The Mexican-American Singer Who Inspired the Anti-Apartheid Movement


Searching for Sugarman

Directed by Malik Bendjelloul (2012)

Film Review

I watched an intriguing documentary on Maori TV this week about a group of white anti-apartheid musicians who decide to investigate the background of an obscure Detroit singer who became the hero of the white anti-apartheid movement. Prior to watching the film, I was totally unaware of South Africa’s white anti-apartheid movement.

During the early 1970s, apartheid South Africa was a virtual police state. White and black activists who spoke out against apartheid (or censorship, police violence, death squads, etc) faced three year prison terms. Those who engaged in street protests faced even harsher penalties.  According to the musicians interviewed in the film, Sexto Rodriguez’s iconoclastic music gave a whole generation of white South Africans the courage to resist the oppressive regime they lived under.

An anti-establishment Afrikaans band was the first to widely popularize Rodriguez’s music. Prior to 1994, it mainly circulated underground as specific songs were specifically banned by the apartheid regime. Despite being virtually invisible in the US, his two albums eventually sold 500,000 copies in South Africa.

Despite his immense popularity, South African musicians and activists knew absolutely nothing about Rodgriguez’s background. In fact, there were rumors circulating his career had ended when he committed suicide during a performance (in one version he shot himself in the head, in another he set himself on fire).

After months of investigation, music historian Craig Bartholomew-Strydom eventually learned that Rodriguez was still alive working in housing demolition in Detroit. He and other Rodriguez fans arranged to bring him to South African in 1998 for a revival concert attended by 20,000 people.

Following the concert he returns to his quiet working class life in New York, though he eventually performs six more concerts.

Hits (in South Africa) serve as the soundtrack for the film. Despite his strident anti-establishment views, he’s clearly an extremely accomplished singer-songwriter. Thus I guess it’s no surprise, his music was suppressed* in the US.

For copyright reasons, I’m unable to embed the film. However it can be viewed free (for the next few weeks) at the Maori TV website:

*In the US, anti-capitalist music isn’t overtly censored. Prior to the Internet and YouTube, people never heard it if record companies chose not to promote it.

17 thoughts on “The Mexican-American Singer Who Inspired the Anti-Apartheid Movement

    • You’re fight. At first I was really indignant at the US distributor who ripped him off for the royalties for the 500,000 albums he sold in South African while he was forced to perform really hard physical labor cleaning out abandoned homes in Detroit. However at the end of the film we learn that he gave all the money away (to family and friends) from his South African concerts.

      He comes across as a genuinely compassionate and humble man – one (as far as I can see) totally unafflicted by greed and pathological narcissism.


      • I listened to Sugar Man, and it almost immediately put me in mind of Richie Havens. Not that they sound alike, but there is that acoustic guitar and soulful voice sound with lightly produced music behind.

        It reminded me of when I was playing in a horn band in DC in 1971. It reminded me of the music that banded us together at the time.

        I have always had an eclectic taste in music, which didn’t always sit well with the music faculty. I didn’t care!

        The link on your post takes you to a page that no longer exists. Did you know?

        I am going to try to find the docu on line.


  1. I loved that documentary! We saw Rodriguez in Cape Town too. He was very shy. Sugarman also has a cover by SA musicians Just Jinger. It’s the anthem of my teenage years!


    • Excellent point, Rosaliene. I was especially impressed by his daughters description of the way he raised them – dropping them off at the library every weekend and encouraging them to think and develop their own creative potential.


  2. I haven’t seen this documentary, but I did just watch “Music for Mandela” on Netflix, a fascinating documentary about the role music played in building and maintaining national unity and international support for Mandela. (I also watched another about the power of music to help unlock the isolation of those with Alzheimer’s – “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.”)


    • There’s no question that I was influenced by protests songs by Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary and Joan Baez in the 1960s. At the time, I was totally apolitical – so clearly I wasn’t reading great political thinkers who might have influenced me. And Hollywood definitely wasn’t making any films highlighting the negative side of capitalism or the Vietnam War.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sorry that link doesn’t work for me as I had apartheid sister in-law. What’s interesting to me is western Israelite share the same views as Afrikaners .


    • My sister in-law unfortunately died from cancer at age 46 was from SA with definite apartite views and her mother was Afrikaner, at my sisters daughter wedding I met a number of groom’s relative’s from Israel and the conversation was so much like my sister in-laws patronizing view of blacks.


  4. Thanks for sharing this Dr. B! Like 99% of Americans, esp my generation “Y- millennials”, we have never heard of this artist. I’m looking forward to this documentary and checking out his music!


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