JOHANNESBURG – The story of Sixto Rodriguez, the greatest protest singer and songwriter that most people never heard of, is a real-life fairytale with a Hollywood finale.
In his latest incarnation, the guitarist has unwittingly become a champion for the rights of wronged musicians.
The Detroit construction worker whose albums flopped in the United States in the 1970s wants to know what happened to royalties in South Africa, where he unknowingly was elevated to rock star status.
While Rodriguez toiled in the Motor City, white liberals thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean burdened by the horrors of the apartheid regime were inspired by his songs protesting the Vietnam War, racial inequality, abuse of women and social mores.
Songs composed half a century ago that some equate to inner-city poetry still are relevant today: Like his poke at the pope’s stance on birth control, and his plaints about corrupt politicians and bored housewives.
In South Africa, they were massive and enduring hits that still sell today, considered standards like Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Waters, according to Stephen Sugar Segerman, a Cape Town record store owner whose nickname comes from the Rodriguez song Sugarman.
He’s more popular than Elvis in South Africa, Segerman said in an interview.
For decades, Rodriguez remained in the dark. Now the heartwarming documentary Searching for Sugar Man, which tells of two South Africans’ mission to seek out the fate of their musical hero, has been nominated for an Oscar.
The film by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul and the story behind it have proved transformative for several people, not least Rodriguez, who is on a worldwide tour that has included New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Even after the extent of his fame was brought home to him when he first toured South Africa to sold-out concerts 15 years ago, Rodriguez had said he had no interest in pursuing the money.
Now, he is not so sure: that people were profiting off his music doesn’t sit well with him. He plans to seek legal resolution for the lost royalties, though he’s not certain where to start.
I think omission is a sin. Withholding evidence is unethical to say the least, but I’ll resolve that, Rodriguez said in an interview with The Associated Press in a Detroit bar, months before the documentary was nominated. These were licensed releases, not just bootlegs. ... It’s in the process, but I have to get to a position to see what jurisdiction I approach. I’m ignorant. ... How do you do this?
Former Motown executive Clarence Avant still owns the rights to the music and is now being paid for them by Light In The Attic Records, which gives a new life to old recordings, according to Segerman, who acts as an unofficial publicist for Rodriguez. He said the 2008 and 2009 releases were the first time Rodriguez was paid royalties.
Now you can buy Rodriguez songs on iTunes, and the documentary soundtrack released by Light In The Attic.
He said at least 200,000 copies of both albums have sold in the last year or so.
But Rodriguez appears untouched by the money, Segerman said. Now in his 70s with failing eyesight, Rodriguez continues to live in the same old house he’s occupied for decades in Detroit and gives most of the money away to relatives and friends, Segerman said.
Rodriguez said he wasn’t wallowing in self-pity after his music career fizzled – he just went back to work. He raised a family that includes three daughters, launched several unsuccessful campaigns for public office, obtained a philosophy degree and reverted to manual labor in Detroit. He gave up the dream of living off his music but never stopped playing it.
I felt I was ready for the world, but the world wasn’t ready for me, Rodriguez said. I feel we all have a mission – we have obligations, he said. Those turns on the journey, different twists – life is not linear.