There’s an uplifting story connecting Detroit and Cape Town that came into sharp focus this past Sunday evening. At the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, the Oscar for the Best Documentary Feature was awarded to Searching for Sugar Man, a biography about Sixto Rodriguez. In the late 1960s Rodriguez, a singer songwriter living in the Motor City, recorded two records, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, that received positive reviews but went nowhere in America. However, unbeknown to the artist, he was an icon in apartheid South Africa in the early 1970s, said to be more popular than Elvis or the Beatles.
One of his fans was Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, the owner of a record store in Cape Town, who recalls, “To many of us South Africans he was the soundtrack to our lives. If you walked into a random white, liberal, middle-class household that had a turntable and a pile of pop records, you would always see Cold Fact by Rodriguez. To us, it was one of the most famous records of all time.”
Despite his success in South Africa, selling in excess of half a million records, Segerman and his friends were astonished to discover that Rodriguez was unknown in America, the ultimate enigma. Rumoured to have committed suicide, Segerman and Craig Strydom set out to discover the true story of the Sugar Man in 1997. Through some determined sleuthing they established that Rodriguez was still alive but living in poverty in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, and working as a construction labourer. They arranged for him to visit Cape Town where, 25 years after his musical debut, he was finally recognized for his extraordinary talent. Here’s an excerpt from Establishment Blues, his commentary that still resonates with citizens everywhere:
The mayor hides the crime rate, council woman hesitates
Public gets irate, but forgets the vote date
The system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.
If you haven’t yet seen the movie, do yourself a favour, go and see it. Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of a genuinely humble musician — he chose to skip the Oscar ceremony so as not to steal the limelight from the director and producer — who transcended his life’s circumstances. Whether one is an artist or a scientist or an up-and-coming business executive, we can all identify with such inspirational stories.