Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Music for the Soul

When Stephen and Craig sat down to discuss the murky history of their favorite American musician, a man known simply as Rodriguez, they had no clue as to his birthplace, upbringing, or what had become of him.  He was virtually unknown in the USA, and  according to some rumors was already dead.  Nevertheless, they felt someone should research his past.  After all, in their native South Africa, he was one of the most famous musicians of all time.

During apartheid, censorship in South Africa had resulted in the banning of music with subversive messages.  Even so, the anti-establishment music of Rodriguez, an American singer/songwriter, made its way into the county’s consciousness, and inspired its people to stand up against their tyrannical, ultra-conservative government. 

For decades, Rodriguez’ popularity was an accepted fact, even though almost nothing was known to anyone in the country about his life or death.  Finally, when Stephen and Craig began investigating the mystery, this is the story they discovered…

Rodriguez was born in Detroit, and grew up in a single-parent, working-class household.  His immigrant father exposed his son to music at a young age, playing emotional Mexican folk songs after long days of work.  The songs moved the young boy to tears, and inspired him to learn to play guitar.

By the age of 16, Rodriguez had dropped out of school, and was performing his own music in bars and seedy clubs around the city.  Eventually, he met a man who wanted to sign him to a 60-year recording contract.  He made the deal, confident he would outlive it, and he was right.  After releasing his first single, the small label went out of business.

Echoing his city’s racial tensions and economic frustrations, Rodriguez wrote politically-charged songs that brought the hard streets of Detroit to life.  He often performed with his back to the audience to force them to focus on his lyrics.  At such a show, two local musicians saw him play and were captivated.  With their help, he soon had another record deal, and recorded a folk-rock album that captured his take on the challenges of life.

Music critics loved the album, but it didn’t catch on with radio stations or the general public.  Despite that commercial failure, the label gave Rodriguez another chance.  Armed with something to prove, Rodriguez delivered his second album, another sharp musical rant about the ills of society.  Unfortunately, its sales were also disappointing.  Two weeks before Christmas, Rodriguez was dropped from his contract.

Now 29, Rodriguez had two daughters and was broke.  Putting aside music, he settled into a life of hard labor, working various construction jobs and living modestly in a derelict house he purchased in a government auction for fifty dollars.  Little did he know that, halfway around the world, he was being hailed as a musical genius.

Almost 28 years after the release of the first Rodriguez album, Craig created a website announcing his search for any information about the mysterious singer.  But the last thing he ever expected was to find that Rodriguez was actually alive!

Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, copies of both his albums had made it to South Africa when they were first released.  But there, unlike in the USA, people loved them. They loved his music so much that, for many South Africans, it was the soundtrack of their lives.  With censorship spawning the pressing of thousands of bootleg copies, more than half a million of Rodriguez’ albums had been sold there.  In spite of never seeing any success at home, he was more popular in South Africa than Elvis Presley or The Beatles.

Sixto Rodriguez will be 72 years old this July, and he’s experiencing a career renaissance.  After learning of his South African popularity, he made numerous trips there to perform for tens of thousands of people, dwarfing any show he ever played in Detroit.  Then, last year, a documentary about Rodriguez and his late-in-life popularity on the other side of the world won the Academy Award.  That film, Searching for Sugar Man, generated an explosion of new interest in the musician’s work in the USA as well.  Finally, his albums are selling in his home country, and he’s playing in front of thousands of Americans every year.

Rodriguez plays music not for the money, but for the pure joy he feels in pursuing his passion.  He connects with people because of his honesty and authenticity.  This story reminds me that dreams have no expiration date, and the path to a well-lived life begins with following your inner song.  Find what makes you unique, then share it with the world!

Until Next Week,

Live Your Dreams!

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