Spotlight: Searching for Sugar Man

I’ve gotten into a funk when it comes to writing about film. But having watched three films up for Oscar nominations, “The Master,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and “Searching for Sugar Man” in very close succession, I found I had plenty to reflect on. When it came time to pick which film to write about, I had to go with the one that had the most emotional resonance for me. At the risk of making a pun, the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” struck a chord.  I felt a strong connection for the humbling and surreal tale of Sixto Rodriguez, one of the most influential and successful failures in music history.

Rodriguez is a folk singer-songwriter who never received mainstream recognition in the United States during the early 1970s. His debut album “Cold Fact” attracted brief critical attention, but afterwards both he and his fledgling music career seemed to fade away. This was not the case in South Africa however. During the Apartheid era, Rodriguez’s music not only found a large audience, but it influenced many South African musicians who would later create the songs that helped fuel the growing movement for wide-spread social change. It’s a humbling contrast. In America radio stations were not playing Rodriguez’s music because he was so obscure, yet in South Africa not only did people want more of his music, but the government actively censored tracks on his albums as they were deemed too “anti-establishment.”

So here’s the million dollar (possibly millions of dollars) question: how is it that Rodriguez never knew of his audience in South Africa and vice versa?

The film endeavors to answer this question. The answers it finds point to a long known fact about the nature of the music industry. With the exception of the largest and most successful acts, major label musicians are at the mercy of, and often exploited by, an army of A&R leeches, gold plated executives, and enough mid-level toadying bureaucrats to pack a dinner party at Kim Jong Un’s house.  One would think an industry that thrives on the success of its artists would have more common sense than to allow the most shiftless of middlemen the freedom they enjoy. But it seems clear from watching this film that the charlatans that exist within the system, who either intentionally exploit their musicians or mismanage their careers through lack of wit and/or general indifference, do not fear exposure or even prosecution. And why should they when there are so many people lining up to be the next star; who’s going to notice one more broken dream in a world littered with millions upon millions of them? At one point Clarence Avant, who owned the small label Sussex to which Rodriguez was signed, gets combative with film interviewers and challenges them to list anyone of consequence who will care enough to investigate a contract written in the 1970s.

But if you think the money trail ends with Avant, who is currently regarded in the music industry as a major player, you’d be wrong. Turns out some company in England receives the royalties. In an interview with the New York Times, “Searching For Sugar Man” director Malik Bendjelloul says:

“Rodriguez today still sells gold in South Africa—only in the last five years he sold another gold disc, but that money does not go to Clarence Avant. It goes to another company in England, and someone should investigate what happens with that money. I spoke to a South African lawyer who solved the case of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ and he said, ‘Sure, we can solve this, but it will take three years and we will need some money because these things are difficult.’

I didn’t get too deep into what happens with Rodriguez’s record checks today, because the story is not really about money. We had a country during apartheid that was isolated, so we didn’t have any cultural exchange. The South African record labels didn’t search for him because they couldn’t bring him to South Africa anyway, it was a boycott. We had a guy who was living in a house without a telephone, which is not very common, and we had a time before the Internet, the third factor. I mean, there are a few factors that made this story happen and the money is only one of those factors, I think.”

I think one of the reasons I connected with Roderiguez’s story in the way I did is because I have dealt with shady industry music types in the past. A couple years ago on assignment for this very publication, I got to watch the shell game up close. In what was meant to be a brief interview, a small-time label owner tried to play up the “local” card by stating a film, starring one of his artists of course, had been shot exclusively in Oklahoma. He also bragged about how the film had been retweeted by public figures. I don’t know what he was hoping to accomplish by outright lying to me, because it’s my job to look stuff up. In the age of the Internet fact checking is a whole lot easier than it used to be. I used my iPhone to check out some of his claims. And what I discovered immediately was that the only truth he seemed to have for me was that: yes, he owns a small label and he does, for better or worse, represent the artists he listed. But that film shot exclusively in Oklahoma? It had production stills from out of state on its website. Those retweets? Sock puppet publicity stunts re-posted on Facebook. After that meeting, I decided to check around the Internet some more and noticed a repeating pattern of dubious publicity tactics. Needless to say, I had no interest in learning more about the musicians he “represented.”

How does this experience connect to an overlooked musician from the early 70s? Because times are changing, albeit slowly, and because in journalism school you’re taught to believe in the “Free Market of Ideas.” This hallowed ideal that maintains in societies where speech is protected and information openly scrutinized, the “Truth” will always prevail. I remember feeling a measure of pity for the artists this small time label owner represented. They trust this man to help build their careers in a highly competitive industry. But from my perspective, he was ruining their credibility before they’d even had a chance to connect to their potential audiences. Nowadays the majority of artists are probably better served by honesty and a working knowledge of social media. I understand some will be incredibly shy like Rodriguez, who played his first public performances with his back to the audience, but learning to overcome shyness, along with the myth that you have to suffer to make good art, will likely serve them better than trusting their reputations and best interests to small-time confidence tricksters who will say anything, true or not, to get ahead.

To this end, after watching the film you have to wonder how Sixto Rodriguez would have fared had he started his career in the post-Internet age. Granted he was shy, but he proves to be a persistent figure in other ways. When he runs for mayor seven times in Detroit, I can’t help but wonder if he would have made music in his bedroom with the same kind of dedication and posted it to platforms like Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Youtube, Facebook, Tumblr, or whatever service he liked best. Today all you need is a smart phone with apps. Because the whole process of getting “heard” is that much more streamlined: record, upload, share, and repeat. I’ve seen friends get gigs based on a video made with a cell phone, which was then uploaded to Youtube. Other friends have built an entire musical universe around the Internet from day one, connecting with fans and other artists and staying constantly in touch with a wider community, something Rodriguez was pointedly cut off from.

When I think about the ability of artists like Ernest Greene, of Washed Out, to connect with potential listeners, it serves as a reminder that the cultural stranglehold the gatekeepers have had is weakening. Greene never set out to promote his music. Instead he made it as a way to deal with his feelings of failure. He graduated with a Masters degree in Library Sciences, but could not find work in his job field. He was forced to move back into his parents house to save money. As a way to stay positive, he would record songs and upload them to MySpace under the moniker Washed Out. People connected to it and his musical career, intentional or not, took off. Why do I bother mentioning a contemporary Indie musician like Ernest Greene? Because like Greene, Sixto Rodriguez is college educated, only Rodriguez holds a degree in Philosophy. Considering he’s generally worked as a manual laborer, it is safe to say he was never hired in his field either.

Another key element that made a huge impression upon me was the impact of race and culture. When film interviewers asked the people who helped to produce Rodriguez’s music why he never gained attention in the US, Avant and others speculated that it might have been because he was Hispanic. At the time Latin music wasn’t a “thing” that had caught on in popularity as it would in later decades. Never mind that Rodriguez is much more an inner-city “plight of the working poor” musician, in the vein of Bob Dylan or John Lennon, than he is like other Latin rockers from the era like Carlos Santana. But there it is: his name might have been too ethnic.

I have a genuine appreciation for the way in which Rodriguez expresses his spirituality. It is so very Hispanic and it resonates with me very deeply even though I’m completely an Atheist. Anyone who grew up with a family history directly touched by the hand of Spanish colonialism, or who at the very least has studied the historical figures within these cultures with any real depth, may be able to appreciate the stoic and contemplative nature Rodriguez displays in his interviews. He has the kind of spirit that is willing to weather the good and the bad with a gravitas not typically seen in American mainstream society, which is to say nothing of celebrity culture in general. His quiet mannerisms and way of walking the streets of Detroit as a perpetual wanderer, reminds me of a few characters in Latin American literature and history. It’s safe to say that the restless vagabond is something of a Latino archetype.

Rodriguez is very earnest about championing the struggles of the working class, yet he does not use that passion for social justice as a way to promote himself more effectively, even when he was running for mayor of Detroit. He doesn’t seem to see or perhaps doesn’t want to see a correlation between making a difference and being popular. You’d think a “folk hero” would be striving for recognition to make more of an impact, but I loved the way Bendjelloul, the director, illustrated Rodriguez’s paradoxical nature without imposing judgement. Rather than portray Rodriguez as someone who revels in his own martyrdom we get scenes of Rodriguez enjoying the adoration of his South African fans.

Viewers are given the portrait of a man who will deal with success or failure on his own terms. And there is no doubt in my mind that the resulting contrast between recognition and humility might make some uncomfortable. There will always be an air of mystery as to why certain ideas and people gain a popular following as they do. And while there are ways to exploit the many factors that play into gaining wide exposure,  I think Rodriguez’s story illustrates that at the end of the day you better be talented, you better have something to say, and no matter what you do, you’ll need a bit of luck too.

Check out the interview with Malik Bendjelloul here.

One comment to “Spotlight: Searching for Sugar Man”
  1. A well-argued article. Congratulations to the author. As a South African who grew up in the Fifties, I was well-nigh oblivious of Rodriguez until I saw that most remarkable and moving film. Now I am an ardent fan, and having read this article, am curious about the company in England that Bendjelloul says the money goes to.

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