In Malik Bendjelloul’s powerful documentary “Searching for Sugar Man”, the ultimate reality of modern day Detroit is put on full display and essential life lessons are taught. The story grounds me and keeps me humble and appreciative of all the opportunities that I have coming from a place that is not seen as a hindrance to the American economy. Using the story of Sixto Rodriquez, a struggling musician from the 1960s, Bendjellou is able to fit the mindset of Detroit through the story of this one man.
Based in Detroit, Rodriquez made some of the best music heard by the some the biggest music producers in America, yet barely sold any records in America or in his hometown. Rodriguez will later learn that his music is the sound of the South African revolution during the rise of racial tension. He was an international superstar to the likes of James Brown and Bob Dylan. Detroit never buys into this talent; instead their economy keeps him doing hard labor. Through the documentary, so much can be learned about how Detroit’s one-lane economy is blocking roads in other areas of possible revenue. The valuable part of this documentary is the introduction to Rodriguez’s extremely influential music.
Watching this documentary made me think about Hobbes‘ philosophy about the nature of man. He claims that “men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all.” Rodriguez did not have this mentality. Even after he learned of his iconic status overseas, Rodriguez stays in Detroit and still works his own job. He continues his normal, humble life, enjoying the company of his fellow Detroit workers and does not bask in any power or glory.
The moment I arrived back home after watching the documentary, I listened to both his albums “Cold Fact” and “Coming of Reality.” Both of these masterpieces are eye-openers to the poor economic situation and living in the inner city of Detroit. He vividly describes, both through straightforward description and abstract metaphors, stories and scenes from the cities. The harmful drugs, the abused women, and the thin job market are all deeply discussed in these albums. While telling these harsh stories, Rodriguez is ultimately pulling out a positive and revolutionary message, making the irony even greater that almost nobody in Detroit was exposed to this music. What happened in South Africa is an example of the impact this music can have on a society. Maybe this “revolution” music could have been a soundtrack for the race riots in 1979, but Detroit did not give this man the opportunity. Instead, he remained a part of the stagnant economy. When asked if he knows that in South Africa he’s bigger than Elvis or the Beatles, Rodriguez says, “I don’t know how to respond to that.” Rodriguez relays an extremely valuable lesson for all college students. Always pursue your passion and even when it seems that it is taking you nowhere and is having no visible impact, the hard work will ultimately add up to success.