Sidhu Moose Wala, who was shot dead on May 29, a few days after the release of his song The Last Ride, made Indian rap a rural affair. While he was criticised for promoting gun culture and machismo, the Punjabi rapper struck a chord in his home state – and with Punjabis around the world – by putting the focus on the burning issues of an agrarian society in the throes of transition.

Through his lyrics and delivery, which incorporated the styles of the region’s folk singers, 28-year-old Sidhu – the stage name of Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu – came to embody Punjab’s rurality and agrarian ethic. His music encouraged listeners to proudly accept agriculture as a profession and the village as home.

So it was not surprising that when farmers across the country began their prolonged demonstration against three contentious agricultural laws in August 2020, Sidhu supported them.

The beats of his song Panjab accompanied the tractors as farmers established a vast encampment on Delhi’s borders. “Keh keh ke badla lainda, ehnu Panjab kehnde aa!” said the refrain. “This is none other than the Punjab, which takes revenge with an open challenge.” It made an extraordinary impact on Sikh and Punjabi protesters.

His support for farmers continued in 2021 with his movie Moosa Jatt, which was primarily about the Minimum Support Price that the government offers on certain key crops and the struggle of cultivators to claim it in state-regulated markets.

As Indian agriculture contemplated its deep crisis, with small farmers and landless farm labourers being critical victims, Sidhu offered a voice to rural youth and strategy for survival. But even urban listeners were drawn to his exaltation of village life and agrarian symbols.

Mansa, the district from which Sidhu hailed, has been an epicenter of agrarian crisis in Punjab, hurt both by the environmental depredations of the Green Revolution and neo-liberal reforms in the agricultural sector.

The district is struggling with falling wheat yields, the depleting groundwater table, a pink bollworm infestation of the cotton crop, high cancer prevalence attributed to excessive fertiliser use, and suicides by farmers and farm labourers.

Even though Mansa has strong agricultural unions, the farming community lives in anxiety and uncertainty because of the socio-political upheavals. Drug use among the youth is high.

Sidhu’s songs reflected their predicament and their aspirations, while also presenting a somewhat heightened perspective of the Jatt worldview, steeped in rural social mores, a culture of guns and the rule of cash over life. He equated the pind or village to the place rappers in the West refer to as the “hood”.

In the pind, many youth believe they have no option but to emigrate – often illegally – to find work. Sidhu, a Jatt Sikh from a marginalised agricultural family, himself moved to Canada after graduating from college.

It was in Canada that he first came to attention in 2017 with a track titled So High. The next year, his debut album PBX 1 rose to 66 on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart. Even as he began to work between Canada, the United Kingdom and Mumbai, he nurtured his roots in his village.

His father, a daily wage labourer, initially had merely three acres of land. In a few years, he joined the army and with Sidhu Moose Wala’s earnings, they came to own around 60 acres of land.

It would be a mistake to imagine that Punjab’s villages are isolated from the winds of global culture. Their vibrant links to Euro-American power centres can be traced to Sikh soldiers fighting in the First World War. As a reward for their services, Punjabi soldiers were offered settlements in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

While some have linked Sidhu’s violent death with a gang war and the Punjab’s gun culture, which Moose Wala himself was not simply promoting, but also drawing attention to. This is evident by the visuals of newspaper headlines in the beginning or end of his songs, suggesting that he was giving real colour to one-dimensional news footage about violence.

While there is no doubt that Sidhu’s music glorified weapons, it is also a fact that he never called for the unjust use of guns. Sidhu’s references to guns take us back to the debates around the period of militancy in Punjab in the 1980s.

Much like Black Power idealogue Malcolm X in the US, Sidhu propagated the use of weapons only in self-defense. The individualism infused in his songs encouraged youngsters to rise against any injustice they were facing.

Credit: Sidhu Moose Wala @iSidhuMooseWala, via Twitter

It is also important to recognise that his aestheticisation of violence is embedded in the hyper-masculine milieu of the global culture industry. The musical form of rap especially reflects this through the male aggression of urban social minorities and the idea that social solidarity through kinship in gangs requires a competitive culture of respect.

In Sidhu’s song Homicide, this connection with the global rap aesthetic becomes a rather haunting self-fulfilling prophecy when he references the slain American rapper Tupac Shakur.

It is vital to acknowledge that Sidhu’s references to weapons cannot be an excuse to let the state government evade responsibility for the gun culture in the state. After all, this culture has systematically been developed under political patronage over the past decades.

Analysing Sidhu’s lyrics over his short career, a shift is discernible away from early songs about Jatt supremacy, hyper-masculinity and gun culture. Over time, he started singing about Punjab’s socio-political issues such as political prisoners. His admiration for militant figure Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was not hidden, but he had also been tagging the extremists as “Dharm de thekedar”, or self-proclaimed custodians of the faith.

Despite having been an active member of the Congress, running on a party ticket in February’s assembly elections, Sidhu offered to campaign in a Lok Sabha bye-election for the Shiromani Akalai Dal’s Simranjeet Singh Mann, who is vocal on issues related to Sikhism, federalism and political prisoners. Sidhu had his own explanation for every issue, which made him stand out from others on the music scene.

In a society constantly struggling to reclaim its hond (existence), Sidhu significantly contributed to enlarging the soundscape for the Punjabi language and Punjabiyat. This was also reflected at his cremation, where people across the caste, class, gender, profession, religion, and region joined his family for the last rites.

Author Aarish Chabra described Sidhu Moose Wala as being “somewhere between a pop star and folk icon, between a rebellious truth-teller and a new-age influencer”. His departure came as a shock not for people from the Indian section of Punjab and its diaspora but also for the Punjabi people of Pakistan where had he promised to go for a concert.

Harinder Happy and Shivam Mogha are PhD scholars at JNU who participated in the farmers’ protest 2020-’21.