Sixto Rodriguez (aka “Rodriguez” and anointed as “Sugarman” by fans) passed on August 8, 2023. He was 81. His amazing story is captured in the 2012 Oscar-awarded documentary Searching for Sugarman
. This straightforward review or appreciation is designed to compel readers of MainlyPiano.com to check this remarkable and fascinating story of one who became a cultural icon in a land on the Planet Earth he had no idea about.
So, you may or may not have heard of the Dylanesque singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. But you should! A native of Detroit, the self-described “musical-politico” was lovingly referred to as “Sugarman" by so many of his overseas fans. His voice may not be as gritty as Dylan’s as it has a soft melodic delivery that won the allegiance of countless devotees. His story is remarkable, and fantastic and renders a mind jolt.
I don’t recall when I first discovered this documentary Searching for Sugarman
, but it was during the pandemic lockdown. But curiosity was richly awarded. I was struck by the multilayered dimensions of Rodriguez’s musical messages of protest and social justice that traveled across the Atlantic capturing the sentiments of white Afrikaaner youth who hungered for a way out of the cultural and ideological grip of the racist South African apartheid regime. Yes, that was way, way before the 1994 ascendancy of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa.
So here’s his story:
Rodriguez was a fixture in the music scene in Detroit in the late Sixties and early Seventies. He was able to release only two studio albums -- Cold Fact
(1970) and Coming From Reality
(1971). They both flopped in the U.S.
Yet unbeknownst to him, his music transformed him into an international legend whose musical messages reverberated in the far regions of the Republic of South Africa (and the oceanic regions of Australia, and New Zealand). The music resonated where young white South Africans discovered his music -- among a population hungering to find outlets to express opposition to apartheid. Young white Afrikaners conscripted into the apartheid army would share cassette tapes of his music. But through the years, Rodriguez has held clueless as he received no royalties from overseas pressings of his two albums. His music was embraced, bootlegged, duplicated, and shared on cassette tapes all the while as Rodriguez stepped away from music and survived as a blue-collar laborer for years in the Detroit area. Among his legions of fans in South Africa, an aura of mystery surrounded him until several followers conducted an in-depth, long-term detective work which led to his rediscovery in the early 1990’s.
A selection from his song, “Climb Up On My Music” (album: Coming From Reality
Have you ever been in darkness,
And your mind could find no peace,
When you woke up after midnight,
Found your swans have turned to geese.
Well, just climb up on my music,
And my songs will set ya free,
Well, just climb up on my music,
And from there jump off with me.
Coming from another angle, this tribute is from the Sugarman blog
(warning: some may find this somewhat redundant):
Rodriguez has been a household name among the white population in South Africa since the early 70's. The album Cold Fact has become a cult classic in South Africa, but unbelievably Rodriguez was unknown elsewhere (except in Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe). He was never mentioned in any music magazines, rock encyclopedias or any other publications on the history of Rock.
It was this situation of an American artist being famous in South Africa, but unknown in his home country (and, of course, my love for his music!), that led me to set up this website. As one news headline said during the 1998 South African tour: "American Zero, South African Hero". Through this website and the Internet, I have discovered that Rodriguez also has fans in Germany, Canada, Japan, England, Brazil, Norway and the USA.
There were many accolades and tributes, many referring to the landmark documentary. I found this review of the film from Revolution
In the film you learn about the situation in South Africa in those years, where vicious white supremacist minority rule over Black Africans known as apartheid was entrenched. But what was quite extraordinary was learning that there was a whole section of white youth in that country who themselves felt intensely downpressed by this oppressive system. They were prevented by threat of imprisonment from voicing their opposition to the government and to apartheid, they were constrained by a conservative puritanical religious morality, and isolated from a lot of the larger world. Somehow, the music and lyrics they discovered from Rodriguez struck a deep chord in the youth scene in that country at that time. It was radical and coming up from “the underground,” banned and not played on the official media, yet it took on a life of its own among these young white South Africans. It gave them the courage “and permission” to rebel and challenge the status quo.
Go check out and stream the documentary Looking for Sugarman
. You may have to dole out a few bucks, but it is seriously worthwhile, uplifting, and mind-blowing. ‘Nuff said...