Members of the Indian Youth Congress light candles for rapper-politician Siddhu Moose Wala in New Delhi. Photo: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Minaal Randhawa has been playing Punjabi rapper Sidhu Moose Wala’s song “Legend” on loop since Sunday. The 31-year-old from the north Indian state of Punjab remembers the lyrics from her favorite artist: “Enemies are unlimited, the counts of my breath are limited/ I walk opposite the world but parallel to death.”
The reference to death feels too close to reality. Moose Wala, 28, who has millions of fans across the world, was shot dead by unidentified assailants on Sunday.
“Maybe he had an intuition that he would die young,” 31-year-old Randhawa, an entrepreneur in Chandigarh city, told VICE World News. “He would often speak about death even in interviews, and he had no fear of dying.” But Moose Wala’s death, Randhawa said, has left a big void in people’s lives.
Moose Wala, whose real name was Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, was a leading rap voice in Punjab who earned global acclaim for his unique musical style that merged traditional Punjabi musical traditions with international rap sounds. While his music by him is popular for being boisterous and political, he also had a short stint as a politician and was well-loved for his community work.
Bhanuj Kappal, an independent culture writer in India, said Moose Wala was an outlier in the Indian and diaspora rap scene by forging authentic connections with rural Punjab as well as the international audience. “He bridged a gap between Punjabi rap and folk in a way few artists could,” Kappal told VICE World News. “He reflected a rare kind of songwriting and truth-telling.”
“He reflected a rare kind of songwriting and truth-telling.”
In Canada, where Moose Wala started his career, his story as a Sikh immigrant inspired an entire generation of Sikh and Punjabi Canadians. “Moving to Canada as a brown person who wears a turban is not easy,” Simran Parmar, a 24-year-old Canadian-Sikh student, told VICE World News. “He came from a village in Punjab, struggled and established himself to the point that people like Drake know him. His life from him was uplifting for people like us.”
“His death feels like a brother passing away,” Parmar added.
Canadian rapper Drake follows Moose Wala on social media. Just five years since his debut in 2017, Moose Wala’s music videos have racked up nearly 500 million views. Many fans compare him to American rapper Tupac Shakur in terms of their cultural impact and, grimly, the violent way they both died.
Ahib Jan, a 24-year-old content creator from Pakistan and a big Moose Wala fan, said that many Pakistanis were drawn to Moose Wala for bridging a crucial gap. “A lot of us grew up in the era of [global rappers like] NWA and Tupac,” Jan told VICE World News. “Hearing a Punjabi singer on the same levels as them was something so close to home.”
Following Moose Wala’s brazen murder in broad daylight, his family and supporters across the world are demanding an independent investigation and justice from the state government. The police have initially attributed the killing to gang rivalry.
The news of the musician’s death has shaken the community in Brampton, Canada, where Moose Wala started his career, according to Jaskaran Sandhu, the co-founder of Baaz, a media outlet for the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora in Canada. This Saturday, many in Brampton are planning a get-together for candle-light vigils and tribute gatherings demanding justice. “This is where [Moose Wala] found his voice,” Sandhu told VICE World News. “There’s an outpouring of love and remembrance here.”
“Hearing a Punjabi singer on the same levels as NWA or Tupac was something so close to home.”
Moose Wala hails from a small Punjab village called Moosa, which gave him his stage name. In India, many remember what Moose Wala did for his own people, such as organizing community services including free cancer camps. (Punjab has one of the highest cancer rates in India, where 18 people succumb to the disease every day.) Many in his village also count his kind acts like paying college fees for girls or protecting them from getting harassed.
On Wednesday, thousands turned up in Moosa for the rapper’s funeral, chanting slogans and singing his lyrics amid heavy police deployment.
One of the mourners, Taranjot Singh, traveled seven hours to pay homage to his idol and was stunned by the collective grief. “I always dreamt of meeting Sidhu Moose Wala,” the 23-year-old radio jockey and content creator from New Delhi told VICE World News. “I never imagined I would see him in real life like this.” Moose Wala’s body was brought out in an open casket and dressed in groom’s clothing – a tradition – and then taken on a tractor, his favorite vehicle from him.
The artist’s death is a painful blow to fans who saw him as an inspiration – hard to come by amid Punjab’s bleak realities. Singh said Moose Wala’s lyrics were a ray of light in moments of darkness. “In the lowest of my lows, I turned to his music from him.”
“In the lowest of my lows, I turned to his music.”
Despite finding success in Canada, Moose Wala came back to his village, and much of his music reflected that devotion, further endearing him to his legions of fans. The one chink in his armor of reverence is criticism of the many references to guns in his songs by him. For many fans, this criticism is deeply unfair.
The gun culture in India is very different from the one in the West, Moose Wala’s friends say. In India, guns are intrinsically linked to culture, tradition and, in some parts, survival. Punjab, a region in conflict, has one of India’s highest gun ownership rates.
Kappal, the culture writer, said that Moose Wala’s music was representative of the world he lives in. “Unlike Bollywood representations, the reality is that Punjab is a border state with a history of insurgency and a very brutal counterinsurgency,” he said. “Most of what you see in Moose Wala’s music is a realistic portrayal that needs to be understood without being mythologised.”
Punjab saw an insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s, an armed campaign by a Sikh separatist movement called the Khalistan. The chaos at one point led to the Indian security forces storming a Sikh holy site. Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister at the time who authorized the military operation, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards shortly after that. Anti-Sikh riots then ensued across northern India.
“Most of what you see in Moosewala’s music is a realistic portrayal that needs to be understood without being mythologised.”
Many see Moose Wala’s reference to Khalistan in one of his songs “Punjab: My Motherland” as a political act. It was just one instance of political activism in his lyrics by him that ran parallel to his real life by him. Last year, he supported the months-long protests by Indian farmers against Indian government’s controversial farm laws.
Moose Wala’s murder is also evoking memories of Similary deaths of musicians in the state. One of them, Amar Singh Chamkila, was also 28 when he was gunned down in his village in 1988. Another singer, Dilshad Akhtar, was murdered in 1996. Kappal said Moose Wala’s demise follows this dark history of murders of artists who “rubbed up against conservative establishment.”
“Punjabi music for long has been seen as political, especially those connected to the grassroots like Moose Wala’s,” Kappal said. “What concerns me is this uptick in political violence in the state. We’ve seen this happen during the insurgency era. I didn’t expect something like this to happen in 2022.”
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