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on 26 May 2016
Who was Sugar Man, why was he called this, who was searching for him, and why was he being sought?
The answers are complicated and have to do with music, history, politics, international relations.
Sugar Man was a drug dealer in Detroit.
“Sugar Man, won’t you hurry
Cos I’m tired of these scenes.”
So says the addict in the song, desperate for oblivion, for a place to kill his pain, at least temporarily.
The singer is Sixto Rodriguez, an artist few in America had heard of, a singer-songwriter-guitarist whose two albums in the early 1970s went nowhere. But that was the U.S. Elsewhere he was iconic, heroic, talismanic, a legend.
South Africans were the ones searching for him. Or some of them — those inspired by the music, ashamed of what apartheid had done to their country.
Sugar Man appealed to the young white urban middle-class, the educated and liberal. His records made their way to South Africa and for a short time received airplay on local FM stations (until the authorities shut down the music). Word spread, as did bootleg copies of the albums — all two of them (“Cold Fact”, released in 1970 and “Coming from Reality”, released the following year). They flourished underground, played clandestinely in bedrooms, backstreet cafés and at private parties.
It’s hard for us who were not there in the South Africa of the ‘70s to feel what they felt for him. We had never heard of him, and they — young white South Africans — had no idea we never had. To them he ranked with the Beatles and Rolling Stones, a Pied Piper from Hamlin who would lead them to liberation, not doom as in the folktale of old. They hung on his words, analysing and interpreting their significance.
“I wonder about the tears in children’s eyes
And I wonder about the soldier that dies
I wonder will this hatred ever end
I wonder and I worry, my friend
I wonder, I wonder, don’t you?”
Answer: Yes, they did. They wondered about all of it, sick and tired of their political condition and wanting change. If the Beatles sang of revolution and the Stones were street-fighting men, Rodriguez was their revolutionary, his music travelling everywhere to them underground.
“Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people they’re abusing
The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me this is where it’s at”
There was no internet in those days. No satellite TV, either. International sanctions against South Africa had isolated the country, turning it into a kind of sunny North Korea. Young whites identified with the oppressed black majority, both groups incarcerated in their different ways. These young whites knew what Mandela stood for and shared the values he prized. They wanted Nelson, themselves and their country freed, but this could only happen, they knew, with the white power structure challenged and dismantled.
Rodriguez gave them hope and courage. “For many of us,” says one South African in the film, “he was the soundtrack of our lives.”
The film is a non-linear chronicle of that strange and beautiful event — the hope and courage he gave people through his music. We begin in South Africa with confessions from several persons, including a music store owner and a music journalist. Later in the story they become important in the search for Sugar Man. Soon thereafter we are in Detroit where Rodriguez grew up and still lives today. The portrait that emerges from those who know him there is of a modest, gentle, hardworking man. Also a loving and loyal one — loyal to his three grown daughters, friends, city, roots and work. What work? Hard labour: roofing, bricklaying, construction, furniture removal. One co-worker says he works with pride, putting in an honest day’s labour because that’s what he can do. Loyal too to the arts which he never abandoned: music, painting, literature and poetry. He went back to university and got a degree in philosophy. He ran for city council and mayor of the city. And when his girls were growing up he took them to libraries, art galleries, science museums and concert halls, just so they would know something about the dimensions of the world.
His daughters love him, clear in everything they say about him, a good man at the centre of their lives. So in a way he’s already rich by the time the South Africans track him down, if richness means love, contentment, peace and acceptance. He is found through the sleuthing of a music journalist: interviews, phone calls, a website and e-mails. He’s invited to South Africa and flies there with his daughters in March 1998. Sold-out concerts, of course. The people scream and cry at them, sing and dance to the music. He’s their own Christ risen from the dead, fulfilling the promise of liberation made to them long ago through his music. He comes to a country free of apartheid whose president is Nelson Mandela. Tears all around, then, for South Africa at this time.
Both fairy stories are true.
As far as we know, success failed to corrupt Sixto Rodriguez. He never left Detroit and he gives away earnings from concerts and royalties to loved ones: family members and friends. He’s happy with his music and the bounty of recognition, seemingly unmoved by the seductions of money.
In a later song he tells us he wants to slip away. From what? That’s the interesting thing:
“Maybe today I’ll slip away
You can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
You can keep your clocks and routines
Then I’ll go mend my shattered dreams”
In the end his dreams were not shattered, or not entirely. Nor could he completely slip away. He had touched too many and their own dreams and would remain loyal to them as well.