The Story of Sixto Rodriguez
Sixto Rodriguez. Unknown in his home country the USA for forty years after he produced his hit songs. In the seventies he composed numbers such as Forget It, Sugar Man and Crucify Your Mind. A mix of folk, rock and pop which immediately took off in the then apartheid South Africa.
I recall that at that time, everyone had a copy of Cold Fact lying close to their turntable. No party was without it. The poster of the album adorned every record shop and all knew his songs by hart. His anti-establishment themes covered at the time forbidden topics resulting in his songs being banned, which of course, added to his two albums becoming instant hits in seventies South Africa. Rodriguez was a voice from afar stirring the sentiment of young people in South Africa. “He stoked rebellion and helped children of suburbia wake up to the need for change in their own country”.
Born in Detroit of Mexican parents, Sixto Rodriguez was intimately aware of the alienation and marginalization of those not part of mainstream society. His lyrics describe the tough conditions of the downtrodden and a life without roots. Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, his first and then only two albums were commercial flops in the US and his record company closed. Rodriguez quite his music career, bought a derelict house in a government auction for $50, and took a job as a demolition laborer. In the US he was a failed musician.
In South Africa his records found immediate popularity from the start and kept on selling; to date an estimated five hundred thousand. But as time went by, there was no news on this enigmatic singer and no new albums reaching the shores of South Africa. His fans here later believed he had passed away. That is until the late nineties when two South African music enthusiasts began investigating and ultimately after a long search found him in his flat in Woodbridge, Detroit. “Did you know you are bigger in South Africa than Bob Dylan?”
In 1998 Rodriguez came to a hero’s welcome in South Africa. Six sell-out concerts. For some time he would lead a strange double life going back to obscurity in his home city and returning to SA to perform as a music legend. He quit his demolition job, booked more concerts and composed again.
A film producer came across the story of the musician who was an unknown at home and a star in South Africa, and how he was tracked down and brought over for concert performances. The ideal story for a movie. It took years to persuade Rodriguez to take part in a planned documentary about his life. The shoestring budget for the film was not enough and the last scenes were taken on the producer’s iPhone.
Searching for Sugar Man became an Oscar winning film in 2012.
Director Malik Bendjelloul begged Rodriguez to attend the Oscar awards but he refused saying might take the attention away from the filmmakers. Rodriguez’s popularity finally took off at home.
Now he lives the life of a full-time musician, tours internationally and earns well. Of his earnings his daughter says: “He takes pleasure in giving it away, especially to people that supported him when he wasn’t a commercial success. I do really wish he’d spend some of the money on himself though”.
Sixto Rodriguez today lives in the same modest Detroit home he bought forty years ago.
A remarkable man.
Source of quotes: Rolling Stone