Sugarman’s Songs Carry a Nation to Freedom


Cold Fact 2I’m pretty sure my good friend Will Shakespeare, if alive, would agree ‘the iPod Nano is mightier than the sword’.  OK – maybe not the sleek iPod itself – but the songs in our playlists.

A quick check of my playlists shows that I’ve got music dating back to 1853!  After hearing Beyonce’s Ave Maria, I curiously downloaded the original song.  Beyonce aka Sasha Fierce’s 2008 version is way more catchy.  No surprises there.

Mr Shakespeare would no doubt support the power of songs today to move and shape what people Down Under and around the world think and feel.  I bet he’d also agree that songs make an even bigger impact than a sword fight or battle.

And so it is with a 1960s singer Rodriguez aka Sugarman who was only declared alive around 15 years ago, this year.

His folksy music, like Bob Dylan, talked of confusion and pain in life, and being unhappy with society.  It also spoke of love with his words packing a punch, “…the best kiss I had is the one I never tasted.”  Think about that for a moment.

Sugarman (named after a character in one of his songs) earned rock star status in South Africa, at a time when apartheid was at its height.  By the 1970s, he was bigger there than the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and the Beatles.  Yet, to the rest of the world, he was a virtual nobody.

According to South African interviewees in this year’s Oscar winning doco, Searching for Sugarman, the singer’s words became weapons to fight apartheid and motivated people to believe that it was OK to be anti-establishment.

What’s more, his words gave people hope when it seemed like there was none.  One interviewee reported of being set free, just by listening to Sugarman’s words which, by the way, were not written with apartheid in mind.

The Ministry of Censorship took swift action and Sugarman’s music was soon banned.  Well, technically, you could buy his records but the “offending” songs were scratched with a sharp object so they couldn’t be played.  Like all things that are banned, they go underground and become more desirable.

Suddenly, in a heartbeat, Sugarman went MIA.  The buzz in South Africa was that he’d blown out his brains on stage or died of a drug overdose.  Such are the stories created around artists.  At any rate, in the pre-Internet era there was no way to check up on the singer.

Fast forward to the 1990s and an enterprising South African journalist and major fan searches for Sugarman.  By now, humanitarian Nelson Mandela is a free man and apartheid is officially abolished.

You may have already guessed how this playbook unfolds, because so far the truth seems stranger than fiction.

In an attempt to track down Sugarman, his story and a drawing of his face are placed on a specially created website.  Hey presto!  One day, while at work, his daughter goes online to follow up a downloaded story from that site which she’d been sent earlier.  In a nanosecond she realises the person in question is her dad.  The rest, as they say, is history.

When found, Sugarman is working as a labourer; he hadn’t received due royalties from his record sales.  Moreover, he had no idea of his superstar status in the rainbow nation.

On request, he returned there to perform in 1998, racking up six sold out concerts of around 30,000 people.

Sugarman’s words inspired thousands and motivated them to dream big, for sure.  I’ll bet many held the idea, at times, that the tyranny of apartheid could one day end.

Most of all, Sugarman’s words – and the ideas they inspired – showed the beauty of the human spirit.  Now that’s gobsmacking stuff.

BTW, I’m still not sure of Sugarman’s first name – he had a couple – it could have been Sixto or Jesus.  It’s another mystery, just like the one that follows my good friend Mr Shakespeare.  Who knows if he was an individual or a group of people writing under a pen name?

Sample Sugarman at

  • Do you have any stories of how words have been used to bring about significant change?
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