In the early 1970s, an obscure musician from Detroit, Michigan was signed on to Sussex Records. After releasing two albums that met with low sales and mixed reviews, he was dropped from the label and apparently faded into obscurity. This musician is Sixto Rodriguez, the amazing focus of the documentary from Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, Searching for Sugar Man.
Often described as mysterious, or labelled a drifter who people did not know much about, Sixto Rodriguez was discovered while performing at a decrepit bar, The Sewer. He was born to Mexican parents and sang about the difficulties endured by the poor and working class people of Detroit, and of the inner city. His first album Cold Fact failed to perform well in the United States, possibly because most of the songs on the album had themes that were quite political.
However, it was most likely these themes that ensured Rodriguez's success in other countries such as South Africa and Australia. Searching for Sugar Man shines the limelight on the popularity Sixto Rodriguez unexpectedly found in South Africa. While Rodriguez did not make it to celebrity in the United States, his music found exponential popularity in South Africa where legend has it that his album Cold Fact was brought into the country by a woman from the United States who came to visit to her boyfriend.
No one knew much about Sixto Rodriguez but his music found a place in the homes of white liberal middle-class South Africans. Living under the conservative apartheid government, white South Africans found inspiration in Rodriguez's music. Songs such as “This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues" and “I Wonder” brazenly addressed topics that were scandalous to the South African government then. During the time of the South African apartheid, the majority of whites in South Africa were either complacent or too frightened to speak up against a government that oppressed the rightful citizens of the country. Thus music became a means of protest for the minority of white South Africans who were uncomfortable with the racist system. Sixto Rodriguez encouraged white South Africans to express rebellion through music and inspired a generation of bands such as Big Sky.
Rodriguez grew to be bigger than Elvis in South Africa even as no one knew about him in the United States, Rodriguez himself had no idea that his album was selling huge amounts in South Africa. Yet despite Rodriguez's popularity, his South Africa fans did not have any concrete facts about their idol. For years, Rodriguez remained a character shrouded in mystery and rumours. There were several myths regarding his death, including one about him committing suicide on stage after performing before a tough crowd, and another about him dousing himself in petrol then setting himself alight before the audience.
The fact that nothing was known of Sixto Rodriguez despite his immense popularity, drove two fans on an investigation to uncover the truth. Cape Town record store owner Steve Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom joined forces to find out what happened to Rodriguez. After unsuccessfully trying to decipher more about the artist from his lyrics, attempting to trace the money through the record companies that released his albums in South Africa, and setting up a website to learn more about Sixto Rodriguez, they finally learned that Rodriguez was not dead as they had believed. In fact, he was still alive in Detroit, working in hard labour: demolition, renovation and restoration. Rodriguez had moved on and had a family, he even dabbled in local politics.
Steve Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom were able to convince Sixto Rodriguez to come to South Africa and perform. There was scepticism from many angles, firstly no one who worked with Rodriguez in Detroit could believe that he was a famous rock star in South Africa, while in South Africa fans who thought Sixto Rodriguez were dead kept on believing this even as they bought tickets and turned up at the concert. On the other hand, Rodriguez's family, his daughters did not expect a large turnout and imagined there would only be 20 people at the concert. However, the large turnout of South African fans surprised everyone, not only was it now clear that Sixto Rodriguez was alive and well, but Rodriguez got to met people who had idolized him for years.
Despite not knowing of his fame in South Africa for most of his life, Rodriguez insisted that he was not disappointed by his lack of information. He still maintains a humble life, giving away most of the money he earns from performing to family and friends.
In apartheid South Africa, “Sugar Man”, the song featured in the title of this documentary, was banned – the label scratched off records so that the track could not be listened to. The song itself is an excellent example of Sixto Rodriguez's work; while on first listen it is clear that the song is about drugs, deeper exposition reveals that “Sugar Man” was someone who actually existed. He was called Volkswagen Frank and he sold drugs, referred to as “sugar”.
The documentary Searching for Sugar Man builds up the legend of Sixto Rodriguez with just the right amount of tension before the big reveal. The only slight disappointments are the too brief mention of royalties, the music industry and Rodriguez's lack of knowledge of his popularity outside the United States. This is not fully explored and left hanging; we still do not know why Rodriguez never knew of his fame outside the United States.
There's also a lack of discussion regarding how Rodriguez's racial background and class may have prevented his two albums from reaching a celebrated status. This was only hinted at during an interview with Clarence Avant, former Chairman off Motown Records who mentioned that Rodriguez's music did not perform well because he was not white.