Though many of us were rooting for Five Broken Cameras, the film which won Academy Award as best documentary feature is another great movie. Searching for Sugar Man documents the search of two white South Africans to find out who was the musician known as Sixto Rodriguez and what ever happened to him? Did he really commit suicide at the end of a stage performance?
Because he was so hugely popular in South Africa, the internationally isolated South Africans had always assumed he was popular all over the world. Little did they know that he was a hard laborer of Mexican descent, working in Detroit, and that his songs of independence and defiance had never taken off in the US or Europe.
Over the course of the movie we learn not only about Rodriguez but also the role his music played inspiring white South African youth to resist and oppose apartheid.
There are many reasons to enjoy the movie. The music and lyrics are powerful It’s a heart warming tale of unrecognized talent getting belated acclaim. And last but not least, the movie is valuable in recounting the role that music played in fueling the social fire that undermined and eventually led to the downfall of South African apartheid.
Rodriguez’ major albums were recorded in 1970 and 1971. Largely unknown in the US, they became hugely popular in South Africa during the 70’s and 80’s as international protests against apartheid gained steam. The gritty realism and spirit of rebellion in the lyrics captured the heart and helped inspire the white backlash against apartheid.
While many South Africans retreated into self-defense and others complained of international discrimination, the vanguard of Afrikaans and general white South African youth accepted and agreed with the criticism. The lesson they learned from Rodriguez was: “It’s OK to protest against your society, to be angry with your society.”
The Black population of South African was clearly the main victim and driving force in the overthrow of apartheid. But the cracks in the white power structure were important and the uprising of white youth played a real role in forcing the negotiations which finally ended official apartheid.
In one section of the movie, the two South Africans who inspired the movie talk about Rodriguez’ influence in the growth of resistance to apartheid in the white community. In the movie, the following statements are made with a video background showing protest marches, police cracking heads, and the general mood of international and national protest and repression.
Commentary by South African Record Store Owner, Stephen (“Sugar”) Segerman and South African journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydon:
“Rodriguez became something of a rebel icon ….. we all bought his records. Everybody I knew had his records. ‘I Wonder’ that was the big song that everyone was singing. There he was on the record cover – sort of a hippie with shades. But nobody knew anything about him. He was a mystery, unlike other artists that you could read about. Nobody knew anything about Rodriguez – he was a mystery.
The album [Cold Fact] was exceptionally popular. For many of us South Africans it was the sound track to our lives….. To us it was one of the most famous records of all time. The message it had was BE ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT. There was a song called The Anti-Establishment Blues. We didn’t know what the word “anti-establishment” was until it cropped up on a Rodriguez song and then we found out ….It’s OK to protest against your society, to be angry with your society.
Because we lived in a society where every means was used to prevent apartheid from coming to an end, this album somehow had lyrics in it that almost set us free as oppressed people. Any revolution needs an anthem and in South Africa “Cold Fact” was the album that gave people the permission to free their minds and start thinking differently.
It may seem strange that South African record companies did not do more to try to track down Rodriguez but if you actually look back at the time we were in the middle of apartheid, the height of apartheid. South Africa was under sanctions by countries all over the world. South African musicians were not allowed to play overseas. No foreign acts were allowed to visit South Africa. It was a closed door situation between South Africa and the rest of the world.
Countries around the world were saying horrible things about the apartheid government but we didn’t know because they controlled the news. The majority of the population had been marginalized. It was like what happened in Nazi Germany; it was a spinoff from Nazi Germany. If a newspaper published this they could prosecute you. Because of that, South Africa had achieved a pariah status in the world. There were cultural boycotts; there were sporting boycotts. It was a very isolated society. We were cut off.
We all knew that apartheid was wrong but living in South Africa there wasn’t much you as a white person could do about it. The government was very strict. It was a military state to a large degree. If you spoke out against apartheid you could be thrown in prison for three years. So although a lot of whites were part of the struggle, the majority of whites were not. We were watched; there were spies. It was scary and people were scared.
But out of the Afrikaans community emerged a group of Afrikaans musicians and songwriters and for them, when they heard Rodriguez it was like a voice spoken that said ‘Guys, there’s a way out. You can write music, you can write imagery, you can sing, you can perform.’ And that was really the first opposition to apartheid that came from INSIDE the Afrikaans community. It was these young Afrikaans guys and to a man they will tell you they were influenced by Rodriguez …. the icons of the Afrikaans music revolution …they will all tell you ‘Rodriguez was our guy’.”
In the political realm, Searching for Sugar Man illustrates factors leading to major social change. Splitting the opposition is important. Winning the hearts and minds of some who could be enemies or allies is vital. Youth is where to look for big changes, and culture and music play a huge role. The conscripted white South African soldiers, sitting in their barracks, heard music they liked with a message that strengthened their sense that something was wrong and had to change. Musicians listened to it and said, “There’s a way out”. Those young Afrikaans musicians went on to fuel the social and youth rebellion which contributed to the collapse of the apartheid state.
The Rodriguez lyrics are subtle but strong. It’s a weird irony of history that they found the most resonance half way round the world – songs from down-and-out Detroit bars, sung by a Mexican American inspiring white South African youth to oppose the mindset of a colonial apartheid state which began in 1652.