Tuesday 12 February 2013

Searching For Sugarman Sixto Rodriguez : A South African and now ‘American Legend’?

The wonderful documentary by Malik Bendjelloul, Searching for Sugarman, , functions in various ways. It brings to life the elusive and unknown story of Sixto Rodriguez, popularly known as ‘Sugarman’ or ‘Rodriguez’. It addresses itself to the fiction of the tragic demise of Rodriguez  and in the end the reality of where Rodriguez ended up, since his disappearance, after he recorded his last album in 1971. It is investigative, revealing and heart rending. Its power lies in demonstrating that Sixto Rodgriguez was a folk musician who did not clinch a commercial and cultural following in the United States, but unknown to him, he was a celebrated musician in South Africa.  For South African writer Rian Malan (See Mail and Guardian, February 8 to 14, Friday section, pp. 8&9) understanding Rodriguez through the lens of South African hippiedom, there is a simple essentialist and binary explanation for this. On the one hand, South African hippies were not racist ( really? How many shared a Rodriguez album with a non-white during apartheid?) while middle class white hippie America was  and could not  appreciate the subversive message of an American Latino (born of Mexican migrant workers). Hence the likes of Bob Dylan thrives and becomes the leading cultural icon of America’s hippie generation and an American commercially constituted legend.  While there might be an element of truth about racism prevalent in hippie America, Malan’s generalisation of the non-racial orientation of South African hippies, gives us a very simplistic appreciation of why Rodriguez chose to abandon his musical career and why he was celebrated in South Africa.

Malan’s narrative fails to appreciate two realities in Rodriguez’s existence. The first the political economy of a commercialised music industry in the US, assimilating and blunting the subversive edge of sixties folk music. Those who survived and came out on top, tamed their radical folk roots and even in the end abandoned it to be commercially successful. This is where Bob Dylan ended up.  Rodriguez, chose a harder path, informed by  a sense of fidelity to what his music was all about.  Rodriguez in acknowledging his commercial failure, actually chose at the same time, to affirm his radical, existentially authentic and anti-establishment message. He chose the path of conviction and authenticity, themes very strong  in his lyrics. This is what lives on in South Africa; the authenticity of the subversive folk musician Rodriguez. This is what was capsuled and celebrated in South Africa for the past four decades.  

Moreover, Malan fails to accept, which Sugarman the documentary touches on superficially, that Rodriguez also chose to live within the realities of his situation. He was the child of Mexican migrant workers, a working class child, who understood that the reproduction of his own family and himself as a human was based on him working to earn an income. If music, as work, could not generate such a life supporting income, he was going to find it through being a construction worker. In a sense, Malan fails to appreciate the deeper existential philosophy of Rodriguez the worker and how this informed his choice to abandon the life of a worker in music.

 In addition, Searching for Sugarman functions  as a bridge between the star struck universe of a predominantly white  and South African hippy following and  its hero. Such a following yearned to venerate the legend they constructed, in their midst. It was about experiencing the celebrity spectacle. Sugarman had to be consumed, live, on stage.  More specifically, South African hippies wanted the fairytale,  they wanted the ‘knight in shining armour’,  Cinderalla or Arthur to appear before them. It was in essence all about experiencing the commodified celebrity spectacle.  This is  a challenge to Malan’s rather one sided reading of  Sugarman as merely  ending  Sixto Rodriguez’s ignorance about being a superstar in South Africa and conferring such a status on him.  The bridging role of Sugarman is about bringing together these two parallel universes: a celebrity struck mainly white progressive audience (and for Malan mainly hippies) and a Latino construction worker called Sixto Rodriguez, who was also, at one point in his life a music worker.

Malan goes further to suggest that Sugarman functions to achieve a crucial part of the American dream. It constitutes Sixto Rodriguez as an American legend, mainly through South African hippie veneration. This is what Sugarman and in the end Sixto Rodriguez is all about. An American legend whose time has come and who can now make money and live happy thereafter…a sort of superficial hippyish ending to his life! One cannot help feeling that Malan and his hippyish understanding and appropriation  of Rodriguez misses the deeper and real Rodriguez.

It is important for Sixto Rodriguez, a radical folk musician whose two albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality informed a sub-culture in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle, be recognised and celebrated. As a young anti-apartheid activist in the 1980s I experienced him together with the more radical Dylan (the  non-commercial Dylan), Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen and later Tracy Chapman, amongst others. And of course there was also Bob Marley and the message of Reggae. We should not let Malan’s reading of Sugarman take away from this function the movie plays. More importantly, we do not need Rodriguez to be a commercialised American legend to be celebrated.  The awards received by this documentary are well deserved and resurrection of the radical folk music of Rodriguez it achieves through mainstream and social media, through rocketing album sales, a few more concerts and well deserved income for the music worker Rodgriguez are all heartening.

However, Sugarman begins something which can only be accomplished by a deeper appreciation of the real Rodriguez. According to one of his co-worker mates in the documentary, he was a ‘silk worm who translated the raw material of reality into poetry’. This begs deeper questions about the ideological and existential make up of Rodriguez the ‘silkworm’. What prompted him as a construction worker to dress up with a tuxedo in worksites? What  kind of philosophy did he read and enjoy? Why did he invite militant ‘Latino activists’ on to the stage when he performed in California during the short span as a music worker? What are the social conditions and understandings that inform the militant humanism running through his music? What were the social and political questions that prompted Rodriguez to enter an electoral race to be the mayor of Detroit? What ethical values informed Rodriguez’s politics? Why did Rodriguez ensure his class location never became a barrier to giving himself and his family a culturally rich existence? The lyrics in Rodriguez’s songs challenge  the in-authencity of capitalist individualism, the cruelty of the powerful, exploitation and the deep alienation of  capitalist modernity. Despite the importance of Sugarman it does not assist  us in understanding the  sub-soil of Rodriguez’s existential consciousness that gave birth to his captivating and poetic lyrics. We encounter  a working class Rodriguez  but without  a full appreciation of his intellectual depth. This can only come to the fore with a serious biography on Rodriguez, involving him in clarifying who he is, what life experiences and what perspectives of the human condition engendered his songs. To reach such depths such a biography  should not be written by a hippie. Lets hope someone with the time, energy and commitment to the real Rodriguez comes forward to write  a biography which would be an important  part of 20th century music history.

Moreover, Sugarman prompts us to take Rodriguez beyond hippie nostalgia and veneration and to ask what does the radical Rodriguez, the authentic voice of folk music, mean for us today. For workers engaged in struggles for improved wage and living conditions  in South Africa’s winelands and on the mines, these words from the song Cause in the album Coming From Reality have a profound resonance.

Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas
And talked to Jesus at the sewer
And the Pope said it was none of his God damn business…

Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues
And I explained that I had overpaid them…

Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?

For the deepening inequalities of our time, brought about by capitalist fat cats, including American and South African hippies occupying managerial boardrooms in transnational corporations,   Rodriguez’s song Sandrevan Lullaby, for instance, highlights the importance of a capitalist civilisation, centred in the US, being in a state of decline. These lyrics from the song make the point poetically:

Judges with metermaid hearts
Order supermarket justice starts
Frozen children inner city
Walkers in the paper rain
Waiting for the knights that never came
The hijacked trying so hard to be pretty…

America gains another pound
Only time will bring some people around
Idols and flags are slowly melting
Another shower of rice
To pair it for some will suffice
The mouthful asks for a second helping…

The radical voice of Rodriguez  speaks to our contemporary human condition. It is a voice that chimes with the message of the Occupy movement in the US against the  1 per cent and  the movements struggling against the oppressions of a post-apartheid South Africa. His universal militant humanist message will continue to speak to the ongoing struggles of the oppressed all over the world.

Finally, for Sixto (if ever he gets to the read this) if there is a third album in the making, please don’t abandon your authentic and militant humanist voice for commercialised legendary status.  In South Africa whether white or black, that have encountered you, you have in the end given us a genuine transformative  experience, as we kept your militant humanist voice alive. We love you, as  the authentic  voice that comes through your lyrics, as you exist and in how you bring us into confrontation with  the realities of our time. On the stage you are a music worker, this is a cold fact in our common reality. I am confident you will not  surrender!!!


  1. I just watched this documentary, then found this review. Very, very powerful!

  2. I agree with Anonymous. Thank you for these words.

  3. Rodriguez's music was heard and taken profoundly well in South Africa because it was the right environment for his music. An oppressed people looking for a voice, Rodriguez's music worked for them. I'm sure the general public in America, particularly hippies, people living in Detroit, and perhaps ethic Americans would have appreciated him back then. But commercialism back then, as well as ideologies, was a lot more strict.