Sidhu Moose Wala: The unsettling legacy of the rapper’s protest music
It has been more than a month since rapper Sidhu Moose Wala was shot dead in the northern Indian state of Punjab. But he is still making headlines.But his music is also continuing to make waves.In June, Moose Wala’s last song SYL was removed from YouTube in India after the government lodged a legal complaint. The posthumously released song talks about decades-long dispute over sharing river water between Punjab and the neighbouring state of Haryana, while also touching upon some other controversial subjects like Sikh militancy.
It’s fitting that his legacy of asking hard questions continues even after his death.In a career spanning just four years, Moose Wala wrote several powerful lyrics that explored the history and current state of Punjab. Critics say the state has an unsavoury side, involving a gritty gangster culture, corruption and rising unemployment and his music spotlighted that.
His fans see him as a man who was engaged with social realities. But what set him apart from his contemporaries was that he also offered a divergent vision of how Punjabis perceive themselves and his ideas were often considered unsettling and incendiary.His affinity for guns and attempt to force listeners into complex and sometimes even uncomfortable conversations – like SYL – made him the subject of intense scrutiny.
“There is no doubt that he was a man of contradictions,” says Harinder Happy, a research scholar who has studied Punjab closely. “But his style spoke to the times and to living in a post-modernist society where everyone has the right to assert their identity the way they understand it.”Moose Wala was also deeply rooted to his home and village in a state where thousands are looking to immigrate to foreign shores in search of a better life.
“He was many things, but above all he was deeply connected with the ecology of his village,” says Pritam Singh, professor of economics at Oxford Brookes University, who has followed Moose Wala’s music closely.The singer was born as Shubhdeep Sidhu in a upper-caste Jatt-Sikh family. After studying engineering, he moved to Canada, where hundreds of thousands of Sikhs have emigrated.
It was there that he began his music career, releasing his debut album PBX 1 in October 2018 under the stage name of Sidhu Moose Wala – or “Sidhu of Moosa”, his village.The singer maintained a distinct hip-hop vocabulary, from clothes to style, which made him an instant hit on the global stage. His music at the time was also typically macho – as rap music often is – and swaggered on the edge of violence. Unapologetically belligerent, he sang about his fondness for guns, boasted about his caste and gave details of a put-down of his enemies.
“Moose Wala could’ve lived anywhere he wanted. But he chose his village, his parents and his people,” Mr Happy says. “He not just held on to his village identity but also sought to elevate it, despite its complexities.”
Mansa district, where Moose Wala’s village is located, is widely seen as a backward region – it has one of the highest farmer suicide rates in Punjab and high unemployment levels and a serious groundwater crisis.”People don’t want to be identified with the region – they want to leave and never come back,” Mr Happy explains. “But Moose Wala was different. He took pride in his roots and his music urged listeners to proudly accept the village as home.”
This is captured most powerfully in Tibeyan Da Putt (Son of the sand dunes), signifying the semi-arid landscape of the region. “We do not belong to noble families/ Brought-up in the village and townships/ I don’t have any existence of my own/ Yet, influential people fear me,” the lyrics say.