The music video for Sidhu Moose Wala’s song B-Town starts with the rapper getting into a Cadillac then driving through downtown Brampton, Ont. A lyric says, “Geetan’ch street’an nu rep karda” (I represent the streets in my songs). The Toronto suburb forms the landscape for the song, a homage to the city the musician considered a second home. The Toronto Raptors insignia and drone shots of the GO Train in the video signal the hometown pride of Sidhu Moose Wala, who found global stardom after immigrating to Canada.
The rapper, born Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, was fatally shot at age 28 on May 29 while driving near his native village of Moosa in India’s Punjab state in a car with two associates. Punjab’s state government had downgraded his security detail a day earlier. Mr. Sidhu had recently joined the political fray and unsuccessfully contested elections as a candidate for India’s principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress.
The singer was killed because of gang rivalry, according to Indian police, which probably had ties to Canada. The assailants fired 30 rounds of bullets at the vehicle and Mr. Sidhu was declared dead on arrival at a hospital. The two others with him in the car survived their injuries.
Mr. Sidhu is credited with pushing the envelope of Punjabi hip-hop by combining conventional Punjabi pop music with trap. “He was our Tupac,” said Nick Chowlia, Vancouver-based musician and radio host. “It was the strength of his writing that made him so popular.”
In his brief but meteoric career, he racked up nearly three billion views on YouTube. Seven of his songs have more than 100 million views each, the most popular being Old Skool, which has more than a quarter-billion views. In six years, he wrote, produced and performed on three full studio albums and one Extended Play. Several songs from these albums made it to the Top 100 charts in India, Canada, the U.K. and New Zealand.
Critics have called out Mr. Sidhu’s lyrics for glorifying gun culture and gang violence. In 2019, the City of Surrey, B.C, asked the organizers of a music festival to drop Mr. Sidhu’s performance based on an RCMP public safety assessment. The video for his 2018 song Badfella shows him dominating white police officers in Brampton. In 2020, he was charged with breaking the law in India after he fired an AK-47 assault rifle at a gun range during India’s stringent COVID-19 lockdown. He responded by writing another song, expressing pride at the charges against him.
At the same time, he was famous for his philanthropy in Punjab. During that same lockdown, he was assisting the state police in COVID-19 awareness campaigns. Mr. Sidhu lived within those paradoxes. He would rail against racism in Canada, but assert his identity as a Jatt – a dominant land-owning caste of Sikhs in Punjab.
“It was all the same person,” said Daljit Ami, a writer and former journalist based in Punjab. “His music was about asserting his individual power. Sometimes asserting power calls for shooting down your enemies, sometimes it calls for charity. In both cases, Sidhu saw himself as all-powerful. He had to be the one dispensing justice.”
Mr. Ami added, “now think about this assertion of power from the point of view of someone who is powerless. Imagine a student or worker in Brampton. People who found a release for their indignation through his music will be feeling a great sense of loss [over of his death].”
Mr. Sidhu was born in Moosa village in Mansa district in the north Indian state of Punjab on June 11, 1993. Around the age of 11, he was introduced to the music of Tupac Shakur. That started a love affair with hip-hop and the iconography of gangster rap that would accompany him his whole life.
In 2016, he graduated Guru Nanak Dev Engineering College in Ludhiana, Punjab, and moved to Canada in December of that year at his parents’ insistence. “My destiny took me to Canada,” he had said in a 2017 interview. He came on a student visa and enrolled at Sheridan College in Brampton, which would later feature prominently in his song lyrics and videos.
In Brampton, his music career took off. Thousands of miles from home, he went back to his roots to pick the stage name “Sidhu Moose Wala,” which translates to “Sidhu, the man from Moosa.”
“I wanted Moosa to go wherever Sidhu went in this world,” he once told a journalist. It was in that intersection, between Moosa and Brampton, between being an immigrant in Canada and being the son of a Punjabi farmer, that Sidhu Moose Wala created his art.
His story is part of local legend in Brampton. When Manpreet Singh, 29, came to Canada in 2017 as a student, Sidhu Moose Wala’s breakout hit G Wagon was on all his friends’ lips.
“Some of my friends knew Sidhu before he was famous. He lived in a basement apartment with some other boys his age, which is a rite of passage for all international students here. He was just like us and within a year he became a star. For me, it’s his struggle that makes him such an icon.”
Gursewak Dhillon, a rapper based in Abbotsford, B.C., remembers meeting Mr. Sidhu not long after he had arrived. “Someone introduced me to him, saying this is a new kid from Punjab. He seemed so shy and reserved. He didn’t look like a rapper the first time I met him. But he transformed when he started singing. He really came alive.”
Mr. Sidhu soon gained a huge following. He rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s biggest musicians and counted global superstars such as Drake among his 8.5 million Instagram followers.
The representation of Brampton in his music never stopped. Arshdeep Singh Kang, another Brampton resident who came to Canada in 2017 as a student, said, “Our city’s portrayal in Canadian media is not great. Whenever you see Brampton in the news, it’s always for a homicide or theft or crime of some sort. It was nice for people to see their city in music videos rather than news clips.”
Mr. Sidhu’s music has a particular potency for South Asian newcomers who are exploited by their employers, Mr. Kang added. “For immigrant workers, the words of Sidhu Moose Wala were a source of power. He was popular because he preached self-respect and questioned the system.”
For others, such as Manpreet Singh, Mr. Sidhu was a career role model. “Because of Sidhu, the rest of us think it is possible for immigrants to make a living through our creative pursuits, said Mr. Singh, who has a day job as a truck driver, but wants to make it big as a music video director in Brampton. “After his death, I am more committed than ever to my art. All you have to do is not give up.”