Fuel for Rebellion

Anna Chernogolovina

A concert celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday took place at the London Wembley Stadium in 1988. A day before the event, President Botha declared a state of emergency in South Africa: The authorities understood perfectly well that every revolution needs an anthem. Songs by American Sixto Rodriguez had already shown the National Party that both popular music and its influence on people’s minds must not be underestimated.

Behind closed doors

In the early 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez, the young son of Mexican immigrants from Detroit, recorded two albums for Sussex Records. It was mostly folk rock with a psychedelic tinge, and the lyrics spoke about life in the metropolis’ poor neighborhoods. The American public did not care for this music. Australians were more receptive, so Rodriguez toured around Australia for a while. Yet, success did not promise any stability, and the musician returned to ‘normal’ work: He worked in construction, razed buildings, and did carpentry. He led a very ordinary life and did not even suspect that, in South Africa, he was more popular than The Rolling Stones and his songs inspired the country’s white population to fight against apartheid.

South Africa and Rodriguez did not know about each other because of the embargo (also a cultural one) that isolated the state from the rest of the world. The musician had no idea that the albums he had recorded had sold, according to various estimates, from 500,000 to 1 million copies. South Africans believed that Rodriguez must certainly be world-famous and, naturally, all kinds of rumors circulated about him and his career. The most popular story had Rodriguez committing suicide. How else could they explain the fact that such a talented artist had released no new recordings?

Soundtrack to life

Curiously, Sixto Rodriguez’s lyrics contained no real protest. The musician did not call for any struggle, especially armed struggle, and his most provocative song had to do with sex. Still, Rodriguez’s songs were simple and honest, and, according to South Africa’s musical critics, this was what people needed at the time.

The split in South African society and its governing bodies began in the 1970s and widened in the 1980s. Some people assumed a self-defensive position and were indignant that the world had isolated them. Others, mostly young white people, thought that everything was going wrong. They were most outraged by the racial segregation. Naturally, it was mostly the black population that fought against the ruling National Party. But the shifts in popular consciousness were of critical importance. The younger generation concluded that protest was normal. When you are not happy with some aspects of society, that’s normal, too. And that notion was triggered, in particular, by Sixto Rodriguez’s songs.


Vitas (stage name: Vitaly Grachyov) is an example of an artist who is more popular in another country than at home. His first album, The Philosophy of a Miracle (2001), became platinum in China in just over 10 days. The singer’s Chinese fan club numbers over 1 million members, and in Shanghai, they have even erected a monument to him. It should be noted that his popularity is not waning over time: In 2015, the only TV show in which Vitas took part, timed to coincide with his Chinese tour, had an audience of about 70 million people.

Vitas tours China every year: Last year, his Chinese tour was called 15 years together.” Russian.people.com.cn says that no other foreign performer has visited China so many times.

Naturally, the singer has a special place in his heart for China; His repertoire includes a song called “The Tibetan Plateau,” translated into Chinese. Vitas opened the 24th Olympics in Harbin, he took part in the movie Mulan (Mulan is a heroine who dresses as a man to go to war – editor’s note) and regularly donates money to Chinese regions that suffer natural disasters.

The reasons for Vitas’ popularity are believed to be his unusual image and his very high voice, which Chinese think is like “ultrasound”. In addition, many of them believe Vitas to be “the embodiment of the mysterious Russian soul”, even though he was born in the Latvian city of Daugavpils and today holds Ukrainian citizenship.

Stephen Segerman, a record shop owner, tells Mondoweiss: “Rodriguez became something of a rebel icon … we all bought his records. Everybody I knew had his records. ‘I Wonder’, that was the big song that everyone was singing.” Segerman says that every liberal had three vinyl discs back then: The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water, and Rodriguez’s Cold Fact. The latter “was exceptionally popular. To us it was one of the most famous records of all time. It was the album that gave people the permission to free their minds and start thinking differently. The message it had was BE ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT. There was a song called The Anti-Establishment Blues. It was a quintessence of protest.”

South African musicians speak about Rodriguez in the same vein. For instance, William Moeller, a member of the Big Sky band and a participant in Voerly, a movement in the Afrikaner community that united the creative members of the younger generation, spoke to Green Left Weekly. “For many of us it was the sound track to our lives,” William says. “When we heard Rodriguez, it was like a voice spoken that said ‘Guys, there’s a way out. You can write music, you can write imagery, you can sing, you can perform.” That does not seem like much but we have to remember that people’s creative work made statements about people’s existence: They also have a place in the public space. A serious victory under apartheid.


Culture and music played a tremendous role in the life of the younger generation. “South African soldiers, sitting in their barracks, heard music they liked with a message that strengthened their sense that something was wrong and had to change,” Segerman recalls. “Musicians listened to it and said: ‘There’s a way out.’ It was a fuel for the social and youth rebellion. We all knew that apartheid was wrong, but living in South Africa. there wasn’t much you as a white person could do about it. The government was very strict. It was a military state to a large degree.”

A person speaking out against state policy could be sentenced to three years in jail. The majority of whites preferred to remain mere onlookers. “We were watched; there were spies. It was scary and people were scared,” Segerman admits.

Of course, Rodriguez’s music was quickly prohibited, although no one listened to it in the Bantustans (reservations for the black population): First, not everyone there had electricity and, second, due to its European melodies. Yet, the tastes of the whites had to be controlled, too. Ilse Archman, an archivist with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, says that vinyl records were scratched so that they could not be played on air, according to Green Left Weekly. But it only increased Rodriguez’s songs’ cult status and fueled more interest in them. Bootleg copies of Cold Fact were churned out, and it is impossible to say how many copies circulated around South Africa. Naturally, Rodriguez himself did not receive a cent from all those sales.

Yet, such stories amazed him. “It was incredible,” he told The Guardian. “They were just so good to me. One soldier said: ‘We made love to your music, we made war to your music.’ Another person had a tattoo of the Cold Fact cover.”


It would be a mistake to say that South Africa only imported musical trends from outside and produced nothing of its own. Many performers from this country record album after album, which all gain platinum status and are world-famous.

For instance, Hugh Masekela, one of the world’s richest musicians, whose fortune is about $275 million. His element is jazz: trumpet, vocals, and composing. In 1968, he received a Grammy for his performance, and, subsequently, he received over 10 more awards. In 2010, President Zuma granted him the Order of Ikhamanga, South Africa’s top honor. Today, Masekela is invited to leading festivals and earns royalties from his album sales, and he also has his own recording studio in Botswana. People With Money magazine calculated that, in March throughApril 2015 alone, Masekela earned $96 million.

Miriam Makeba, nicknamed Mama Africa, became popular even before Masekela. She became famous in 1959 as The Manhattan Brothers’ lead singer, and, in 1965, she was awarded a Grammy. Yet, in South Africa, her music was banned, and after she spoke up against the apartheid, her passport was annulled. For about 30 years, Mama Africa lived in the U.S. and Guinea, only returning to South Africa in the 1990s.

Brenda Fassie was a pop singer given the honorary nickname Black Madonna by Time magazine. She ranks 17th among the Top 100 Great South Africans. She became famous owing to her fantastic voice, her frequent visits to the slums of Johannesburg, and her songs about the hardships of poverty. Most of her albums became multi-platinum. The flip side of her success was her drug addiction. Brenda checked into rehab over 30 times; Nelson Mandela himself visited her during one such stay.

Happy end

Today, it seems strange that record labels did not attempt to find Rodriguez. Yet, no one cared back then. “If you actually look back, at the time we were in the midst of apartheid, the height of apartheid,” says Segerman. “South Africa was under sanctions by countries all over the world. South African musicians were not allowed to play overseas.

No foreign acts were allowed to visit South Africa. It was a closed door situation between South Africa and the rest of the world. Countries around the world were saying horrible things about the apartheid government but we didn’t know because they controlled the news. There were cultural boycotts; there were sporting boycotts… If a newspaper published something about it they could prosecute.”

When apartheid was abolished, Coming from Reality, one of Rodriguez’s albums, was released for the first time on CD and immediately reached gold status. Nevertheless, it took the American musician a while to learn how famous and influential he really was. He found out the truth only in 1997, when his daughter saw a site Rodriguez’s South African fans had dedicated to him. As a result, he went on a super successful tour of South Africa and then the world, and, naturally, his albums were re-released, too.

Many years passed, but the musician who accidentally became influential, continues his concert tours: This summer, for instance, Rodriguez toured Europe and North America. As in the 1990s, people recognize him in the streets and his South African fans are still the strongest.

“We were in Canada, at CBC Radio, and a woman recognised him and she started crying. She almost got down on her knees, she could barely stand up, she loved him – this is her family’s biggest musical icon,” says his daughter Regan in an interview with Uncut magazine. “They feel very strongly about him, about Apartheid and being part of the struggle for freedom. We really had to calm her down. It was Beatles-like.


To understand another society’s culture, people need to train their perception, especially if we are talking about music. Musical ideals of the West and of the Orient usually diverge.

An example is the difference in how European music (classical and otherwise) and Middle Eastern music are constructed. A European musical scale is divided into octaves, each consisting of 12 semi-tones. In the Middle East, musicians use not only semi-tones, but also quarter-tones, which many Western instruments cannot even produce. A piano, for instance, cannot, as each key represents a semi-tone.

In addition, the European tradition relies heavily on harmonies: In a typical choral song, soprano, tenor, alto, and bass are all different notes of a harmony. Middle Eastern music does not have harmonies at all: If there are many instruments, one plays the main melody, while the others, as a rule, develop it or play a different rhythm.

Of course, this is a simplified explanation, but it appears reasonable when we wonder why Arabs do not, on the whole, particularly like Western music and what the practical consequences of this are. In particular, the U.S. military in Iraq used Metallica music to frighten the enemy. “We were using Metallica music to soften people up before we interrogated them,” Esquire quotes an anonymous Navy SEAL, a member of the U.S. Navy special ops force, as saying. Some military people believed that, when they cranked the volume up to maximum, they were picking up where Joshua had left off. In particular, retired U.S. Air Force Lt-Col Dan Kuehl told the St Petersburg Times that “Joshua’s army used horns to strike fear into the hearts of the people of Jericho.” Kuehl believes that music brings psychological walls tumbling down and he can be more or less trusted on that account, since the retired colonel teaches psychological operations at Fort McNair’s National Defense University.

In a word, people listened to music a lot in Iraq’s prison camps: In a camp on the Syrian border, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was played virtually nonstop, as were songs by AC/DC, Drowning Pool, and Eminem. In the Abu Ghraib prison, the guards played “Babylon”, a song by the British musician David Gray. However, “F*ck Your God” by American death-metal group Deicide ranked as the most popular.

One prisoner, Binyam Mohamed, whom the CIA incarcerated in Morocco and then in Guantánamo, says that the music was worse than the physical pain. He said that he could bear physical torture, knowing that it would end sooner or later, but loud music was far worse, since it could drive you mad.

Haj Ali, incarcerated in Abu Ghraib, told The Guardian that he had been stripped, handcuffed and forced to listen to David Gray’s “Babylon”. He says the volume was cranked up so high, he was afraid his head would explode.

What do the artists themselves think about it? A few have spoken out against using music for such purposes, as David Gray and Massive Attack did, for instance. Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich asked for their music not to be used for violence. And when a band called Demon Hunter learned that Metallica was against torture, they got in touch with the U.S. military and sent them their CDs and patches. Deicide’s drummer Steve Asheim even believes that Iraqis are well-trained people for whom loud music is something insignificant.

“I certainly don’t believe in torturing people but I don’t believe that playing loud music is torture either,” He says. He does not think the American military discuss musical compositions; they just play anything that comes to hand.

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