News

Rodriguez And The South African Legacy Of 'Cold Fact'

Detroit singer/songwriter Rodriguez’s "Cold Fact" has had an impact in South Africa.


Detroit singer/songwriter Rodriguez’s Cold Fact (1970) probably first arrived in South Africa by non-commercial means. The album was celebrated by a politically and culturally stifled public but severely censured by the apartheid regime. Any copies of the record meant for promotional use were subject to physical damage rendering a selection of songs unplayable on the radio.

Still, Rodriguez's Cold Fact found its way into thousands of South African homes and record stores. While the album celebrated a matter-of-fact political cynicism not unprecedented in the US, its blatant critique of politics and a general delight in hippy culture marked it as legitimate protest music in South Africa. Despite reflecting a decaying American city, songs like “The Establishment Blues” and “I Wonder” became anthemic protests of apartheid and cultural conservatism for many South Africans. And while Cold Fact rivaled the popularity of American pop hits in South Africa, its listeners there knew virtually nothing of the artist behind it.

The album artwork (above) depicts Rodriguez obscured by a low hat and dark shades. The writing credits further shadow the singer, crediting songs to both Jesus Rodriguez and Sixth Prince (a handle crafted from his name “Sixto Diaz”). The mystery did little to stifle the appetite for his music; Rodriguez’ 1971 sophomore album Coming From Reality and later reissues of both LPs would go on to sell wonderfully in South Africa (Coming From Reality was released as After The Fact there).

[embed width="600"][/embed]

Rodriguez "Establishment Blues"

Back home, Rodriguez was embarrassingly overlooked. He first released one single for Impact Records in 1967 under the Americanized pseudonym Rod Riguez with Mike Theodore’s arranging and producing. Theodore and production partner Dennis Coffey, responsible for bringing a hard rock fuzz guitar aesthetic to Motown, would later produce Cold Fact in the fall of 1969. Even to these closest working partners Rodriguez remained an enigma; they'd first reconvened at a smoky bar where Rodriguez performed with his back to the audience. Throughout their working relationship Coffey and Theodore regarded Rodriguez as an ethereal figure who continued work as a day laborer. After the second album’s tepid American reception Rodriguez left the industry in pursuit of higher education and continued manual labor. The music’s commercial failure did little to taint Coffey’s, Theodore’s and Steve Rowland’s (Coming From Reality producer) impression of Rodriguez. None knew of his South African success.

Musically, Rodriguez’ compositions are built out of thoughtfully sparse arrangements that center his guitar-playing and nasal, conversational singing. Production on the albums favors a consistent echo, lending an eeriness to the singer and his music. Stylistically, Rodriguez’ songs run the gamut from standard blues riffs (“Inner City Blues,” “Can’t Get Away”) to almost lute-like guitar phrasings and picking (“Sandrevan Lullaby - Lifestyles”). Throughout, his lyricism is focalized, and while his proficiency on guitar is clear, his voice as a songwriter has rightfully defined his legacy. Ultimately, the music is bluesy, soulful, and psychedelic with tasteful restraint in the accompanying string arrangements and occasional deep horn accent.

South African fans’ attempts to learn more about Rodriguez’ life consistently yielded nothing for more than twenty years after his albums’ initial releases. Owing to inconsistent stories of a public suicide—one in which he dramatically burned himself alive and another reporting that he shot himself onstage after a poor performance — many South Africans presumed Rodriguez dead.  In 1996, two years after apartheid’s unofficial end, After The Fact was reissued in South Africa on CD. Superfan Stephen “Sugarman” Segerman (a nickname owing to one of Rodriguez’ more popular songs and a not-so-subtle drug reference) was commissioned to write the liner notes for the reissue. With little to tell, Segerman reached out to readers for any new information on the shadowy legend. This call reinvigorated music journalist Craig Bartholomew’s interest and, armed with the burgeoning power of the internet, Bartholomew and Segerman searched for more Rodriguez information in the late 90’s. Their search was met by Rodriguez’ eldest daughter Eva’s surprise communication that her father was alive and well in Detroit.

After his brief stint as a commercial recording artist in the US and London (where Coming From Reality was recorded), Rodriguez earned a degree in Philosophy and later unsuccessfully pursued a City Council seat in Detroit (where, as if in some continued joke on his legacy, his name was misspelled on the ballot). All the while he continued working as a hard laborer with a penchant for grace. News of his African success didn’t reach Rodriguez until his daughter found the website “The Great Rodriguez Hunt” in 1997. In 1998, almost thirty years after Cold Fact flopped in the US, Rodriguez embarked on a sold out six-show tour of South Africa befitting his cult status there. Showered in South African praise and publicity (many thought his return was a stunt akin to posthumous Elvis sightings), Rodriguez was awarded a Platinum Record for Cold Fact’s South African sales. Since that first tour he has remained a celebrated figure in South Africa and returned for more than thirty performances.

[embed width="600"][/embed]

Despite his sales in South Africa, it is unclear where the profits actually went. Rodriguez's Cold Fact was first released “officially” to the South African public by A&M in 1971 and reissued under the RPM moniker in 1974. These releases account for the record’s popularity in that country. When tracked down, representatives for A&M and RPM directed an interviewer to Sussex founder Clarence Avant (to whom they purportedly sent the requisite royalties). Avant’s artistic relationship with Rodriguez was indirect: the executive had signed Dennis Coffey, a session guitarist and artist in his own right, to Sussex in 1970. In Searching For Sugarman, upon questioning, Avant suspiciously dodges financial inquiries and instead praises Rodriguez’ artistic vision and story.

The recent documentary Searching For Sugarman (from which much of this article was gleaned), its accompanying soundtrack and domestic reissues of his albums (royalties of which will actually reach Rodriguez) will undoubtedly help the singer’s right to fame. He is currently touring the United States and the documentary is showing nationwide.

Photos
"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

This Photo Series Is a Much-Needed Counter to Violent Images of the Black Body

"Infinite Essence" is Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna's response to the one-dimensional narrative we tend to see of the black body.

This beautiful, thought-provoking photo series affirms what we already know—that the black body is magical, no matter what odds are against us.

Nigerian-American photographer, Mikael Owunna, touched base with OkayAfrica to share his new photo series, Infinite Essence. The series is Owunna's response to America's issue of police brutality, like the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Walter Scott, and the viral and violent images of the dead black body we've seen as a result.

"It has become frighteningly routine to turn on the television or log onto Facebook and see a video or image of a black person either dead or dying, like images of Africans dying in the Mediterranean," Owunna says.

"With this series, I work to counter these one-dimensional narratives of the black body as a site of death and destruction with imagery capturing what I see in my friends, family and community—love, joy, and ultimately, magic."

Owunna worked on Infinite Essence for the past year, and says his creative process began with a feeling. As he notes further, it's was a process of trial and error.

"I was beginning to explore my own spirituality and journey and learning about how black, queer and trans people in particular were respected for their magical abilities in many pre-colonial African societies. I was meditating on this idea of magic and how I can capture that in my work, harkening back to the 'Final Fantasy' video games and anime series I grew up on. How could I capture all of this? I did two pretty disastrous test shoots using long exposures and lights, that did nothing for me artistically.

It had none of the feeling I was looking for. So I went back to the drawing board. I pulled up Google image search results of magic in Final Fantasy and kept scrolling and scrolling and staring at images that had that emotional tug, that spiritual capture of magic and transcendence that I so wanted to bring into the work. As I was staring at the works, a voice in my head told me glow in the dark paints, and then from looking at that I found the world of UV photography. As soon as I saw some sample works in that space, I knew that was the direction the project would go and it was all steam ahead."

Shooting this series was the first time Owunna collaborated with makeup artists Karla Grifith-Burns and Davone Goins to bring his vision to life. "It was powerful and inspirational and brought so much structure to my feeling and thought," he says.

Owunna settled on the name of his series after reading about Odinani, the Igbo traditional belief system.

"Seeking to understand the basics of that, I came across brilliant writing by Chinua Achebe wherein he used the phrase 'infinite essence' and that clicked everything around it," he says. "When I can name something, it brings it to life in my head in stunning color."

Click through the slideshow below view Owunna's series, Infinite Essence. Read his artist statement for the project, where he speaks more in depth of Achebe's work on infinite essence here. The series is also on display at Owunna's solo exhibition at Montréal's Never Apart Gallery from today until April 7, 2018.

"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

Top Carousel

5 Nigerian Hyper-Realist Artists You Should Know

Here are 5 Nigerian hyper-realist artists whose work leaves us astonished.

It takes a special, perhaps, preternatural gift to be able to produce works of art that look so real they make viewers second-guess their eyesight.

Several African artists are amongst this talented bunch of hyper-realist artists, whose craftsmanship and stringent attention to detail produce some of the most utterly mind-blowing works that we've had the pleasure of seeing.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo still via "OkayAfrica Presents: Beeraha Minnesota."

This Somali Farmer Wants To Harvest Her Culture in America's Midwest

Naima Dhore is working to introduce subsistence farming to the Somali community in Minnesota.

Naima Dhore sits on her couch staring at her cellphone. Her son, Warsame, 6, rolls around on the carpet close by chattering about his day.

She's watching an old "PBS Newshour" video about Cuba's leadership in organic farming. And although she rarely denies her son full attention, she makes it clear the video is too important to ignore right now.

Dhore and her husband, Fagas Salah, are farmers from Somalia now living in Minnesota. They're in the early stage of a grand family experiment: They want to transplant some of Somali culture to a rural part of the upper Midwest, and see some important lessons in Cuban-style agriculture.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.