The Punjabi Wave
The Punjabi Wave

How and why Punjabi music has become one of the fastest growing music genres not just in India but across the globe

Outside a popular kebab joint in Delhi’s posh Defence Colony market, a gentleman—presumably the owner—handles the cash counter. Next to him sits a mid-sized speaker blaring songs all evening for him to groove to. On this particular day, as my friend and I wait for our tikka roomali rolls, a song with an inescapable hook starts playing. It’s one of those pieces that catches you off guard immediately. A frantic Shazam search later, we learn that it’s called ‘With You’ by AP Dhillon. We quickly bookmark it for future looping and move on.  

 

Few years ago, when the country was  slowly opening  up to a post-lockdown reality, every wedding, every party, every social gathering of any sort, would have as its crescendo a rendition of, again, AP Dhillon’s ‘Brown Munde’, accompanied by expressive singalongs and passionate bhangra moves. Another song that moved me greatly in recent years is ‘Pasoori’, Ali Sethi and Shae Gill’s bittersweet anthem of yearning from across the border that clogged the airways for months on end. Go back a few years more, and it was impossible—for what seemed like an eternity—to leave your house without your aural senses being suffused with yet another playthrough of ‘Lamberghini’ and its magnetic melodies.  

 

Punjabi music, really, is everywhere today: from college kids routinely blasting Sidhu Moosewala, Honey Singh, Prabh Deep from shrill cellphone speakers on the metro or local trains to Punjabi singers and rappers performing to rapturous global and diaspora audiences at festivals in the US, the UK, and Canada. In clubs, in pubs and restaurants, at your local neighbourhood ‘cultural functions’ starring messy remixes and excitable DJs. TV ads and radio jingles trying to hop on to the bandwagon. Uber drivers fighting off sleep demons on the night shift with support from rugged trap beats and aggressive verses of rap and poetry by Punjabi rappers. It has always had an outsize influence on Bollywood music of course, where a rather more approachable form of the language, an amalgamation of Punjabi and Hindi, has been the prime currency for some time. Some of Bollywood’s greatest songs have been courtesy of Punjabi singers, Sukhwinder Singh and Gurdaas Mann coming up as immediate examples.  

Punjabi singer and actor Diljit Dosanjh, at his landmark performance at the Coachella festival last year in California, assured the audience that it’s totally fine if they don’t understand the words. All they have to do is match the vibe. He followed his words up with a rousing, triumphant war cry: “Punjabi aa gaye Coachella oyeee!”—Yo! The Punjabis have arrived (at Coachella)!  

 

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Diljit Dosanjh's fans at his Coachella performance from 2023

 

Before diving further into this fascinating world, let’s  try to pin down what Punjabi music really means. It’s a fluid, umbrella movement at best, rather than a uniform scene with strict, self-limiting style constraints. Underground hip hop scenes, trap, commercial rap, electronica, dance music, reggae, R&B, pop, bhangra, folk—they all find place of purpose here, floating around in various P&C’s, a creative mix-and-match fusion with, always, gleeful chorus hooks and underlying messages of rebellion, pride, defiance, and identity. And much more besides. 

 

While there’s plenty of flirting with the mainstream—artists routinely cross over into Bollywood and find great success—Punjabi music has also cultivated a space of its own just outside of this cannibalistic commercial space. The monster hiding under the bed (aka Bollywood) tends to eat up all emerging underground and regional music movements in the country, bringing them into the mainstream fold and sanitising them for a diverse audience. And still, Punjabi music has retained its sense of identity despite the intermingling, the regular flings with Bollywood. Its audacious, independent spirit of chutzpah and defiance has remained intact.  

 

Punjabi’s already boom popularity  in India was helped along in the last five to six years with the arrival of  music streaming services which made the music accessible to everyone, everywhere. It also became a big factor in its growing reach across the world. According to statistics released by Spotify a few weeks ago to celebrate their five years in India, two of their fastest growing editorial playlists were Punjabi. Hot Hits Punjabi grew by 10,000% and Punjabi 101 grew by 1400%  largely on account of new international audience. Of the top 10 most streamed music on the platform last year, four were Punjabi songs.  

 

In 2022, Sidhu Moose Wala’s Moosetape was the most streamed album of the year, while AP Dhillon’s song ‘Excuses’ got the most hits. In fact, per reports, the Punjabi music industry is five times bigger than the next biggest non-Bollywood music industry in the country. In an interview last year in the Indian Express, the head of music at Spotify revealed that they keep an eye out for trends emerging in the cities of Ludhiana and Chandigarh, since those songs often end up being big hits internationally. 

 

Wave after wave of talented Punjabi singers and musicians have all received wide acclaim over the years—from Daler Mehndi to Sukhwinder Singh or Bally Sagoo to the likes of  AP Dhillon, Diljit Dosanjh, Honey Singh, Badshah, and Jasleen Royal, who have all become household names to varying degrees. It’s an assembly line of remarkable talents, each with their committed following racking up big numbers on YouTube and audio streaming platforms. An artist like Parmish Varma, too, has charted his own course—he started off directing videos and has, over the years, branched out into acting and music. Verma has built an impressive career in the Punjabi film industry, all while finding space for himself in the hip hop and pop music scenes. It’s an exciting time for Verma, and so too for many others like him as they seek to build upon their art and expand their loyal fanbases.  

 

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Late Sidhu Moose Wala performs during day 3 of Wireless Festival 2021 at Crystal Palace on September 12, 2021 in London, England

 

The primary sounds that we, the audience, get to experience originate from underground hip hop movements. The late Sidhu Moose Wala, for instance, was on the path to international stardom before his untimely and unfortunate killing in 2022. Honey Singh, who burst on to the scene in the early 2010s, could perhaps be cited as a breakout artist from the Punjabi hip hop scene, while his contemporaries—among them the immensely popular Badshah, who’s made a space for himself in Bollywood today—found countrywide success in the years to follow. There are parallel movements happening in Canada and the UK—both places having strong Sikh/Punjabi diaspora communities—with someone like Karan Aulja, an Indian artist from Canada, emerging as a popular name who ends up collaborating with Indian artists often. 

 

The roots of Punjabi hip hop can reasonably be traced all the way back to 2002, when Pakistani-American rapper Bohemia released Vich Pardesan De, widely considered the first Punjabi hip hop record. Afterwards, a movement began to gestate in India on the margins, away from the mainstream. The thing with rap music is that it requires minimal capex; anyone can download a beat online and spit out some rancid bars on top of it. It can be all very DIY. Mumbai rapper Naezy, for instance, told me in an interview for the Rolling Stone a few years ago that he made the video for his first single on his iPad. Soon after, mobile internet became ridiculously cheap, allowing artists to spread their music far and wide without the assistance of the culture press. Social media was a democratising force for this music. So while there was a growing underground rock and electronica scene in India that exploded in the mid-2000s among the privileged middle-class—the film Rock On!! (sic) released in 2008, a reliable indicator that the rock movement had caught fire, given that Bollywood jumped in—a diverse hip hop scene was still brewing on the fringes. Underground rap battles, b-boying, DIY recordings, it was all happening away from everyone’s gaze; they were turned away at gigs, profiled for their appearance and the way they spoke. Something was happening, and it was blissfully ignored by the culturally influential classes.  

 

The rise of Honey Singh, a controversial and polarising figure who shot to fame in the early 2010s following the release of his album International Villager, coincided with a sustained growth of hip hop and underground Punjabi music in the country. By the mid-2010s, the ‘desi hip hop’ movement, as it was christened, was in full swing; this incorporated a series of hip hop scenes developing across the country. Chief among them, for the purposes of this article, were the metro scenes: Mumbai offered Bambaiya rap—Divine and Naezy’s ‘Mere Gully Mein’ was widely understood to be the breakout song of this scene—that had great appeal for its audiences, while Delhi saw a mix of Punjabi and colloquial Delhi Hindi rappers who garnered a big fanbase across diverse audiences. Here, Punjabi rapper Prabh Deep, straying somewhat from the stuff circulating in Punjab, had a rather more grimy sound: aggressive, passionate coming-of-age bars narrated over thumping rhythms in his gravelly voice. In the years since, Prabh Deep’s repertoire has grown to integrate a thrilling range of both introspective and socio-politic subjects with effortless ease. 

 

If we go further back, there’s some early ancestry that can perhaps be found in the underground bhangra scene in England in the ’90s—Bally Sagoo, with his infectious melodies, was a legitimate sensation, while Panjabi MC’s work had undercurrents of hip hop in his work, eventually culminating in Jay-Z reworking his classic ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ into a song called ‘Beware Of The Boys’ in 2003. The Asian Underground movement, which ran in parallel to the bhangra scene in the UK, too, embraced plenty of hip-hoppian allegory without quite going all in. 

 

The Punjabi hip hop scene, really, is an assortment of splintered scenes, of patchwork movements with differing styles but a streak of outspoken independence common to them. A lot of it veers into poppy territory, using standard auto-tune tropes and commercial rap lyricism—‘Chaar Botal Vodka’, or four bottles of vodka, by Honey Singh springs to mind—and has been criticised for its incessant focus on hedonism, extravagance, indulgence. Big cars, big drinks, sex, lasciviousness—the usual tropes. Party culture, basically. A lot of it, further, glorifies gun violence, which the state has been encumbered by. An article from 2019 in the Caravan magazine outlines the feudalism in Punjab among some communities—the emphasis on land and the battles around it—and how Diljit Dosanjh as well was criticised for glorifying gun culture in one of his videos. But that’s neither the extent of it, nor the full picture; moralising about music is a timeless activity, and one that perhaps requires far greater nuance than it’s often afforded. 

 

A lot of the material that the rappers confront is politically charged; given that Punjab, the state, has had to face considerable upheaval thanks to its geographical location near the border and a separatist movement in the past, as also gang violence, caste disquiet, and widespread prevalence of substance abuse, it’s only natural for much of this subject matter to make its way into the words expressed by the artists. While plenty of the sounds centre ideas of identity, pride, individualism, and rebellion, there has also been widespread criticism of the music for propagating caste pride, gun violence, gang-war glorification, and so forth. The sinister underbelly—warts and all—seems to exist almost hand in hand with the rather more joyful, jubilant components elevating this scene. 

 

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Daler Mehndi performs in New Delhi, 2018

 

Running in conjunction with the Punjabi hip hop scene, and just as often intersecting with it, has been a strong Punjabi pop music scene. For all of us belonging to a certain vintage—growing up in or around the ’90s, for clarity—Daler Mehndi remains a pop music hero (his latter-day troubles with the law notwithstanding). In fact, Mehndi’s songs have caught second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-winds over the years as global audiences discover, in periodic cycles, the irrepressible chorus melodies of his biggest hits and bring them back to the surface via Instagram Reels and TikTok viral trends. Someone like Diljit Dosanjh has, since his early days in the early 2010s,  established himself as a relevant presence in mainstream culture, both with his music and his acting chops.  

Dosanjh has had a foot each planted in both the hip hop and the pop scenes coming from Punjab, all while building up a steady acting career in Bollywood. He recently starred in Chamkila, a biopic directed by Imtiaz Ali based on the life of Amar Singh Chamkila, the influential Punjabi singer from the ’80s who is often cited as an important figure of the pop music emerging from the state before, again, an untimely assassination in 1988.  

 

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AP Dhillon performs on stage during his "Out Of This World Tour" at Rogers Arena on October 08, 2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

 

AP Dhillon, the Canadian-Indian singer, is perhaps one of the most popular Punjabi singers today, able to meld introspective, emotionally insistent lyricism with an uncanny knack of picking out accessible melodies that seem both familiar and out of reach. His rabid fanbase, singing along in tear-soaked clothing to his every word at gigs, is testament to the widespread prevalence of Punjabi music today. It’s also worth pointing out that the fanbase isn’t restricted only to desi audiences from the subcontinent and the diaspora. Slowly, resolutely, this music is reaching international listeners. They may not quite get the lyrical intent sitting behind the song—neither, I must confess, do I, given my limited grasp of the language despite being a North Indian Punjabi—but they sure as hell can connect with the emotional weight that propels the music. The authentic expression, the intensity, the earnest communication within it. Music, as we all understand, has no language. But more than that, it’s also something far more primal.  

So much of Punjabi music that breaks through and escapes its initial local audience, from what I can sense, seems to focus on a strong sense of accessibility. The melodies, the rhythmic dynamics of words and drums, all seem to have strong recall value. The kind of stuff that keeps you awake at night, the music that plays in your sleep, the melodies that wake you up in the morning when you’re deep inside REM. It’s catchy, enticing, magical. It’s not going anywhere; in fact, as the borders separating the world shrink, as diasporic movements sprout up across the world, Punjabi music is only getting bigger.   

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