"I grew up on the crime side,
The New York times side."
Wu-Tang Clan, a raging hip-hop group of the early ’90s wrote these lyrics as part of what a lot of Rap aficionados consider a cult song. This song has disturbing elements of the lives of a lot of black men who grew up in broken households and often resorted to consumption or peddling of drugs to survive the hood life. To call rap music or hip-hop an art form that originated and got popular in the dark underbelly of American society is neither misleading nor an exaggeration. This art form is represented mostly by black artists who have had a difficult childhood and looked at hip-hop and rap music as an escape from their existential extremities as well as their poor financial conditions. The only successful anomaly in this world of music is EMINEM, a white male with a massive global following.
The bits and pieces of Hip Hop came together in the Bronx borough of New York City. In the era of the early 1970s, times were tougher than usual for the poorer parts of urban America. The dirty and crime-infested neighbourhoods of New York took birth to an art form Rap Artist that is considered cathartic by a lot of young people who come from nothing.
Sidhu Moosewala, one of the biggest proponents of rap music in the Punjabi music industry was killed on 29th May, 2022 near his village Moosa in Punjab’s Mansa district. I heard about Sidhu three years back when I was checking out a Marshall speaker in an electronics store. The sales attendant played Sidhu’s song “Old Skool” on the Stanmore model speakers at a volume that could permanently damage the ear drums of all the customers who were inside the store. To say that I was hitched to the addictive bass and masculine language of Old Skool would be an understatement.
"Ho mukeya ni.. aah sun!
Ho vadde taame jaame aa ni
Aage pichhe maame ae ni
Gabru di check kar taur balliye
Mithiye ni ranna wala ankha te guna wala
Jatt tera leke aaya daud balliye
Ni kar gaur balliye."
The whole song is an unadulterated manifestation of the aspirational Punjabi youth that is aware of its masculinity and doesn’t shy away from flaunting either its “Kaal Range rover” or its double barrel rifle or as it is popularly known in Punjab; “Dunali”. As I played this song on a loop in my car while I drove every day to work, I feel no shame in admitting that it gave me the necessary gusto to handle the uncertainties of my entrepreneurial world.
Sidhu Moosewla went on to deliver some of the biggest hits in Punjabi music industry in next two years with songs like Same Beef in which he collaborated with another Punjabi hip-hop artist Bohemia. Same Beef on You tube has more that 465 million views. The imagery in this song too is similar, unfortunately. Guns, cars, and a lot of toxic masculinity.
The other unmissable theme in this song is the hustle and the unwavering yearning to stay apart from the crowd while almost dissing the other rappers in the game who according to Moosewala churned out the same stuff in all their music albums.
In the middle of the summer of year 2021, came a single from Moosetape that perhaps would be the most heard song by Moosewala. It is markedly different from the other blockbuster songs by the late artist in its theme and its depth. 295 became the anthem for Punjabi community living in India and abroad with more than 260 million hits in less than 10 months of its launch. Its painful para depicting a sensitive relationship between a child and his father who reminds him of his unwavering support and the pride he took in his achievements was played all over the reels on Instagram when Balkaur Singh; Sidhu Moosewala’s father thanked all the fans that turned up on Sidhu’s funeral. The visual in which Balkaur Singh took off his turban to thank the hordes of people who cried along with him as Sidhu went up in flames compounds the pain that erupts in your heart with the background playing
"Bhavein aukhi hoyi ae crowd tere te
Bolde ne aevein saale loud tere te
Par ikk gal rakhi meri yaad puttra
Aah baapu tera barha aa proud tere te."
I spoke to a few music critics and journalists while writing this piece about the song 295 and all of them had the same observation to make. That the nature and the theme of 295 was truly in the spirit of hip-hop world that talked about the insufferable nature of the competitive world. It was finally Sidhu at his peak when he used 295 to talk about what truly ails this country. A spirit that has remained alive even in Hip-Hop comes from its birthplace; USA.
Sidhu’s journey from the gun wielding, range rover driving Jatt Sikh to a perceptive man who talks about the fake news factory that is run my mainstream media in this country is surprising if not shocking. It is even rousing to note that this transition took place in a period of one year while Sidhu himself was no more than 27 years old. The constant urge to hustle, improve and succeed resonates even in 295 as Sidhu casually croons that when you go up all you would encounter is hate from the world. It was never too late to remind all of us that it is indeed pretty lonely at the top.
Sidhu traversed a journey through his music, a journey which also was his personal travel to discover and perhaps rediscover his own identity. The song “SYL” that was released post his gruesome murder bears witness to this. SYL (Satluj Yamuna Link As the name of song suggests, SYL is based on Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal – a key issue connected to the water rights of Punjab. In the song, Moosewala also raises the issue of Sikh political prisoners and justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. All of these are emotive issues for Punjabis, especially Sikhs. The representation or even glorification of Khalistani militants like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, two convicts in former CM Beant Singh assassination case — Balwant Singh Rajoana and Jagtar Singh Hawara. Pictures of Sikh militants Davinder Pal Bhullar, Gurdeep Singh Khaira, Lakhwinder Singh, Jagtar Singh Tara and several others irked the Govt. which later asked You tube to remove the song from its website. The recent anti-farm law protests that saw a massive participation by the Sikh farmers also find their presence in the song. The fact that a large section of print media and TV media called the Sikh protestors, Khalistani elements wasn’t lost on the Punjabis and the angst due to this slander was adequately represented in the sing SYL
Despite the problematic discourse in the song, it isn’t hard to understand that the relentless pushing of the Sikh community by what many Sikh intellectuals call the Delhi cabal is a central theme of the song SYL. It is not random that Sidhu picked up this 40-year-old water dispute which has irked the Punjabi farmers who have been complaining about the depleting water table in Punjab that is killing their agricultural output, we have seen the gradual re-emergence of Bhindranwale in the Punjabi discourse while many people paste his face on the back of their cars. Such incidents aren’t knee-jerk reactions by certain elements in Punjab. It reflects the larger threat that Sikhs see to their identity in India. Sidhu using these emotive elements in his song merely gave a representation to this acrimony that is seeping into the Sikh society against an insensitive state. While it is indeed true that the canvas was indeed myopic In this song but you can’t lay the entire blame on a 28-year-old pop star who was merely asserting his own bruised identity. Sidhu like many of us was a product of his time and circumstances.
While it is said that Sidhu had more than a score of his finished songs which are yet to be released it will be interesting to see the themes he chose in them. Tragically we will never see him live again, curling his scanty moustache while slapping his thigh.
(Amit Bamzai is a Pune-based Kashmiri entrepreneur with deep-rooted interests in Kashmiri literature and music.)