Last week, hip-hop legend Snoop Lion, whom you may still know as Snoop Dogg, landed in India to great fanfare. It was his first-ever concert tour of the subcontinent, but Snoop is the best known American rapper in India, thanks to his cameo in the 2008 Bollywood film, Singh Is Kinng, and his appearance on the film’s hit theme song. The Doggfather got the red-carpet treatment. Mumbai journalists fawned over him at a press conference full of softballs. (Yes, he’d absolutely love to do another Bollywood film!) That night, glittering movie stars and socialites crowded Snoop’s welcoming party in a swank Juhu Beach restaurant.
It was a complicated moment for the frequently foul-mouthed superstar to drop in. In the aftermath of a horrific gang rape-murder in Delhi, India has been in the midst of a contentious debate about misogyny in its culture—and in rap lyrics. The rapper drawing the most heat is Punjabi hip-hop star Honey Singh, aka Yo Yo Honey Singh. A month ago, he was securely enthroned as the maharaja of Indian hip-hop: His megahit Brown Raang (“Brown-Skinned”), a tribute to dark-skinned beauties (“White chicks? Nah, I don’t like them anymore”), had just overtaken “Gangnam Style” as the most-watched YouTube video in India. His group, Mafia Mundeer, was nurturing a crew of talented newcomers (mundeer is the rough Punjabi equivalent of “posse”). And Singh was set to headline a star-studded New Year’s Eve party in the posh Bristol Hotel outside Delhi.
But that was before the horrific Dec. 16 gang rape that rattled this nation and much of the world. As mourning gave way to protests and then to soul-searching over the portrayal of women in Indian culture, Honey Singh’s frequently misogynistic videos and lyrics were put under the microscope. Soon even middle-aged Indians who’d never listened to a single hop-hop track knew Singh’s most infamous verse, from the 2006 song, “Choot” (“Cunt”). As the English-language Hindustan Times reported, a literal translation of the song roughly comes to this:
Come, I’ll f*** you,
Exorcise you of the ghost of getting f*****,
After f****** you, I’ll hit you with a shoe,
I’d put my d*** in your mouth, and then p*** on you
Faced with an online petition to cancel his New Year’s Eve show, Singh briefly stalled, then caved, and then disavowed the now notorious lyrics, claiming to have only rapped them, not written them.
Singh’s verse is worse than anything Snoop has ever rapped, but would a man who once penned the couplet, “Guess who’s back in the motherfuckin’ house/ with a fat dick for your motherfuckin’ mouth” come in for similar scrutiny? Would his triumphant arrival in India be marred by controversy? If not, why not?
Curious to find out, I headed inland last Friday from India’s movie-star-studded West Coast to Pune, a mid-sized—for India—city a hundred miles away, known for its high-caliber university and burgeoning tech industry, where Snoop would have his first concert, in a sandlot on the outskirts of town. Indian traditions and the state of Maharashtra’s overbearing blue laws resulted in a tripartite venue with a walled-off, 25-and-over area where you could drink alcohol but couldn’t see the stage; another section which allowed soft drinks, food—kabobs, veggie burgers, Papa John’s pizza—and smoking; and a main area, in front of the stage, where black-clad security men circulated, confiscating water bottles and putting out samizdat cigarettes.
Though scheduled as an all-day festival beginning at noon, virtually no one showed up until sunset—standing in the tropical midday sun is not something most Indians do unless their job requires it. The upscale emptiness conjured a bar mitzvah for a rich kid with no friends. Had Snoop’s advance team been more on the ball, they might have started the concert at 4:20 and sited it in a jurisdiction where ganja—a Hindi word—is legal on account of its historic associations with the worship of the toking Hindu god, Shiva. It would have been awfully fun to see what the performative, pot-loving Snoop did with that.
Toward dusk, a modest crowd trickled in. Snoop probably hadn’t played such a tiny crowd since attaining stardom in the United States two decades ago. While we waited for him, a leggy Indian-Australian VH1 VJ hosted a b-boying contest. The old school dance style is popular in India: A few days earlier, in Mumbai, I had happened upon a dance studio whose sign hawked lessons not only in ballet, Bollywood, and belly-dancing, but also in b-boying, popping and locking, and even krumping.
As the mild January night air swept in, a Mumbai hip-hop group, Bombay Bassment, took the stage. The band consists of an Indian DJ, drummer, and bassist who back a Kenyan expatriate, Bob Omulu, aka Bobkat. Their opening set included one particularly infectious number that heavily sampled “King of the Bongos.” But Bombay Bassment’s lyrics were tame compared to Snoop’s—let alone Honey Singh’s. If not for Bobkat’s preface (“we gonna switch it up to a little doggie style now”), I might have thought their song “Down and Dirty” was about gardening.