No documentary in the last couple of years has fascinated the broader public more than Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man. The story of the resurrection of Rodriguez, the Detroit artist thought dead since the early seventies, touches the heart and the mind. This is understandable, as there is something especially thrilling about rock 'n roll death. Rodriguez turns up alive and well, like Elvis coming back from the dead. It is also an American tale of rags to riches.
More importantly, however, his story is about the amazing global influence and impact of rock and roll music on people, on movements for freedom and human rights. As Malik Bendjelloul, the Swedish director of the film, rightly says, every revolution needs an anthem. But revolutions also need dreams, that can best be enshrined in the musical art form of rock and roll -- a form people can and want to embrace because they feel it's their own.
The story of rock and roll behind the "broader" Iron Curtain, where Eastern Europe and indeed South Africa was at the time, has been told many times and by many. None so far has been able to explain fully the mystery of why the art-form of music became the single most powerful tool to convey the message of freedom to millions living under authoritarian regimes. Sugar Man brings us closer to the truth. Rodriguez became the embodiment of freedom because he was genuine, non-commercial, and honest. This explains the magic of rock, the ability to encapsulate enormously powerful messages in little over three minutes, by telling the story of the man, the circumstances, the cause, the misery and the hopes the songs carried. The thrill of smuggling banned music across borders, defying censorship, copying the songs secretly, and the risks one took to listen to them adds to the magic. One almost feels sorry for the kid in Los Angeles, who could just walk into a record store, buy the LP and listen to it endlessly and undisturbed.
Rock music under dictatorships takes on a life of its own. In modern terms, it is "soft power" at its best. My musical heroes in America and England were hardly aware of the importance they played in our lives. We listened to Radio Luxembourg and Radio Free Europe/Voice of America to catch the songs, to which we frequently jammed, which helped us live an unhappy life more happily. When we listened to the Beatles, the Doors, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, or Steve Winwood, we found ourselves in London, New York or San Francisco. Rock music was the Internet of the day, the wire that connected us to our peers living in freedom. The songs opened our minds and imagination and supported our hopes.
The authorities were scared of rock and their audiences. They understood that around a band or song, communities of likeminded citizens were formed. They barely tolerated or outright persecuted the ones deemed dangerous to the state. "Fake" bands openly or tacitly supportive of the regime were set up and sponsored. These "fakes" might have looked real, but did not feel or smell real: we detected and despised them.
The lucky citizens of the free world must not forget the times not too long ago, when many of them were living under regimes, where their lives were controlled by authority rather than being guided by the rule of law and individual choice. These were places where the voices of freedom were muffled, where privileges were handed out based not on merit, contribution and creativity but loyalty to the regime. We must not forget that there are still billions living under such regimes.
In the age of Facebook, Google and Twitter, is rock really still as important a vehicle to convey the message of freedom? No doubt, it is! The wonders of technology are just that, wonders of technology. While the means of communication are key to breaking the isolation of Cubans, Iranians or North Koreans, it is the content that matters. Music, rock music, domestic or "foreign," will become the anthem of freedom, not gadgets like the iPhone. Think of rock as a metaphor. New generations must find their own rock and roll, but it is still that: rock and roll. And they will.
It is perhaps a good time to remember the 1988 Amnesty International "Human Rights Now" tour with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N'Dour and Tracy Chapman, which travelled the world exactly 25 years ago. It came to my hometown, Budapest, and played for 50,000 young Hungarians. Allowing the concert, albeit cautiously under a different name, was a sudden concession by the then communist authorities to the voices of freedom. When Bruce Springsteen sang "Born in the USA" in the People's Stadium, it was a moment suggesting a free future. It was a moment we had been waiting for.
Bruce, Sting, Youssou, Peter and Tracy, should get back on the road. The job is not yet finished. There is a danger of weak democracies sliding back and existing dictatorships getting harsher. There are still Walls to Fall. There are still millions waiting for Sugar Man.