In the 1960s and 1970s, most Americans tuned in to the protest music of Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel, to rock legends like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. At that time, few Americans had ever heard of Rodriguez, a protest rock musician who, after making two albums in the early '70s, quit the music business.
Rodriguez returned to his native Detroit and began working in construction, but his music played on for decades — just not in the United States. Rodriguez's albums became the most popular music in South Africa, to the point that documentary filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul describes him as "more famous than the Rolling Stones" throughout the country. The song "Establishment Blues" became South Africa's anti-apartheid anthem, as young citizens identified with the line, "the system is gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune."
While South Africans bought Rodriguez's records in droves, the musician lived in obscurity, until one day in 1996, when a South African music writer showed up at his door.
"After 30 years, in the mid 1990s, there is this detective in South Africa who tries to search for the truth on how Rodriguez died, because in South Africa, he's as famous and as dead as Jimi Hendrix," says Bendjelloul. It was common knowledge that Rodriguez died, but the cause of death was disputed — some believed he had shot himself onstage in Texas, while others said that he burned himself alive. Still others thought he suffered a drug overdose.
The detective searched for years, Bendjelloul says, and finally found the album's producer thanks to a lyrical reference to Detroit, Rodriguez's hometown. When the detective asked him excitedly about how the cult legend in South Africa had died, the producer was confused, as the construction worker from Detroit was still very much alive. "I saw him this morning," said the producer. "He lives down the street!"
Two South Africans, record-store owner Stephen Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew, confirmed the true via an email from the singer's daughter in 1998. The news was akin to if Elvis had been found to be still living. Rodriguez, who had had no idea of his huge popularity in South Africa, went to the country to tour before sold-out crowds who sang the lyrics of his songs back at him.
"Rodriguez was singing really hard, political stuff," Bendjelloul says. "He was singing anti-establishment lyrics, and in those days in South Africa, that was completely forbidden. You couldn't sing those words." Banned from the radio, Rodriguez's albums were sold by the hundreds of thousands, and eventually went platinum.
The trip was a blast of "culture shock" for Rodriguez. "I met the audiences in South Africa, and a soldier came up and told me, 'We made love to your music, [and] we made war to your music,'" he says.
Bendjelloul explores Rodriguez's remarkable rags-to-riches tale in his new documentary, "Searching for Sugar Man."