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US Music Flop Emerges as Anti-Apartheid Anthem

  • Alan Silverman

Rodriguez, a folk-rock troubadour from Detroit, cut a couple of albums in the 1970s which flopped in the US. What he didn't know was that his music became popular in South Africa.(Photo by Hal Wilson, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Rodriguez, a folk-rock troubadour from Detroit, cut a couple of albums in the 1970s which flopped in the US. What he didn't know was that his music became popular in South Africa.(Photo by Hal Wilson, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

HOLLYWOOD — Forty years ago, an American singer-songwriter whose music never found an audience at home became a star in South Africa, but he didn't know it until decades later.

A new documentary by a Swedish filmmaker tells the remarkable story of "Searching For Sugar Man."

"It's still a bit of a mystery how the first copy of 'Cold Fact' actually came to South Africa, but it spread very quickly," says Capetown record store owner Stephen Segerman. "To many of us South Africans, he was the soundtrack to our lives."

Segerman is talking about Rodriguez, a folk-rock troubadour from the American midwest city of Detroit who cut a couple of albums in the 1970s. But they flopped and he went on with his life.


As Stockholm-based filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul discovered, the music took on a life of its own on the other side of the world.

"In 2006, I was traveling around Africa and South America for six months looking for stories, and in Cape Town I met Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, the detective in the story, and he told me how this all came about and I thought 'this is the best story I ever heard in my life,'" says Bendjelloul. "It's about a man who didn't know he was famous."



In the film, Segerman explains how Rodriguez's songs, including "Sugar Man" and "I Wonder" became anthems for the country's white youth who began to stand up against Apartheid.
Malik Bendjelloul's documentary, "Searching for Sugar Man," about the quest to find Rodriguez, won a special grand jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Festival. (Photo by Sven-Ake Visen, Courtesy Malik BendjelloulSony Pictures Classics

Malik Bendjelloul's documentary, "Searching for Sugar Man," about the quest to find Rodriguez, won a special grand jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Festival. (Photo by Sven-Ake Visen, Courtesy Malik BendjelloulSony Pictures Classics


"In the 1970s, 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 'Abbey Road' by the Beatles, 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' by Simon and Garfunkel and 'Cold Fact' by Rodriguez," he says. "To us it was one of the most famous records of all time. The message it had was 'be anti-establishment.' One song is called 'The Anti-Establishment Blues.' We didn't know what the word was until it cropped up on a Rodriguez song, and then we found it's OK to protest against your society, to be angry with your society."

But Rodriguez remained a mystery, and rumors even spread that he had committed suicide during a performance.

Segerman and a South African journalist friend set out to discover the true story.

That quest led them to a run-down Detroit neighborhood where they found their hero, very much alive, but totally unaware of his fame and the impact of his music.
Record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman led the search to find Rodriguez. (Photo by Camilla Skagerström, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman led the search to find Rodriguez. (Photo by Camilla Skagerström, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)


Rodriguez is grateful his message found an audience.

"In the film it points out how it was banned from certain radio play and if they don't want you to listen to it and don't want you to talk about it, they really don't want you to think about it either," he says. "I think people need to express themselves."

"Searching For Sugar Man" includes scenes from the 1998 Cape Town concert which marked Rodriguez's first visit to South Africa.

Since then, he's been back several times. He's recording new music and is still commenting on social issues. The documentary won a special grand jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Festival.
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