Ferocious storms, overlapping as well as self-contradictory, seemed to blow over Punjab and the world of music when the news came that Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu (popularly known as Sidhu Moosewala) had died in a brutal, yet cowardly, shooting near his village in the Mansa district. The scale of the outpouring of grief over his death in India generally, but especially in Punjab was massive; no other individual death in living memory in Punjab has provoked such mass grief.
Public grief was exacerbated by the fact that Moosewala, who symbolized bravery and talent, was cut down in his prime. Such tragic losses evoke many powerful emotional responses. The sense of loss and grief over his death went beyond Punjab and India; it brought about a global response that no observer of Punjab’s cultural life could have imagined. When I sat down that evening to watch the BBC news bulletin, I did not expect to see any news about the death because the BBC in the UK rarely reports events from India, certainly not in depth. To my complete surprise, the bulletin covered the news of Moosewala’s death with the sensitivity and respect it deserved.
UK print media also gave extensive coverage to the news. In 2020, the Guardian had described him as one of the top 50 new artists. This achievement for the 26-year-old Moosewala was especially stunning as he had truly started his musical career only three years ago when his track So High topped the 2017 charts — the track now has 500 million views. He was also popular in Pakistan.
Punjab has produced many talented singers with huge fan-following in India and in the Indian/South Asian diaspora, but Moosewala crossed all boundaries. He was a global phenomenon of exceptional talent especially in relating to the younger generations. A Punjabi neighbor of mine involved in the construction business told me that while he was driving recently with two young English workers he played them one of Moosewala’s tracks. His companions told him that they did not understand any of the lyrics but that the beat was mesmerizing, and they insisted on repeating the same track for the next hour.
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His collaborations with rappers in the UK and the US put him in a different league. He was apparently in the process of making albums with some of the most influential musicians in the genre — the Canadian rapper Drake and the Nigerian singer Burna Boy. Such collaborations would have been unique and would have raised the international profile of Bhangra, as well as of Punjabi language and culture.
Both Drake and Burna Boy have publicly mourned his death. Burna Boy, a Grammy award-winning musician, shared the unfinished collaboration with Moosewala. “We will complete our mixtape in heaven,” he captioned a photo, and posted commemorative messages on Twitter.
There were two distinct phases in his short and meteoric career (despite occasional overlaps). He seemed to be moving towards a thematic break. The earlier phase appeared to glorify guns and the gun culture, and his lyrics were typically casteist and macho. This aspect of his work has rightly attracted criticism. However, critical evaluation of his musical journey based entirely on the earlier phase would be flawed because it does not capture his thematic shift. He was dynamic and very perceptive. In the latter phase, he wrote thoughtful songs about social, cultural and political issues and song them with great passion. Most well-known of these is his track 295 which has attracted 145 million viewers. His track Panjab (My Motherland) was released as an anthem for the farmers’ protests in 2020-21, which he actively supported.
Another sensitive track that displays his softer side is Dear Maa which pays respect to his mother. It displays an understated but very feminine style in which he is total identification with his mother: “Mom, I always feel as if I am exactly like you. I want to write your name, Charan Kaur, on my chest.”
What was uniquely admirable about him was that along with being an international star, he was deeply rooted in his village and its lands. Unlike other Punjabi singers who move to Chandigarh or Mumbai when they become rich, he stayed in his village. The ecology of his village was the source of his passion, inspiration and creativity. This is captured in his beautifully haunting track Tibeyan Da Putt (son of the sand dunes) where the sand dunes signify the landscape of his beloved semi-arid Malwa. His strong relationships with his village and the farming community have inspired many young men not only in Punjab but in Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh also to re-engage with the agricultural life they had abandoned in the pursuit of a false urban identity.
He was constantly growing and looking at the future direction of his career. I have no doubt that he would have taken Punjabi music to new heights, both internationally and thematically. His legacy is worthy of preservation. There could not be another Moosewala. A true tribute to him would be to construct an imaginatively-conceived museum of music in the village of Mussa which could contain a collection to commemorate his life. Such a museum would become a shrine to music-lovers all over the world. Accompanying this museum should be a generously-funded music academy of the highest international standards to encourage the musical talent of Punjab. Punjab, bruised as it is, needs musical therapy for its cultural and spiritual rejuvenation.
(The writer is Professor Emeritus Oxford Brookes Business School)