This past week I saw the film Searching for Sugar Man about the musician Sixto Rodriquez. The film was excellent, but more than that the film’s subject, Rodriguez, was astonishing. Rodriguez was a Bob-Dylan-esqu folk musician living in Detroit who released two albums in the early 70s. According to many, he was better than Dylan. His poetic lyrics were sophisticated, beautiful, moving, on target, and they inspired political action. Although he was a brilliant musician according to all accounts by those in the music business who knew him, his albums mysteriously went nowhere and he dissolved into obscurity. In America, that is. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his music wandered over to South Africa where it went viral.
In the 70s, apartheid South Africa was the pariah of the world and its people were extremely isolated. A white supremacist government ruled the country with the iron fist of fear. Every internal effort to protest apartheid was swiftly met with violent suppression. Enter Rodriguez’s music. The film chronicles how Rodriguez’s music inspired a generation of forward-thinking white youth to courageously oppose Botha’s pro-apartheid regime. His music became key scaffolding for the internal resistance mounted by young whites from inside the country, resistance which was rarely seen by the outside world (then and now). Yes, not all white South Africans favored apartheid.
Musicians in South Africa followed in Rodriguez’s footsteps, writing and performing music of resistance and protest, music that spoke of social unrest, music demanding political change. While no one in America knew who Rodriguez was and it was impossible to find his records anywhere, in South Africa he was bigger than Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones. Every young white person in South Africa had three central albums in their music collection: Abbey Road by the Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon and Garfunkel, and Cold Fact by Sixto Rodriguez. Yet Rodriguez had no clue about this. And South Africans, who knew nothing about Rodriguez, had heard and believed urban myths that claimed he was long dead.
Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of how a couple of persistent South African fans tracked him down and engineered the opportunity for him to perform live in South Africa for weeping admirers who had loved him and his music all their lives. Every white child in South Africa raised in a progressive household knows the words to at least half of Rodriguez’s songs.
During all those years (between 1971 and 1997) before South Africa found him, Rodriguez had continued to play his guitar and sing his songs in private while working extremely hard labor to support his family. A Mexican American, Rodriguez had a college degree in philosophy but he earned a living working in the construction trade. His daughter mentions in the film that she saw him carry a refrigerator down the stairs on his back on many occasions. This is hard to imagine since he seems so slight.
Rodriguez is magnificently humble and lives extremely modestly. He has made some money doing live concerts in South Africa in recent years since his fans found him, but he apparently has given most of that money away to friends, family, and charitable causes. He dedicated his life to political and social change, to justice issues, and to helping those less fortunate individuals among us. He volunteered at homeless shelters and soup kitchens. He ran for mayor of Detroit a few times and lost. He wanted nothing more than to improve the lives of the disadvantaged, oppressed, and disenfranchised. I imagine that he must have thought he was helping people in his own small way by the everyday actions he chose in his life and then, out of the blue, come to find out that he had actually played a key role on a grand scale in turning an entire country around so that millions of disenfranchised and oppressed people were freed and were able to regain control of their homeland. His impact on the abolition of apartheid in South Africa was monumental. How mind-blowing. But Rodriguez appears to have simply taken it in stride, happy that could make a difference, not expecting to be treated special because of it. The film about him won an academy award this year for best documentary. Rodriguez was not at the Oscars. When the film’s director Malik Bendjelloul accepted the award, he mentioned that Rodriguez chose not to attend the awards because, as Rodriguez put it, he was simply the subject of the film and not the one who had made the film. If the meek shall inherit, then the earth belongs to Rodriguez.
Translate this. Our words and actions go out into the world in ways we often cannot imagine; so who among us can ever know the potential ultimate impact of our actions, creative projects, and the work of our hands? Continue toiling my friends, stay inspired and do the work. It could throw a wider arc one day than you ever imagined.