Part I — Famous
“You heard of this new singer up in Canada called Sidhu MOOSE wala? His song G Wagon goes hard”.
In the moment, other than an eye-catching name, nothing seemed extraordinary about this new singer on the block. My friends and I liked his aggressive style of singing with themes, but as a replacement to the recently disgraced Elly Mangat (another Canadian singer who had similar themes in his songs but with much more scandal and explicit gang themes). Moosewala’s voice and lyrics were catchy — especially the “jitthe bande maar ke kasoor puchh de, Jatt uss pind to belong karda” refrain. But his story was just that of any number of singers in the larger Punjabi media pipeline that had been churning for decades with constantly rotating new players; producers in the West (originally predominantly UK, but increasingly Canada) would create fresh beats that punctuated Punjabi folk music with trends in the West, and get lyricists and singers straight from Punjab as they knew it best.
But Moosewala wasn’t a one-hit wonder; that year, he produced two other songs that became anthems of our small group of Punjabi-Sikhs wandering a very American college campus. “Lifestyle” had a good touch of cheesy English that we could sing at the top of our lungs in the car when the beat dropped. And I’ll never forget the day the message in the groupchat popped up to listen to a leaked song uploaded on YouTube as “uchiyan ni gala tera yaar di by sidhu moosa wala”. The song’s backdrop (composed by a Canadian producer) was unlike anything I’d heard before in Punjabi music and had instant staying power — and the crisp and strong vocals of Sidhu singing out hit like thunder when the beat dropped. From there, I knew I was a fan.
I can’t claim to be one of those who “discovered” Sidhu; my rise as a fan aligned with thousands of other Punjabi youth across the globe who loved the power Moosewala brought to his music and lyrics. As the leaked songs slowly got their “official release” with their English titles and proper music videos, the collective fascination with Moosewala only grew. Take the music video of “So High” (the actual name for “uchiyan ni…”). The setup of the music video with the artists in the middle of a circle of “thug” looking groupies isn’t something new — even the now-family-friendly Diljit flirted with this 5 years before Moosewala did (in Panga), and he got that from others who preceded him. But the small things that stick out — Moosewala’s sporting a golden chain with a loose-fitting sports jersey and his iconic wattan-wali pagh, the sepoia filter — alongside a fantastic song, all created something that transcends the sum of its parts, and thus was able to define something new even from the multiple attempts to achieve this exact aesthetic in Punjabi music for years prior.
Just as Moosewala’s music videos added to his persona, so too did his social media presence; as he started the rise of his meteoric career in a post-social media world where the Canadian, British, American, and Indian Punjabi populations were all linked to each other over Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and more. His social media persona was another anomaly that further captured the fascination of fans. Despite his aggressive demeanor as an artist, he was soft spoken and humble whenever he went on Instagram live to engage with his fans or talked to an interviewer. Yet even this could take a turnaround when he would drop comments written in Punjabi as colorful as his lyrics cussing out haters who would critique his looks/violence/songs.
Beyond that, what made Moosewala’s socials so intriguing to follow was what he posted from his personal life. One such event that gained much acclaim from crowds based in Punjab in particular was when Sidhu personally campaigned for his mother, Charan Kaur, in the election for Sarpanch in his village in 2018. Charan Kaur ran on a Congress ticket (something that signaled Moosewala’s political affiliations even back then, although it went unnoticed by much of the diaspora), but in general, as in most municipal level elections in Punjab party, ideology played little part and the main issues Moosewala and his mother campaigned on were those directly affecting local issues in the village. To this end, this caught the eye of many in Punjab as a sign of his authenticity it took to take part in the campaign — his family and pind name weren’t just catchy to use for his rise to fame once he jumped to Canada so desperately as many youth do these days, but things he actively cared about and things he returned to.
Another large claim to fame that caught on more in the diaspora was when Sidhu posted photos in reverence of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, primarily on his Snapchat story. Although it is no surprise that Bhindranwale is revered as a Sant and Shaheed across many Sikh homes and Gurdwaras in Punjab today, high-profile Sikh celebrities based in India often have to lay low to keep in line with the broader Indian media’s claims that it is only a “minority” of “radicals” with such sentiments. Moosewala had no such qualms; he posted “santa di tasveer” on his Snapchat story just like random people in Punjab who have 20 friends do on their Facebook. This certainly caught the eye of many, and probably earned him the ire of many non-Sikh fans (who even to this day cheer on the death of “Khalistani Moosewala”).
Especially in light of his death, this blithe attitude of Sidhu Moosewala to potential blowback has been projected as an attitude of “Sikh dissent towards the Indian state” and a sign of his “true ideology trajectory” had he not passed away so suddenly. I find such sentiments to be lazy and more a sign of opportunism by groups seeking to project their personal ideologies onto whatever figureheads they can desperately latch onto; and it’s a one-sided analysis that rivals that of Hindutvadis who also lambasted Sidhu as a “gangster Khalistani”. In my opinion, both the campaign for his mother and his posts on Shaheeds show how Moosewala was a gem in another regard — his authenticity. His social media, be it the humble bentis or the angry gaala, his reverence for Shaheeds of 1984 one day and career in Congress another, wasn’t a carefully curated “page” to promote a specific image of Moosewala as any one ideology or pander to one crowd — he was what he was, and with all his dualities (more on this to come).
The authenticity of Moosewala ties into what I genuinely think one of his defining features was as a “phenomenon” — the archetype of a rural Jat Sikh juxtaposed with the urbanized Western Sikh diaspora. One of the things that attracted fans, especially from an older crowd otherwise hesitant to the content of the songs, was simply how Moosewala sang them. There was a very fresh creativity in his lyrics, in particular how he was able to take terms from very obscure rural Punjabi and combine it with Western themes (Moosewala even as a proud desi jatt had his inspirations from the West; in particular Tupac). Furthering the hype of his songs was how Moosewala avoided many stale cliches in Punjabi music and was very particular about the genres he sung in. For example, although he drank and didn’t shy away from it, not a single one of his lyrics mentioned drug or alcohol — in part because he didn’t sing within the genre of party-drinking Punjabi music, but also in part because the “gangster” image his music cultivated was not via actual gang activities (such as drug running) — but via the prism of “themes” that he specialized in and would find new ways to creatively talk about so as to not bore his audience. One of the big “themes” in Moosewala’s music, and my personal favorite, are his senti songs — the unreleased Dhokha, Aroma, and Better Now are all sentimental pinings of a lost love. Another popular theme for Moosewala was his “meta” songs — where he’d address his life, both his upbringing (295, Selfmade) as well as controversies surrounding him (Trend, Just Listen, Scapegoat). Out of all the themes he sang on, his favorite and the one that attracted the most attention throughout his life, was his passion for weapons and violence.
Part II — Badfella
This passion of Moosewala is what put him in hot water throughout much of his career, especially with political overseers. Gora talkshow hosts in Canada, would jump on fears of [already existing] Punjabi gang violence and call on “experts” to discuss the impact Moosewala would potentially have in their country. Punjabi elders everywhere saw his music as coming on a bit too strong and scratched their heads at the youth’s fascination with him. Many Indian commentators outside of Punjab gasped at the themes in his music and would point to it as a causal factor in Punjab’s current woes.
Yet anyone well seasoned in rural Punjab’s salt knew that Moosewala’s songs were not altogether an isolated phenomenon. It would take a bit of goading for my grandfather to reminisce on the times when roaming “groups” of Jatts would be perpetually at micro-war with one another brandishing their gandaase, sometimes perpetuated by the odd shotgun fire that would send someone to jail. My father would talk about the hot-blooded groups of youth in the next generation carrying hockey sticks against their rivals openly in the campuses of Punjabi colleges. People who have some image of Punjab as a pacifist cornucopia prior to the rise of XYZ factor (some would plug in “militancy”, some would plug in “drugs”, some would plug in “Moosewala) are frankly living in a fantasy. It’s not like such culture went unrecognized by Punjabi media; it takes a single viewing of Gugu Gill-Yograj Singh films, or lyrics from “classic” songs like Kabza or Dera Jatt Da, to put most of those fantasies further to rest. And this is just the violence between groups of rival young men; not to mention the violence that is a facet of rural Punjabi life in occurrences like land seizures, and in the many wars that have dotted its history.
So was Moosewala just following in the steps of his predecessors here? I would say that does a disservice to him — I can agree that not only was he reviving this type of mentality, and upping the ante by connecting it lyrically to more sophisticated (and automated) means of violence. That this perpetuated a contemporary subculture of violence is also hard to deny; I remember attending his concert as a happy fan in 2019, and then being bewildered to see the majority of the crowd fighting each other throughout the concert. Even as his fans, my friends and I had to admit that “maybe…his music does kind of excite people to become more aggressive” (although my father informed me that this was something he saw in concerts/weddings, functions of his time and before decades before Moosewala was born). Admittedly, if there’s any type of message an ardent fan of Moosewala would subconsciously take listening to his songs, it would be a violent one (although for many a Jat Sikh in the pind, this would already be a given as it was for their hockey-brandishing and gandaasa-brandishing forefathers).
The reflection on Moosewala as a genuine beacon of violence isn’t wholly negative — in fact, I’d argue that was one of his great traits as an artist. To take a seeming U-turn, it was one that (ironically) helped me in college during my research on Sikh history conceptualize my relationship to it. Whereas much of our modern history is narrated as a sanitized fairy tale of a “revolution against tyrants”, historical Sikh literature uncovers much of the warts and reveals the brusque way Khalsa warriors saw themselves — as agents of danga, outright translated as “violence”. Whereas modern PR has instructed young Sikhs to teach non-Sikh urbanites in their Western or Indian metros that the Sikh turban “is a symbol of virtue”, not all historical Sikh texts provide the same guarantee; instead suggesting that the distinctive bana of the Khalsa, with the royal turban and strapped with weapons, is a declaration of their warrior temperament akin to claws on a tiger.
Please note this is not to say that historical Sikh literature was all just morally vague; there were lines drawn for morally defunct behavior which in many cases is along similar lines we hold for the Khalsa today. But the constant cultivation of “virtue” has become exaggerated in the modern day. Many a modern turbaned Sikh man has probably experienced this from an aunty at Gurdwara who wishes her son was a “good boy” and kept his hair, or the mocking jibes one gets as a “Gyani” in the presence of fellow more dissident Punjabi boys. To philosophically capture the distinction in an admittedly shoddy manner — the modern “Gyani” archetype represents Nietzschean Christian morality of appealing to one’s virtue, whereas the historical “Singh” archetype is along the lines of Nietzschean master morality of a will to power.
Where does this come back to Sidhu Moosewala? To give one example, in his song Badfella (and others in his PBX1 album, released at the arguable peak of his musical career and when he was receiving a lot of media heat for “bad” songs), he turns the assumption of the virtuous pagg-wala-munda who uncles and aunties pine for an arranged marriage on its head; he outright says “assi change na insaan kude”, and discusses how his lifestyle is a violent one not conducive to what one may think of as “virtuous”, stable, or in other words, befitting a “changa munda”. Whether he realized it or not (and I do think, given his strong knowledge of Sikhi and Sikh history as shown in his interviews, it was in part intentional), this is to me an echo of the dangai Khalsa we see in our ancestors and their ancestral texts. Joining the Khalsa in the height of the misl era was not something universally seen as virtuous and stable; as we see from actual historical cases where fearful parents tried to prevent their children from joining, it was seen as a dangerous lifestyle only for those who wanted to die young in pursuit of a seemingly impossible pursuit of power. Of course, it goes without saying that the type of power each represents was very different, as the Khalsa fought for collective power which would be different than that sought by a gang; but the magic of Moosewala’s music was that the main facet of “gang life” focused on was its violent nature, which had that parallel. I was hardly the first to make the parallel either; a few friends of mine noted that his song Outlaw outright said “Tusi violent mainu dasde ho, oye saaleyo eh revolution aa”, and perhaps wasn’t intended as such but could be used to accompany many different historical Sikh forms of violent revolt. No wonder that when he sang his song during the farmer’s protest that was specifically on that topic, Panjab, (more on that later) that it was almost a natural progression for him.
In general, the brusque and dangerous attitude of Sidhu was a refreshing step to see as a turbaned Sikh breaking free of artificial bounds we now place on it and what it may represent within recently constructed social norms. The irony is that despite all this, in his personal life he truly did seem to be a “changa munda” — one who cared for his family, his friends, people around him, humble to his elders and his religion — something which showed authenticity in how he did this for himself and not for any external approval.
Part III — Just Listen
It’s easy to write off these coincidences simply as such and say that perhaps these associations are reflective more of what I (and others) projected them to be and less of what Sidhu intended. While that may be true (and we are certainly seeing a lot of that now in general) another inspiring aspect of Sidhu’s persona was his role as a Sardar (term used here for turbaned Sikh). Now, on the face of it, being a Sardar didn’t seem like much; Sidhu eschewed songs traditional singers often did where they explicitly choose to talk about the pride of their Dastar/Pagh/Sardari.
But his turban was a constant facet of his physical persona, one may even say the central feature especially with the distinctive wattan-wali style he wore. The wattan-wali is often tied in villages, and is distinguished by the “ruffled” layers of the pagh — both that and the option to not wear a fifty on the forehead were distinguishing marks of how the style of turban was most popular among Sikhs in rural Punjab. I remember seeing that style among some of the elders in my village when I visited; but to see it placed in the backdrop of the West so proudly and defiantly as Moosewala did was a fascinating juxtaposition. Additionally, Moosewala occasionally dropped subtle but punctuating hints of how important his identity as a turbaned Sikh was to him. In his video for Just Listen, which was emotional entry released as an angry response to his haters (admittedly something my friends and I initially rolled our eyes at as another example of his temperament), at one point while showing his positive impact on the youth, he shows himself taking a selfie with a young kesdhari child who changes from wearing a hood to a kesri parna. While this admittedly came off as haughty in the moment of the song’s release, I now appreciate it for how Moosewala was cognizant of how he was viewed among the youth and how even if it wasn’t explicitly mentioned it was something on the top of his mind, especially for younger fans. Another fantastic Moosewala moment came at a concert when he was singing a lyric that threw shade at Lilly Singh for making comments calling the turban a towel to appeal to a crowd — someone in the crowd makes a gesture saying his pagg is in his heart since he does not physically have one, which Moosewala mocks in front of the crowd saying everyone has that but that one needs to have a physical pagh on their head as well. Moosewala finishes off with an urge for Jattan de Munde to start tying their paghs— aware that the group he represented so often in his music, the proud Jatt Sikhs, are among those shedding the turban and cutting their hair at the highest rates, and outright calling it out for what it is.
A final thing to add here is that one of the biggest surprises I noticed when I saw Moosewala in concert for the first time was how physically imposing he was — he was at least 6’3, with a massive frame that gave him a huge stage presence. The “chhe chhe foot Jatt” meme is often a good bit of puffery, but not here — perhaps a good analogy for how I take Sidhu, especially now knowing that he is no longer at the young age of only 28.
To be continued…