Rodriguez - The Myths and The Mystery

"... the Rodriguez phenomenon..."

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Usatoday USA Today, 26th March, 1998

Singer embodies South Africa's hopes
by Ellis Cose

A month ago, I had never heard of a folk singer who goes by the name of Rodriguez, and odds are neither had you. Then I went to Cape Town, South Africa, and in a bizarrely pleasant evening, courtesy of some journalists with the Cape Times, enlightenment arrived. I saw Rodriguez received in a venue called the Velodrome as if he were a cross between Bob Dylan and a resurrected Elvis. Rodriguez is a native of Detroit who reportedly sometimes works menial jobs back home but is well known in certain South African circles for his musical commentary on love, injustice and drugs. Hordes of devoted fans (largely white and mostly young) surrounded the stage, many singing his songs from memory. More than one stray bra and a pair of panties landed at the singer's feet.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez, revered if somewhat befuddled, did his best to remember music he had not performed in public for years prior to his South African debut on March 6. Later that evening, as I headed off to my hotel, my colleagues assured me that I had witnessed something deeply revelatory about the South African soul. The problem is that none of us was quite sure what. Perhaps a bit of background is in order.

I was in South Africa for a consultation convened by the Comparative Human Relations Initiative, a project funded largely by the Ford Foundation for the purpose of gaining insights into race relations in South Africa, the United States and Brazil. That meeting brought together an eclectic assortment of government officials, activists and journalists to ponder lessons to be learned from exploring the three countries experiences. Once my South African hosts informed me, that two decades ago, Rodriguez had been a subversive figure of hope for liberal-minded youths, an evening with him seemed in order. What, we wondered, could his coming mean to a South Africa no longer stuck in the abyss of apartheid?

Katherine Butt, an assistant editor at The Times, spectulated that Rodriguez's appeal may have something to do with the psychological repressive nature of South African society and with the need, therefore, felt by many -- not all of them young -- to revel in restrained rebellion (if only for a night). Karen Rutter, the Times' music critic, thought perhaps Rodriguez spoke to a longing for a simpler time, for an era when South African choices (good or bad, black or white) seemed remarkably clear. His fans, of course, had strong views on the significance of their idol's return. A perusal of the Internet, where Rodriguez has a Web site unearthed a lively discussion about the meaning of his peculiarly South African popularity.

"The impression he made on a white pimply-faced teenager living during the height of the apartheid era was powerful. Bear in mind, apartheid wasn't just about oppressing blacks... it also was about brainwashing the rest of the privileged into not questioning authority, doing your duty and serving your country," confessed Patrick Kenny.

After seeing his hero in concert, a fan calling himself "Sonny" wrote: "The only other person who has inspired such feelings of peace and greatness in me has been the Dalai Lama."

Yet another Rodriguez forum Website visitor, Erik Gevers, surprised that Rodriguez's allure stemmed from the fact that "the issues raised in his music are more accessible to people who live in a cross-cultural, polarized society where it is much easier to become pissed off."

Certainly today South Africa is, in many respects, a very polarized place. Many blacks are asking whether a deal that accepted continued white privilege as the price for peace was a deal that should have been made -- even as many whites wonder whether South Africa's best days are in the past. Then there are the coloureds, people of mixed race, who enjoyed more privileges than blacks but not as many as whites under apartheid and who, in large part, remain suspicious of a majority-black government they believe is not particularly devoted to their interests.

There are new problems, such as rampant drug violence, that come with more open borders. And there are dissappointments, which are the inevitable consequence of unrealistic hopes fueled by the society's deliverance into democracy. In a time of great political concern and consequence -- as President Clinton journeys to Africa and as President Nelson Mandela prepares to step down -- the temptation is strong to search such a bizarre event as the Rodriguez tour for some profound commentary on the South African scene.

It's possible that the Rodriguez phenomenon reflects nothing more than the desire of some South Africans to listen to funky music.

I suspect, however, that my South African sources are right and that it reflects something deeper -- perhaps a hunger among Rodriguez's fans for a world where suffering is vanquished, where general prosperity is assured, where polarization can be expunged with a puff of marijuana smoke, where goodness always triumphs over evil. For a place, in short, that in the wake of the historic 1994 elections it was possible to believe, for a brief glittering moment, that South Africa had created.

Ellis Cose, a contributing editor for Newsweek magazine is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors. His book Color-Blind has just been issued in paperback.

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