Sixto Rodriguez is a Mexican-American singer-songwriter from Detroit.
His life story is incredible. A construction worker who drifted around the city’s working-class districts writing about poverty, alienation, drug abuse, and class struggle, he was discovered by Detroit-based music producers in the late 60s who hailed his songwriting talent as comparable to that of Bob Dylan’s.
When his two albums, released in 1970 and 1971, flopped in America, he went back to construction work and relative anonymity, going on to gain a degree in philosophy and stand as a candidate in local government elections, all the while continuing to work construction.
Unbeknownst to him, his music became phenomenally successful in South Africa, where radical Afrikaner youth involved in the anti-apartheid movement adopted it as the soundtrack to their rebellion, despite government attempts to censor it.
Nothing was known about his life, and wild rumours circulated about him having committed suicide on stage following his commercial failure in America. He was eventually tracked down by a South African music journalist and brought to the country in the late 1990s to play a series of sold-out shows. Despite belatedly benefiting from his enormous popularity, he continues to live in the same working-class neighbourhood of Detroit where he has lived for 40 years.
His songs combine starkly realist urban imagery with surreal and psychedelic visions, and the stories they tell are played out by a cast of characters which are at once fantastical and recognisable as everyday and real.
The incredible story of his superstardom in South Africa and the search to find him is brilliantly recounted in Malik Bendjelloul’s 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The film, and Rodriguez’s music, both deserve the widest possible audience.
The Ruby Kid
The mayor hides the crime rate
Council woman hesitates
Public gets irate but forget the vote date
Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining
Everyone’s protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting
You’re not like all of the rest.
Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people, they’ve been abusing
The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me that this is where it’s at.
Woke up this morning with an ache in my head
Splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed
Opened the window to listen to the news
But all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues.
Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer, smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.
(For the full lyrics, see here)