.S. director to shoot in Dubai -- he says he wanted his videos to be of "international quality." (Bollywood film studios foot the bill for most music videos in India.)
Unlike with his videos, where he consciously avoids a provincial look, the lyrics of his songs are culturally hybrid. In the club-banger "High Heels," Singh raps about a girl whose swaying hips and "Bobby Brown make-up" makes boys lose their mind. "Dope Shope," another highly popular song, speaks of binge-drinking girls who knock back straight vodkas undiluted by "Limca," a popular Indian lemonade and mixer. Women in his songs dress in Prada and Gucci, use iPhones with "LA ringtones," and have black Lady Gaga tattoos on their chests. In the swirl of internationally recognizable brands, however, are references that betray a feudal outlook. "Fall in love with the son of Jats, O fair one" goes a line in one song. Glorification of one's caste -- Jats are a community that dominate Punjab -- is frowned-upon by progressive Indians. His lyrics also betray an unease with independent women who stay out late into the night and aren't, as he says in one track, "fresh" -- a euphemism for virginity.
Singh's success lies in this peculiar cocktail of cosmopolitanism shaken furiously with a hyper-local, almost tribal culture. This mix has always been part of hip-hop in India, which emerged out of bhangra, a fusion genre concocted in the late 1970s by UK-based Indian diaspora musicians hailing from Punjab. They brought together Punjabi folk music, known for its infectious, vigorous drum-beating, and Western music styles such as rock, dance, reggae and, eventually, U.S. hip-hop (Think Panjabi MC). The new sound spread among Punjabi immigrants in the United States and Canada and migrated to India, where it found an appreciative audience.