If you haven’t seen the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, then consider this a spoiler alert. If you’ve already seen it or you’re not going to see it any time soon, then keep on reading. (But first, take a second to sign this Change.org petition!)
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez created brilliant music that was the stuff of legend, but for whatever the reason, his records didn’t sell in America. And he fell into obscurity.
It is rare that a documentary elicits emotions that I carry with me for days and weeks after I have seen it. But that is just what Searching for Sugar Man did. This film tells the story of Rodriguez, whose songs inspired the movement to end apartheid in South Africa and whose lyrics became anthems of change for people around the world.
However, nobody knew what happened to the artist, and ghastly rumors about his demise abounded. In this genre-defining music-mystery, the filmmakers set out to determine what happened to Rodriguez, whose lyrics were favorably compared to Bob Dylan’s based on their insight and calls to action. This led to another question: Why did Rodriguez never make it in America, even though he hailed from Detroit? This question (and many others) are answered in the film, but ultimately Rodriguez emerges as a larger-than-life character who remains humble and true to his roots and beliefs.
After not finding mainstream success as an artist, Rodriguez spent some fifty odd years as a humble laborer in Detroit, remodeling homes while also heading to college later in life to earn a bachelor’s degree. He was never bitter about the twist of fate that prevented him from achieving fame in America. And even while achieving success (due in part to the film) in recent years, he distributes the money he earns to his family and friends.
Any marketing student would tell you that when a customer evangelizes for a brand, that symbolizes the pinnacle of success. And while I rarely see myself as a brand ambassador, I now find myself telling friends to go see this film, listening to the soundtrack on repeat, and even going so far as to wait in line for four hours last week in hopes of scoring a last-minute ticket to see Rodriguez perform live in New York City.
Rodriguez pays great lyrical homage to the downtrodden of Detroit, where he has lived all his life:
Sugar man, won’t you hurry
‘Cos I’m tired of these scenes
For the blue coin won’t you bring back
All those colors to my dreams
But it was his more universal themes that inspired revolution against the apartheid regime in South Africa and the country’s repressive ethos:
I wonder how many times you been had
And I wonder how many dreams have gone bad
I wonder how many times you’ve had sex
And I wonder do you care who’ll be next
Seeing Rodriguez live, he seemed older, slower, and quieter than he appears in the film. I watched as an assistant escorted him to and from the stage, as he was too frail to walk alone. And then I realized: Rodriguez may not be able to perform for much longer, and while there is all of this fanfare and hype around him and his work right now, what can I, as one of thousands of his fans, do at this moment, to bring him his overdue recognition?
A little research showed that grassroots efforts are an acceptable way to petition Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., to nominate someone for a Kennedy Center Honor (lifetime achievement award). I created a Change.org petition, with a target of 50,000 signatures to get Rodriguez the recognition he deserves. Please sign here, and show that, right or left, Democrat or Republican, you support recognition for a man whose recognition is long overdue, and stands for all that makes America great.