Sixto Rodriguez was a nobody.

He’d tried to establish a career as a musician, but it went nowhere. He showed lots of promise and had sold a handful of records, but his record label dropped him and then closed. He was working on a third album at the time, but it was never released.

Rodriguez quit his music career in 1976, bought a derelict Detroit house from the government for $50, and got a job in demolition. He never made much money. He ran for public office a couple of times but lost.

He was just another guy who had dreams but had settled for a very ordinary life.

Bigger Than Elvis

One day, his eldest daughter discovered a website dedicated to him. Rodriguez had failed as a musician in the United States, but his music had taken off in Australia, Botswana, New Zealand, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. In South Africa, people reported that he’d sold more records than Elvis Presley.

Rumor had it that Rodriguez had died. Some said he’d taken his life on stage. People couldn’t believe that he was still alive.

Rodriguez traveled to South Africa. One of his daughters said, “When we initially got on the plane, I thought maybe there’d be — hopefully — twenty people in the audience. Hopefully. But it turned out really different from that.”

“I stepped on the stage before he went onstage because I wanted to take a picture of the audience,” said his eldest daughter. “Nobody’s going to believe this!”

On March 6, 1988, an announcer asked, “Are you ready? Please welcome Rodriguez!” Rodriguez stepped out on stage. The crowd screamed. The drums and baseline started.

“It was almost as if he didn’t even have to play. They were just happy to see him.” People screamed for some five or ten minutes before Rodriguez spoke. “Thanks for keeping me alive,” he said. He bowed and then started his performance.

Outcast and Celebrity

“I think to go from being the outcast to being who he really was…” his daughter said.

“I thought I would see him being bewildered at all these people staring up at him,” said one witness. “I saw the opposite. I saw this absolute tranquility … It’s like he had arrived at that thing, at that place he’d tried to find his whole life.”

“Here’s a guy who’d lived somewhere else on the other side of the earth, and it was almost as if he’d found his home.”

“Well, isn’t this all our great fate. Your dreams … that one day you will be recognized, that your talents and everything else will certainly become visible to the world,” said Rian Malan, a journalist and writer. “I mean, most of us die without coming anywhere close to that sort of magic.”

Rodriguez played six sold-out concerts in South Africa in 1998.

He returned home to tear down old shacks and sweep up filth. Some people had a hard time believing that he could be so famous elsewhere. Even though he was a celebrity elsewhere, he was content to go doing manual labor.

“He lives a very, very, very modest life,” says his daughter. “There’s definitely no excess, and he definitely still works hard in order to make ends meet. And there’s no glamor to his life in that sense … Rich in a lot of things, but perhaps not material things.”

Since then, Rodriguez has returned to South Africa multiple times and played dozens of concerts. Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band says, “This man is a legend.” They even made a movie about him.

Rodriguez has given most of the money he’s earned to family and friends. He still lives in the same house where he’s lived for over 40 years.

It turns out it’s possible to live a completely ordinary life in one country and to be famous in another. Hebrews 11 certainly makes me think so. I wonder if this experience is more common than we think.

A Nobody in One Country, Famous in the Next
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