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Sixto Rodriguez: 'Searching for Sugar Man' singer dies aged 81

Cult 1970s musician Sixto Rodriguez dies aged 81
Cult 1970s musician Sixto Rodriguez dies aged 81 Copyright Getty Images
Copyright Getty Images
By David MouriquandAP
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RIP Sixto Rodriguez, who made an unlikely late-career resurgence through bootlegs, reissues, and an Oscar-winning documentary.


Singer and songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, who became the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman, has died. He was 81.

Rodriguez' death was announced on the website and confirmed today by his granddaughter, Amanda Kennedy.

Rodriguez' albums flopped in the United States in the 1970s, but — unknown to him — he later became a star in South Africa where his songs protesting the Vietnam War, racial inequality, abuse of women and social mores inspired white liberals horrified by the country's brutal racial segregation system of apartheid.

Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul's documentary Searching for Sugar Man presented Rodriguez to a much larger audience. The film tells of two South Africans’ mission to seek out the fate of their musical hero. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2013.

Rodriguez was “more popular than Elvis” in South Africa, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman said in 2013. The Cape Town record store owner's nickname comes from the Rodriguez song “Sugarman.”

As his popularity in South Africa grew, Rodriguez lived in Detroit. But his fans in South Africa believed he also was famous in the US. Some of Rodriguez songs were banned by the apartheid regime and many bootlegged copies were made on tapes and later CDs.

In 1996, Segerman and journalist Carl Bartholomew-Strydom set out to learn the truth. Their efforts led them to Detroit, where they found Rodriguez working on construction sites.

Rodriguez said he just “went back to work” after his music career fizzled, raising a family that includes three daughters and launching several unsuccessful campaigns for public office. He made a living through manual labour in Detroit.

Still, he never stopped playing his music.

“I felt I was ready for the world, but the world wasn’t ready for me,” Rodriguez said. “I feel we all have a mission - we have obligations. Those turns on the journey, different twists - life is not linear.”

He was unaware of his popularity abroad, which partly stemmed from bootlegged copies of his album 'Cold Fact' circulating in South Africa. 

Nearly four decades after he first released his albums, he found an audience in the US. 'Cold Fact' and 'Coming to Reality' were reissued by Light in the Attic in 2009.  

The release of the documentary in 2012 saw his career enjoy another resurgence, and he began touring and recording again. A few years later, Rodriguez was playing sold-out shows in South Africa's biggest arenas.

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