Detroit musician rises to fame during apartheid, inspires documentary

Sep 16, 2013

Credit Searching for Sugar Man Facebook page

The fantastical story of how Detroit-based folk musician Sixto Rodriguez, unknown in the U.S., suddenly found himself a big sensation overseas is the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man which will be shown Wednesday at Western Michigan University.

The event will be held at 6 p.m. in Brown Hall room 1028. It's free and open to the public. It kicks off the university’s observance of Hispanic Heritage Month. WMUK's Earlene McMichael talks to WMUK's own Alma Latina Host Mike Ramirez about how Rodriguez, now 71, is finally getting his due in America, thanks to the movie. 

Searching for Sugar Man won an Oscar for Best Documentary Film at the Academy Awards in February, one of more than 30 awards it has earned. Ramirez is coordinating the Hispanic Heritage Month events in his role as an assistant director in WMU’s Division of Multicultural Affairs.

He says he remembers being a freshman at Western in the mid-70s when he stumbled across an album from a young Rodriquez at a Kalamazoo record store. Ramirez had no idea who the Mexican-American singer-songwriter was, but he recalls the man’s Hispanic features drew him to the album cover and he couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride.

“Little did I realize that, 40 years later, here I am bringing a film about Sixto Rodriguez” to the university, Ramirez says.

Ramirez says he hopes the film provides a vehicle for people “to appreciate more in terms of different types of music and about Latin music,” as well as to hear a success story about a Detroit native. 

Rodriguez released two albums in the U.S. in the early ‘70s. Neither did well, so he turned to construction and other work to feed his family. Unknown to him, his songs had found fans abroad – first in Australia in the late seventies, and then several decades later, in the late ‘90s, in South Africa. The documentary details his resurgence in popularity in South Africa, at a time in its history when the country was in the process of dismantling the government-sponsored system of racial discrimination known as apartheid.

Detroit Free Press reporter Julie Hinds writes that Rodriguez’s music resonated with “a generation of dissatisfied white South Africans who embraced Rodriguez’s gritty folk songs and Bob Dylanesque lyrical grace, along with his frankness about politics, race, economics and sex. In a country oppressed by apartheid and heavy censorship, Rodriguez soon became as big a celebrity and cultural force as Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones.” (Hear some audio clips of his songs)

A group of rapt fans started wondering if Rodriguez was still living, and thus began the search for the singer, who ultimately came to South Africa to perform. First-time Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul became enamored with the tale and made it into a documentary. The movie, which took four years to complete, further revived Rodriguez’s career. And it’s showing in his pocketbook. According to Rolling Stone magazine in a March 13th article, he netted over $700,000 alone for several shows in South Africa. Yet, Rodriguez continues to live modestly. He doesn’t own a car, or a TV. 

Next month, WMU will host a Spanish Film Festival featuring subtitled films recommended by the Department of Spanish at Western Michigan University. Films will be shown nightly from 6:30 to 8 p.m., from Tuesday, Oct. 22 through Thursday, Oct. 24, in Brown Hall’s Room 2028. Hispanic Heritage Month events are sponsored by the Division of Multicultural Affairs and the College Assistance Migrant Program. For a complete listing of programming, including the Day of the Dead Festival, visit the division’s website.