I have a friend who is a serious artist, and creates beautiful renditions of nature scenes. In fact, he recently had an exhibit at a well known New York gallery. He often debates within himself whether he should do more to promote his art or whether he should just create and leave the rest to God’s intervention. In the inspiring documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, Rodriguez, a Detroit folksinger, resolves the question of how much an artist should promote his work by disappearing into the woodwork and letting fate determine his destiny.
Sixto Rodriguez’s story is fascinating and wondrous. He recorded two albums in the 1970s, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, that sold only a few copies. Singing and writing songs in the style of Bob Dylan, Rodriguez impressed early impresarios with his smooth blend of thoughtful lyrics and catchy melodies, and they thought he was the genuine article who would be famous. However, as Rodriguez himself says, the music business is unpredictable and no one can predict with accuracy who will succeed and who will not.
In spite of not making musical waves in America, his albums serendipitously reached South Africa and there Rodriguez became a musical icon comparable to Elvis Presley. His music became the national anthem of the anti-apartheid movement. His lyrics, in particular, were liberating and inspiring to the Afrikaner protest musicians of the 1980s. Ironically, Rodriguez was totally unaware of this and was living the blue collar life of a construction laborer in Detroit. Sadly, he never received any of the royalties for the 500,000 albums he sold.
Rumors abounded about him in South Africa. Some said he committed suicide publicly by lighting himself on fire; others said he shot himself or died of a drug overdose. No one really knew him. But two of his fans decided to investigate what really happened to Rodriguez. They began looking for clues to his roots in the lyrics of his songs. Eventually, the cities mentioned in his songs led them to find Rodriguez’s origins at Motown Records in Detroit, the birthplace of many successful rock stars.
The eureka moment arrived when the fans discovered that Rodriguez was still alive and living the simple life of a day laborer in Detroit with his daughters. This revelation motivated his South African fans to arrange a concert tour in South Africa in the 1990s where he played to thousands of fans of all ages, many of whom knew his songs by heart. Reports of his successful shows reached his friends in Detroit who could not believe that their quiet and unassuming friend was a real rock star with a massive following.
The coda at the end of films informs us that even when Rodriguez made money at his South African performances, he gave it all away to family and friends. For him, it was enough to share his music with his adoring fans. He did not seek fame; rather he sought human connection with his admirers. He wanted fan and artist to symbiotically commune through the language of lyric and song.
The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us that when man seeks fame and recognition, they will elude him. Rodriguez, by living an unadorned life away from the bright lights of celebrity and by eschewing materialism, provides a thoughtful model for us to emulate in our acquisitive age. Our Sages tells us that the truly rich man is the man who is content with what he already has. Searching for Sugar Man reminds us that it is who we are that give us our identity, not what we possess.