A 27-year-old rapper’s killing in broad daylight has put an Indian state on edge. Police are investigating the murder of Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, popularly known as Sidhu Moosewala, who was shot dead on Sunday in his hometown in Punjab state. Ten unidentified gunmen reportedly shot him at least 24 times while he was driving his car.
In 2020, Moosewala was among the Guardian’s “best new artists” of the year. His genre-defining music combined traditional Punjabi music and hip-hop. His songs were political and took him into politics. He ran for a seat in Punjab’s Legislative Assembly last year, and was a prominent supporter of the Indian farmers’ 2020–2021 protests against the government’s controversial farm laws.
The world’s largest democracy has the second-highest number of firearms, the majority of which are illegal. Guns are intrinsically linked to Indian culture, where even revellers like to pull the trigger for a celebratory shot in the air. Punjab, Moosewala’s home state, has one of India’s highest gun ownership rates, and the rapper himself often displayed guns in his music videos.
His father blamed government negligence for his murder, especially since the Punjab government had downsized the security cover of over 400 other VIPs, including Moosewala’s. Hashtags such as #justiceforsidhumoosewala are gaining traction.
On Tuesday, as thousands thronged Moosewala’s village for his funeral, chanting anti-Punjab government slogans and calling for death of his killers. As anger foments on the ground, Moosewala’s music and its politics – which have divided people in India – are coming to the fore.
India has the world’s fifth-highest number of deaths by gun violence, and Moosewala has been labelled a “poster child” of glorifying gun culture through his music. Moosewala’s love for guns was clear in his music. His 2021 song Me and My Girlfriend is about him and his “girlfriend” from Russia: the AK-47 he is holding throughout the video.
He is among several musicians in the region who faced crackdowns, including arrests, for displaying guns in music. Moosewala himself faced a series of police cases for publicly using guns in 2020, but was never convicted. Later, he released a song where he referred to the police complaints as badges of honour.
Rajesh Gill, a sociology professor in the state-run Panjab University, told VICE World News that the “shocking and painful” news of Moosewala’s murder is among many in India that highlight a culture of gun violence, popularised even more by music that glorifies guns. “Use of guns and violence, be it in songs or real life, shows toxic masculinity and patriarchy in the society, where such behaviour is celebrated,” she said.
Gill also added that guns are seen as a caste and class status in India, along with power and privilege. Moosewala often referred to his own dominant caste in his music too.
“We as a society have developed an appetite for violence,” Gill added. “It’s reached a point where it doesn’t affect us so much.”
To his friends, family and fans, concerns of using weapons in music is misguided. Stalinveer, an Indian producer and Moosewala’s friend, told The Indian Express that the criticism stems from a “western understanding” of how guns are used, like in the U.S.
Jaskaran Sandhu, the co-founder of Baaz, a media outlet for the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora in Canada where Moosewala started his career, called the criticism “unfair.”
“His reference to weapons is often steeped in rebellion and a challenge to oppression, rather than senseless gang culture or violence.” Sandhu told VICE World News.
The criticism, he added, overshadows Moosewala’s otherwise larger legacy.
Official data shows that Punjab’s 28 million population have at least four times more weapons than even the Punjab police. India also has a history of anti-Sikh riots, which, Sandhu said, contributes to why Punjab has high gun ownership. “You can’t just look at [Moosewala’s] songs and lyrics in isolation,” he added. “Weapons as a form of defence have a deep history in Punjabi and Sikh culture and customs.”
Fans are currently drawing the irony in Moosewala’s last song, The Last Ride, which was released on May 15. It’s reportedly a tribute to Tupac, whom Moosewala counted among his inspirations. Tupac was similarly shot dead in his car in 1996 at the age of 25. A part of the song’s lyrics says, “Everything is revealed in the eyes of the young boy/ That the funeral will take place in its youth.”
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