Even though his albums struggled to make a mark in the United States during the 1970s, Rodriguez's impact was felt in a different part of the world.
It is said that art is powerful. But who would have thought it had the power to empower a whole nation? It is a story of art, music and Rodriguez. However, it is not about a has-been American musician who lived and died a short-lived fame. It is the story of an artist who, with his music, empowered a whole nation to rise over oppression. It is the story of encouragement and inspiration, one that became known to everyone, including Sixto Rodriguez, only recently. A 2013 Associated Press story referred to Rodriguez as "the greatest protest singer and songwriter that most people never heard of." Despite his albums flopping in the United States in the 1970s, they went off the charts somewhere else.
However, this was unknown to him as well that his songs made him quite famous in South Africa, where his songs protesting the Vietnam War, racial inequality, abuse of women and social mores inspired white liberals horrified by the country's brutal racial segregation system of apartheid. In 2013, Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul made an Academy Award-winning documentary called "Searching for Sugar Man," which presented Rodriguez to a bigger audience. The documentary is based on the story of two South Africans who made it their mission to seek out the fate of their musical hero: Sixto Rodriguez.
Despite his popularity in South Africa growing, Rodriguez lived in Detroit unaware. Even his fans in South Africa believed he was also famous in the United States. However, they had heard a lot of crazy rumors about their hero, right from committing murder to dying a gruesome death.
In 1996, Segerman and journalist Carl Bartholomew-Strydom set out to learn the truth, and their efforts led them to Detroit, where they found Rodriguez working on construction sites. In a conversation with the Associated Press a decade ago, Rodriguez told them that he returned to work after his music career fizzled out and continued raising his family of three daughters while launching several unsuccessful campaigns for public office. He mostly made ends meet by doing manual labor in Detroit. Still, he never stopped playing his music. In the same conversation with AP, he said, "I felt I was ready for the world, but the world wasn't ready for me. I feel we all have a mission—we have obligations. Those turns on the journey, different twists — life is not linear."
Konny Rodriguez, his wife, said the couple met in 1972 while both were students at Wayne State University in Detroit and married in the early 1980s, as reported by the Associated Press. "He loved college. He was born to be taught, to teach himself. The music was more to bring people together. He would play anywhere, anytime. That's where I noticed him. He was walking down Cass Avenue with a guitar and a black bag. He was a really eccentric guy," she added.
In 1979, he got a call from a guy with an Australian accent asking him to perform in Australia since he was famous there and so he did. That's when he learned he was also quite popular in South Africa. However, his wife stated: "Apartheid was going on. Frank Sinatra had a full-page ad, 'Do not go to South Africa.' We didn't." He did, however, tour South Africa after the apartheid ended and it was insane, according to his wife.
RIP Sixto Rodriguez aka Sugar Man 🙏🏼❤️— The Kiffness (@TheKiffness) August 9, 2023
A legend with the most amazing life story. In the US he lived in relative obscurity, but was hugely popular in here South Africa without him ever knowing until much later on.
We will never witness a story like his in our lifetime again. pic.twitter.com/Q8QO8wcdKY
Sixto Rodriguez lived in obscurity as his music career flamed out early in the US, only to find out years later that his career had actually found success in South Africa. At 81 years of age, he died on August 8, 2023, in Detroit with stardom he never really got a chance to enjoy to the fullest. His songs were so popular in South Africa that the authorities of the apartheid regime had them banned. Yet somehow, there were always bootlegged copies available, made on tapes and CDs.
His death was announced on the Sugarman.org website and confirmed Wednesday by his granddaughter, Amanda Kennedy. He died following a short illness, according to his wife. However, he surely lived a life worth living. He helped a country full of people in a way one can only hope to. He didn't fight for anyone, but he gave people the strength to fight for themselves.