Insight: Rodriguez, the Subject of “Searching for Sugar Man,” Finds Unexpected Fame

by Jackson Maxwell
Posted Dec 20, 2013 at 2:36am

On December 3rd, just a couple of weeks ago, the Bankruptcy Court of the state of Michigan approved Detroit’s filing for bankruptcy. It’s the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history, and brings an already struggling city practically to its knees.

It is a sad fate for a place that was once so vibrant with life and industrial success. It stands as a devastating result of forty years of escalating crime, neglect, and a declining population.

Not only was the city a shining light for American industry, it was once a shining light for great American music. African-Americans were finally able to break into the pop mainstream with the countless immaculately crafted songs that poured out of Detroit-based Motown Records.

And later, as the bright sun of Los Angeles beckoned Motown to opt for a change of scenery, a different musical revolution began in the city. Inspired by the tension that seemed to be tearing the country apart; whether it be racial, class-driven, political, or generational, a new breed of rock took hold of Detroit.

The MC5 and the Stooges were bands that were loud, confrontational, and entirely unafraid of risk. Singing of, and almost glorifying, the drug use, violence, and grittiness of the city; the bands spoke the language of the streets.

But there was one artist who probably channeled the true spirit of the city better than any other. Sixto Rodriguez, a little-known singer-songwriter who released just two albums, had an incredible way of voicing the myriad frustrations of lower-class Americans in the late 1960s.

His story, immortalized in the Academy Award-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” is truly an amazing one. His two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, were completely ignored in America at the time of their release.

Somehow, a copy of Cold Fact made its way to apartheid South Africa; no one knows exactly how. Its populist, anti-establishment lyrics struck a chord with a nation who knew all too well what being silenced felt like. Over the next decade, an estimated half million copies of the album had been sold in the tiny country.

“I Wonder” from Cold Fact

While all this was occurring, Rodriguez himself was still in Detroit, supporting himself with odd jobs. Due to the state-controlled media inside the country, and the government’s desire to mask the success of protest singers like Rodriguez, the singer himself hadn’t the slightest clue of his success in South Africa.

It wasn’t until the late 90’s, over a quarter of a century after he had been dropped by Essex Records and quit his music career, that Rodriguez was contacted by South African music journalists in regards to his unbelievable success in that country. Suddenly, a singer who had never played to more than a few dozen people was playing to over fifteen thousand in massive arenas.

Only in the past year, since the success of the documentary, has Rodriguez gained any kind of audience in his home country. And though I know it’s the most cliché thing in the world to look at a commercially underperforming audience and think, “How was he/she not huge????” But with Rodriguez it is honestly impossible to answer that question.

Here was a man who took everything he absorbed; the Latin flavor of his roots, the horns and tight rhythm section of Motown, the aggressive, direct lyricism of rock and the surrealism of Dylan and spun it together. In “The Establishment Blues” he sang, “ the mayor hides the crime rates/councilwoman hesitates/public gets irate/but forgets the vote date.” There was no better representation of the dire situation of Detroit or any American city, in anyone’s lyrics at the time.

“The Establishment Blues” from Cold Fact

In “Cause,” the closing track off of his second and last album to date, he sings, “Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas/and I talked to Jesus at the sewer/and the pope said it was none of his goddamn business.” Other than Dylan and perhaps Van Morrison, no other singer/songwriter of the time had this level of lyrical artistry.

For decades in America, his voice was ignored. Now, forty years on, with the bankruptcy, and continuing fall of Detroit, many see the wisdom in Rodriguez’s words. It is hard to understand why he went unappreciated. Its likely that many Americans, already troubled by the escalation of the Vietnam War, would have rather not known of Detroit’s problems. Just as the Velvet Underground’s terrifying depiction of New York was met with silence, Rodriguez, a great populist and man of the people, was ignored by a country who preferred to look past the troubles that lay directly beneath America’s surface, and believe that there were better times yet in the near horizon.

Check out the trailer for “Searching for Sugar Man”

Find out more about Rodriguez here http://sugarman.org

Jackson Maxwell is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is double majoring in history and journalism. He is a staff writer for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and has his own music blog entitled “Two Dudes, Two Computers” with his friend Zach Newman. You can follow him here at twodudestwocomputers.tumblr.com/ or http://themotorcade.tumblr.com/