Searching for Sugarman
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul (2012)
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.