In the 1970’s a folk artist from Detroit penned and recorded some of the most poignant songs of our time. An edgy brand of inner-city poetry, his songs addressed societal issues that were tearing our country apart: war, racial inequality, abuse of women, poverty, drugs and corruption. They were heartrending and profound. They expressed the frustration of an entire generation. And due to a lack of commercial success – they were never heard.
Across the Atlantic, South Africa was being rocked by the oppression and violence of apartheid at the same time. However, thanks to the underground anti-establishment songs of one particular musician, the seeds of full-blown protest were being sown. In a country where speaking out against apartheid meant imprisonment and other atrocities, this was nothing short of a miracle. His records were secreted into every liberal home, and he became a bigger household name than Bob Dylan.
Believe it or not, these two stories are about the same man.
When his music career plummeted here in the states, a singer known only as “Rodriguez” fell into obscurity. He took work as a day laborer, giving up his dream of music though he never stopped playing it. And though he was achieving mythological status in South Africa, for almost 40 years he had no idea what an icon he’d become. It wasn’t until 1998, long after apartheid ended, that the humble 70 year-old was found by two South Africans seeking the fate of their country’s musical hero. The answer to the mystery, and his incredible story, led to the filming of a documentary called Searching for Sugar Man. To put it all in perspective for you, one fan has said it’s been like watching Elvis come back from the dead.
Thinking about this story, it occurred to me that we all share a fantasy: We all dream that one day our talents will be recognized and appreciated by the world. I also think most of us are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. And I wonder, what if Rodriguez had never been found? Would that diminish his contribution to the world or make it any less real? And just because he didn’t “make it” here where he had hoped to, does that mean his success elsewhere is less significant? Most importantly, what if all this time we have been making a difference and, like Rodriguez, we just haven’t been aware of it?
According to his friend, Rick Emmerson, Rodriguez approached life, even his construction job, from a different place than most people do. “He had this magical quality that all poets and artists have,” he said, “to elevate things, to get above the mundane… all the mediocrity that’s everywhere. Even when his music hopes were dashed [his] spirit remained, and he just had to keep refining the process of how to apply himself. He knew there was something more… He wanted to make a difference.”
I think there’s a lot we can learn from Rodriguez’s story. It would be very easy, in our day to day lives, to assume that we have somehow fallen short of our goals. And we also may never fully understand the impact our lives will have on others. But wherever life may take us, even if it’s far off the beaten path, it’s important to remember that our efforts are never wasted if we approach life with sincerity and an open mind – and if we take what surrounds us and try to make it better. And maybe, if we live our lives with a sense of purpose, we can have faith that we will make a difference in the world, sometimes in places and with people we least expect.