Sidhu Moose Wala’s Conflicting but Significant Musical Legacy

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Sidhu Moose Wala’s Conflicting but Significant Musical Legacy

Illustration: Arati Gujar

One of the most subtly evocative scenes in Imtiaz Ali’s cult classic Jab We Met is where Geet asks Aditya “Tum itni achi Punjabi kese bol lete ho”. Aditya responds by telling Geet that his mother is Punjabi, but his hold on the language never quite materialised because his roots, somewhere along the way, lost grip. While both Geet and Aditya were born to Punjabi parents, only one of them talks, behaves and functions like one. The scene perfectly sums up the social dilemma of an urban, educated, middle-class Punjabi who must find his voice within the milieu of modern music and the new-age Punjabi icons that industry has begun to generate in the last decade. Sidhu Moose Wala, who was gunned down yesterday in his hometown of Mansa, became my anchor when I went looking for that place to rest my identity in.

Anyone who listened to Moose Wala’s music or followed the news knew that he wasn’t the kind of person one could idolise. In fact, the singer’s brushes with the law, his tendency to provoke on a regular basis and the many skirmishes that precede this violent death, have in a way, foretold the artist’s end. Moose Wala was no stranger to controversy. From allegations of illegally possessing arms, promoting gun culture and his infamously short-lived political career with the Punjab Congress, the singer endured his fair share of ups and downs. This, however, isn’t about his political legacy…

Sidhu Moose Wala became my anchor when I went looking for that place to rest my identity in.

This is about his musical legacy. In Moose Wala we had a Punjabi artist who spoke to both the hinterland and the upper middle-class, educated Punjabis yearning to re-embrace their culture from a distance. Of course, there were artists before Moose Wala – the Honey Singhs and the Baadshahs who had left a mark in the Punjabi music industry. But their music, though catchy and addictive, didn’t stir the emotional pot with a sense of political and youth-led rebellion the way Moose Wala’s music did. Crucially, the late singer was always a better writer, ferociously prolific with the pen compared to his singing abilities and his personality. Punjabi cinema and music is still driven by the culture of cultism, a despotic devotion for the star acts and it is what also normalises the unique power they hold over those below them and those above them on the ladder of class and politics. It’s why Moose Wala’s political foray even made sense.

In Moose Wala we had a Punjabi artist who spoke to both the hinterland and the upper middle-class Punjabis yearning to re-embrace their culture from a distance.

His song Jatt Da Muqaabla was an instant global hit, followed by a series of chartbusters – So High which has a whopping 481 million views on YouTube and Tochan featuring Sonia Maan with 252 million views. A commercial and critical success, the singer, as is usually the case in a beguiling small but powerful industry, remained close to his roots. His appearance in the music video of AP Dhillon’s megahit Brown Munde showed him flexing his handlebar moustache as he stood in front of giant tractors in a farm. It was a statement song, and a curious but ultimately iconic visual cameo in the wake of the farmers’ movement.

Moose Wala’s music was, of course, problematic. From verses on violence to gun use in music videos, to casteism through the assertion of a toxic brand of masculine pride there were aspects to his stardom that did not register as universally as social media stats proclaim. But in terms of reach and global popularity, his influence cannot be denied for the young singer had become iconic enough to be the centre of a state’s often chaotic and unpredictable political merry-go-round.

Moose Wala wasn’t the best of them, but his talent, his music meant a lot to many of us.

It was when I, a twenty-something disillusioned man, who grew up listening to EDM, western pop and rap, found myself jamming to Jatt Da Muqaabla in the middle of a summer night in 2018, that I realised the impact of Moose Wala’s music. The song itself qualifies for the problematic category, and yet you can’t stop but hum to its emphatic beats and diction. It’s what made it okay to play Punjabi songs at get-togethers in the NCR area, and pushed me to proudly share my Punjabi heritage with friends who didn’t even know about it. The political tussle and the blame game over his death will spill over, hopefully into things lesser violent than the young singer’s death. It points to a galling lack of moderation and cultural criticism in the Punjabi cultural sphere that the state continues to be afflicted with violence, drugs and a toxic brand of masculinity. Moose Wala wasn’t the best of them, but his talent, his music meant a lot to many of us. At least in a musical sense, he was one Jatt for whom there was indeed no muqaabla.

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