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Sidhu Moose Wala: a rapper of fascinating contradictions who aimed to uplift Punjab | Music

Five years ago, Sidhu Moose Wala announced his arrival with So High. Using flutes and a faint tumbi, producer Byg Byrd roots the track in hip-hop but makes it evocative of Punjabi bhangra; on the hook, Sidhu’s voice soars. Racking up nearly 500m views since 2017, the viral track allies the audience as co-conspirators: Sidhu is our boisterous friend, whose bravado is a through line across his most popular songs. In So High, the Punjabi rapper – one of the most successful ever to emerge from the region – prophesies “copycat lyricists”, gangsterdom, a prolific release schedule and living on the precipice of danger. Every theme came to fruition over his career, which has ended with a fatal shooting at the age of 28.

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Sidhu Moose Wala, originally Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, was born on June 11, 1993, and began singing in the fifth grade with folk songs of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, a legendary Sikh commander from the early 18th century. In 2015, Sidhu started writing songs for others in the Chandigarh-based Punjabi music industry while a college student, finding early success as the writer of Ninja’s track license, but soon vowed to write only for himself. He moved to Brampton, Ontario in December 2016 after his degree in electrical engineering and moonlit as a musical artist.

His stage name – meaning “Sidhu of Moosa”, his birthplace – is a grounding article of devotion to his village, which he purposefully sought to elevate: wherever he went, he once said, his “village would go too”. Sidhu is the village’s clan name, and so in essence, Sidhu Moose Wala allowed Shubhdeep to embody the aspirations of anyone from Moosa.

After the success of So High, Sidhu released his debut album PBX 1 in October 2018. The lead single Jaat Da Muqabala opens with brass and glittering synths, straddling pop and trap as Sidhu undulates his voice, like Punjabi greats such as Gurdas Maan but also US contemporaries such as Polo G, with lyrics valorising his high-caste status. Tracks such as Selfmade and Death Route, meanwhile, show a fascination with rise and fall dualities: Sidhu explores his middle-class origins and the support of his family in Selfmade, but spends Death Route ruminating on dark nights and looming threats – ominous clouds that would indeed follow his success.

Before PBX 1’s release, Sidhu earned notoriety by trading barbs with other Punjabi hip-hop artists Deep Jandu and Karan Aujla. Their song Up and Down reads as a direct riposte to So High, speaking of how those soar can come crashing down; Siddhu responded in kind with Warning Shots. There were other fallings out, with collaborators Byg Byrd and Sunny Malton, over leaked tracks and unpaid invoices, but some were defused, with Sidhu since releasing tracks with Malton.

Fans pay tribute to Sidhu Moose Wala at a vigil in Amritsar the day after his death.
Fans pay tribute to Sidhu Moose Wala at a vigil in Amritsar the day after his death. Photograph: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

Beyond gun-referencing lyrics and machismo, Sidhu used his mic to speak on Punjab’s sociopolitical issues, and challenge the status quo. On Panjab (My Motherland), Sidhu personifies a Punjab that will not “take the pushes” of the Delhi government. It was released as an anthem for the farmers’ protests: Sidhu supported them in the August 2020 to December 2021 mass movement for agricultural subsidies, and ran an unsuccessful campaign in 2022 for the Mansa district seat in the Punjab assembly.

On the back end of his magnum opus Moosetape – a 32-song tour de force that pays tribute to forefathers such as Bohemia while convening international contemporaries such as UK MCs Stefflon Don and Tion Wayne – Sidhu interrogates the Indian penal code. Over a piano melody and trumpet blares, 295 takes the vantage point of a loving parent advising Sidhu that regardless of his path, he will be trapped. His choices are either “speaking the truth” and suffering Section 295 violations (penalising actions “intended to outrage religious feelings”) or progressing his career and garnering hatred. Sidhu consoles himself, consigned to a controversial fate either way.

Recently Sidhu released The Last Ride on 15 May. In what now seems portentous, Sidhu used photos of 2Pac’s assassination site as the cover art. Sidhu revered the California rapper, and the track delves into west coast G-funk sounds, mimicking a low-rider anthem via the production of Wazir Patar. It opens with a sample from a news broadcast about 2Pac’s death, and Sidhu sings of how his “coffin will be raised in his youth”.

Martyrdom is omnipresent in Punjabi Sikh culture, from the sacrifices of gurus to the hanging of 1920s revolutionary Bhagat Singh to deaths in the farmers’ protests, and Sidhu ruminates on the subject in The Last Ride. His art is an uneasy contradiction: speaking positively of caste and violence, while rooted in a Sikh faith that is anti-caste, peace-loving and egalitarian.

This contradiction, though, was what made him a riveting artist. Sidhu’s humility, and the flipside of his bravado, is most apparent on another 2Pac homage: his 2020 song Dear Mama. Instead of rap, a whistling flute and a guitar give way to Sidhu’s sonorous voice belting out his love for his mother, almost like a classic folk song from Moosa: “Mom, I always feel as if I am exactly like you. I want to write your name, Charan Kaur, on my chest.” Aside from the violent nature of his death, this is how he could be remembered: an artist who tried to raise up all that raised him.

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