Sixto Rodriguez: America zero, South Africa hero 

We are in the late ’60s, the Civil Rights movement is rising, the Vietnam war is raging, and apartheid is dividing, but music, culture, and people’s mind are changing. Amongst this messy context, a lower-class construction worker from Detroit will change the world. Without even knowing it! Let me tell you the story of Sixto Rodriguez, one of the voices of oppressed people in South Africa during the apartheid. 

Born in 1942 in Detroit, Sixto Rodriguez comes from a poor Mexican immigrant family that came to Detroit to seek a job in the industrial branch. At this time, Mexican immigrants were marginalized and alienated by the US people, a topic he approaches in his songs very often. He worked in demolition and production lines and consistently earned a low income. But the real story begins now. In 1967, under “Rod Riguez,” he published a single called “I’ll Slip Away,” which went unnoticed by the audience. Three years later, after signing with Sussex Records, he published his first album, “Cold Fact,” in 1970, and a year later, in 1971, his second album, “Coming from reality.” Both are incredibly great albums, discussing anti-establishment, sex, and working conditions. The albums are made from ballads and folk songs with a few psychedelic influences, which are rising in this period. Unfortunately, they both made big flops in the USA, only selling a couple of copies. This led the record labels to abandon him and resign their deal. Rodriguez wasn’t furious about it, so he returned to work in his demolition company for approximately ten years. There was no Internet then, so it’s normal that he didn’t know he had sold over 500 ‘000 copies in South Africa and Australia. Wait… What? 

While he quit music and went back to work to focus on his life and family, something unusual happened. There is no absolute certainty, but the story says that a girl from the USA went to South Africa to visit her boyfriend, bringing the album “Cold Fact” with her. After she made him listen to the album, he wanted to buy it, but it was impossible to find it. That’s where (we think) the copies started. Illegally, hundreds and hundreds of copies were printed from the original CD, and the people in South Africa discovered a new approach to life. South Africa, at this time, was an authoritarian society in which the white minority ruled the country. Dividing with the apartheid, censoring songs and art if it wasn’t following their ideas, no TV before 1976… Everything was under the control of the government. But the government couldn’t control the illegal copies of “Cold Fact,” and it spread fast. The explicit lyrics inside it had the same impact on South African people as Jimi Hendrix had on the US soldiers during the Vietnam war. Songs like “The Establishment’s Blues” or “I wonder” became anthems of the anti-apartheid movement. They never heard lyrics this raw because of the censorship of the government. So you can understand that when he says: “This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune. And that′s a concrete cold fact.” or even: “I wonder how many times you′ve had sex, and I wonder do you know who’ll be next?” People freaked out. For the first time, they had a voice. The government tried to censor the album on the radio, but it was too late. Everyone in Cape Town (the capital) had the album “Cold Fact” on their shelves. He became a legend there, and people invented crazy stories thinking that he died. Some said he shot himself on stage after people dissed his performance; others said he poured gas on himself and lit it up. But none of this was true. He was alive and still working in his demolition company in Detroit, still not knowing he was famous abroad.

With everyone growing up to his music, some people wanted to know who he was. Because there was nothing about him, nothing more than these crazy stories and the album cover of “Cold Fact.” This is few for a man this famous. But people and the Internet will change Rodriguez’s life; it all started with Stephen “Sugar” Segermen. 

After wondering what happened to his favorite childhood artist, he started to look for him in the late 90s. After many failed attempts, he tried to put an advertisement on the Internet, which worked better than he thought. Sixto Rodriguez’s daughter came across it randomly and texted Stephen that she was her daughter and that Rodriguez was alive. Stephen couldn’t believe it. His favorite artist didn’t die and is living in Detroit.

B0rder | Wikimedia Commons

There started another story, the one of an unknown American man going to South Africa and being circled by paparazzi, praised by people, making big concerts, each played a full house. Today, Sixto Rodriguez is still alive and a solid 80 years old man who quit his dirty job in the 90s for music. He traveled worldwide, played everywhere, and earned a ton of money, but he gave most of it to the people he cared about. He still lives in the same house he bought in the 80s in the suburbs of Detroit, even though he could move everywhere. During his “unknown” career, he sold more copies than Elvis Presley in South Africa, and still, he stayed humble and did not let greed and pride come into his peaceful life. 

This fantastic story is told in a documentary called “Searching for Sugar Man” by Malik Bendjelloul, published in 2012. The documentary won the Oscar for Best Documentary. It is a fun fact: Rodriguez didn’t want to foreshadow the director and the movie’s crew, so he refused to attend to it and peacefully slept when he won.   

Hugo Lhomedet

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