I can still remember how I felt when I first heard Sidhu Moose Wala’s music. It felt fresh, exciting and innovative.
When he arrived on the music scene five years ago with the uplifting track “So High” produced by Byg Byrd, it was the perfect marriage between the traditional sound of our Punjabi forefathers and modern hip-hop.
With sharp wit, boisterous and raw lyrics, and a melodic singing voice, the rapper/singer, born Shubdeep Singh Sidhu, captured the hearts of doting fans in Canada and abroad.
The year he debuted, I remember playing his music on repeat for all my friends — Punjabi and non-Punjabi — at an annual Christmas party (with a distinctively Punjabi flavour).
I remember the concierge desk worker asking us to turn down the music around 1 a.m. Coincidentally, he too was of Punjabi descent. He broke out into a few bhangra moves to Sidhu’s music, before making his request.
It was just a small example of how widespread and prevalent Sidhu’s music had become.
Of course, my friends and I were not the only ones who shared this opinion. In Punjabi communities across the Greater Toronto Area, his music could be heard blaring out of every car speaker, Indian restaurant, and hall party that I went to. He was the topic of conversation in newspapers, blogs and TikTok videos. He catapulted to fame.
Beyond his music, fans gravitated to his inspiring “underdog” story. As a young student from a poor village in Mansa, India, Sidhu immigrated to Brampton with the hopes of landing a job in electric engineering, and creating a better life for himself and his family back home.
Sidhu studied hard and provided for himself, but he still found time to pursue his calling in music. Against all odds, with limited industry connections or resources, Sidhu achieved his goal of becoming a famous musical artist.
Like Sidhu, my parents immigrated to Waterloo from India at a young age. Despite having university degrees, they found it difficult in the early ’80s to find employment in their respective fields.
Upon arrival, they worked part-time jobs in convenience stores and factories. Through hard work and sheer discipline, my father was able to move up in the automotive company that he worked in, and in just a few short years, become the assistant plant manager overseeing more than 500 employees.
This was no small feat: a turban-wearing Sikh running a major automotive plant was unheard of during those days. Many of his co-workers, who were predominately white, did not approve of his promotion.
He encountered intense racism and received death threats on a regular basis. I remember my dad recounting stories of co-workers tailing him home, calling him a “towel head,” and writing racist words in the men’s bathroom. Against all odds, my dad stayed the course and continued to achieve greater milestones in his career.
As a turban-wearing Sikh, I felt proud seeing Sidhu achieve the heights he did, all the while staying true to himself and his Sikh identity. He refused to cut his hair and remove his turban despite the promise of garnering more sponsorships and mainstream success.
And he continued to speak out against social injustices, including political corruption, the Indian farmer protests in 2021, and police brutality in Punjab, even when faced with opposition from powerful voices within politics and media.
Growing up in Waterloo, I faced my own share of struggles. During primary school, I was one of the only students in the area that wore a turban. I was bullied incessantly by kids in the schoolyard and excluded from playing games.
In my teenage years, things only got worse. During one particular incident, my older brother and I were physically assaulted by a racist construction worker, in full view of our entire high school.
In another jarring incident, a teacher referred to my turban as a “pom pom” and threatened to remove it.
After coming home on a few occasions crying, I remember having a painful conversation with my dad and asking him if I could cut my hair.
My dad sat me down and said, “I will support you in whatever you do. But just remember, today it’s your turban. Tomorrow, it could be your glasses or your clothes that they make fun of. You have to stand up and be proud of who you are.”
I am heartened to see prominent turban-wearing Sikhs like Sidhu achieve mainstream success and acceptability. He helped normalize the Sikh turban in mainstream culture, and in doing so, acted as a role model for Punjabi kids worldwide.
Critics will, undoubtedly, have an opinion regarding the lyrics in Sidhu’s music and his outspoken stance on politics. However, like other luminaries of our time, Sidhu was a complex person with many sides, which is reflective of who we all are as individuals.
To simply dismiss him would ignore all of the positive impacts that he had on an entire generation of new immigrants, Punjabi youth and the entire diaspora.
He made kids feel proud to say that they were Punjabi, and his outsized presence in popular culture forced those outside of the community to learn more about Sikhism.
This is Sidhu’s legacy — the outpouring of grief that you see around the world is reflective of all the lives that he touched. RIP to one of the greatest to ever do it … “Dil da ni mada, tera Sidhu Moose Wala.”
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