Unsung Struggle heroes; but was Sugarman one?
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Two podcast hosts set out on a search for answers and to set the record straight about the hit documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Shaun Smillie reports
Every now and again Brett Lock attempts to change history.
He logs on to Sixto Rodriguez’s Wikipedia page and edits inaccuracies about the singer’s influence on South Africa’s music scene during apartheid. What irks him most are the bits about Rodriguez’s songs serving as anti-apartheid anthems and that he was a banned artist.
It never works, though. No sooner has he logged off, he says, than Rodriguez’s fans change the edits back to the original.
The folk singer, famous for such songs as Sugar Man and I Wonder, has been wrongly written into history as a leading anti-apartheid voice, believes Lock. And a great deal of this has to do with the Oscar-winning documentary Searching For Sugar Man, which was released in 2012.
Lock is not alone in his opinions. South African artists who during the Struggle years were constantly being shaken down and hounded by security police want their role recognised too.
Recently, Lock and Leon Lazarus, his friend and co-podcast host, tried to set the record straight. They welcomed Professor Michael Drewett of Rhodes University on to their show, Tune Me What. Drewett is an expert on South African protest music during apartheid.
Their weekly podcast features South African music and during the show with Drewett they highlighted a couple of South African artists they believe were at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement.
“We discussed the fictional narrative in the movie because we felt many aspects of it were creeping into historical records as fact,” says Lock.
What concerns them is that besides robbing South African artists of their role in the apartheid era, the director of the documentary, Malik Bendjelloul, fabricated scenes in the movie. The most notable, says Lock, was a shot that was supposed to be filmed in the SABC archives.
“That was actually filmed in the Wits library,” says Lock.
Rodriguez’s story is unusual. A native of Detroit, US, he recorded two albums, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, in the early 1970s.
He was an unknown in the US, but became a phenomenal success in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
But in the age before the internet, nothing was known about him in South Africa. There were rumours he was dead, a victim of a suicide on stage. Then, in the 1990s, two South African fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, set out to find out if Rodriguez was in fact dead.
They discovered that he was living in Detroit, working on a construction site and was an unknown in his own country.
The documentary follows the two in their search for Sugar Man, the nickname given to the artist from the title of his hit song.
“Rodriguez himself never made claims that he was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement,” says Lock. Ivan Kadey was a member of a multiracial punk band called National Wake that developed a dedicated following in the nightclubs of Joburg in the 1970s and early 1980s. National Wake’s music was part of what Lock and Lazarus played on their show to illustrate the diversity of local protest in that time. “There were unsung heroes back then, and you can’t just say nothing was happening,” Kadey says, of the likes of National Wake.
Searching for Sugar Man ironically had a positive spin-off for Kadey. He attended a screening and panel discussion of the documentary when it first came out. He enjoyed the film, he says. But what bothered him was that the doccie implied that there was no protest music in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. He approached one of the panel members, Matt Sullivan, who was part of Rodriguez’s label, Light in the Attic. He told Sullivan about National Wake, and this led to a documentary about the band called National Wake - A Walk in Africa.
National Wake split in 1982, and the two black members of the outfit, brothers Gary and Punka Khoza, have died. Gary struggled with mental illness and committed suicide, while Punka died of Aids.
Other local artists from the period also paid the price for daring to speak out about the flip-side of white South Africa summed up in that well-known 1970s radio jingle that celebrated rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet.
“Look at Mzwakhe Mbuli. He was in solitary confinement twice, the second time really f***ed him up. He really did pay for his activism,” says Lloyd Ross, founder of Shifty Records, which signed many of these artists during apartheid.
Another musician, Roger Lucey, had his career cut short by the Bureau of State Security, infamously known as Boss, because he challenged the status quo.
He would learn later, during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, how policeman Paul Erasmus initiated a dirty tricks campaign against him. He was bugged, his records banned and his gigs disrupted, with tear gas and bomb threats.
What had riled the state police in particular was Lucey’s song, Lungile Tabalaza, the true story of an 18-year-old activist who “fell” from the fifth floor of the security branch’s offices in Port Elizabeth.
“They gonna make you speak if they wanna hear you speaking; They gonna get it out of you, they gonna hear your voice,” Lucey’s ballad goes. Eventually, Lucey was forced to leave South Africa.
“The vast majority of those listening to Rodriguez had no idea of any protest except maybe smoking dope,” says Ross.
Segerman, who is at the centre of Searching for Sugar Man, says he stands by the film. He says that the movie doesn’t make the claim that Rodriguez was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle. Segerman does accept that Rodriquez was not a complete unknown, as portrayed in the movie. He did tour Australia in the 1980s with rock band Midnight Oil.
“Malik (Bendjelloul) had decided that as this was a South African story he would exclude the stuff about Australia,” Segerman says.
Bendjelloul took his life in 2014.
Segerman adds that he didn’t know about the alleged fabricated scene was shot at Wits University.
“Rodriguez was very popular, and this is a lovely narrative and it has been a wonderful thing,” says Segerman. He says because of the documentary people are now interested in South Africa and its music.
Another protest musician, Jennifer Ferguson, says she is less concerned about the huge impact of Searching for Sugar Man overshadowing local struggle artists. She feels that Rodriguez’s music added to a shift in consciousness that ultimately helped lead to the fall of apartheid.
Since the release of Searching for Sugar Man, Rodriguez has finally found recognition in the US.
At 74 years old, and with his eyesight failing, one of his daughters has to lead him onto stage.
“Then when he is on stage,” says Segerman, “He just blows people’s minds.”
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.