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Burning Spear has in the past 25+ years achieved many acclaims as a reggae musician. He is known to many as the African teacher; the elder statesman of reggae; a cultural ambassador; a preacher; a rastaman. The main themes incorporated into his music are the teachings of Marcus Garvey, African roots, Rastafarian beliefs, and consciousness, especially black consciousness. Spear's sound is said to be hypnotic and trance-like (Bloodlines, Davis and Simon, 1992, 53-55). His lyrics are simple, but the resonant sound of Spear's voice, along with the drum and bass, intensifies the listening experience to its fullest. His music is meant to be heard in every part of your body; to carry the listener to a higher state of being; to uplift. In Newsday, Elena Oumano wrote:"At its heights, reggae music transforms the loss rage and love of 2 million former slaves/colonials into"dread"consciousness, and international revolution of the mind against blind acceptance of the world as it is, rocking affirmation of the power of the underclass to elevate the human spirit,"(Oumano, 1991, p 17). Spear's reggae has, since the beginning, continued to reach this height.
Winston Rodney, Burning Spear's Christian name, was born on March 1, 1945. He was born in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica (Messer, 1995, 1). Burning Spear was quoted to have said this about his background;"I'm not a man with a musical background. I was a flexible man who was there until Jah call I,"(qtd. in Messer, 1995, 2). He takes his name from the Kenya freedom fighter, Jomo Kenyatta, who was also called Burning Spear (Bloodlines, Davis and Simon, 1992, 54).
Spear's musical career began in 1969 when he ran into Bob Marley deep in the outdoors of St. Ann's. It could be said that Marley and Spear were led to each other on that day in January. Marley was traveling to his farm via a donkey. Spear was headed the opposite direction. When their paths crossed, Bob brought his donkey to a halt and climbed down. The two began talking, and Bob rolled a spliff. They sat in the grass, smoking, talking of Rastafari, African roots, and reggae music. Burning Spear mentioned that he was interested in getting involved in the music business. Marley told Spear to go to Studio One, which was the label Marley had been working with and which Coxsone Dodd owned. Marley told Spear to tell the producers that he had sent him. A week later Studio One was holding auditions. Burning Spear was one among the young singers. He was singing"Door Peep."It was chosen to be recorded for a single (Boot, Salewicz, 1995, 81). As Leroy Sibbles, the producer, was quoted in the Toronto Star,"When we heard them, it was like a joke.... It was a new sound, Rasta men coming in from the country. A lot of people weren't interested; but I liked it, and I worked on the first album they did. I produced it, and I played on it; I got them started,"(qtd. in Howell, 1991). According to the Authors of Reggae: the Rough Guide,"Nothing could have been more uncommercial in 1969 than his debut single on Dodd's supreme label. 'Door Peep' was a reflective chant delivered in a way that was frighteningly serious,"(Barrow and Dalton, 1997, 86).
Spear's musical career began by running into his favorite singer as a youth, Bob Marley. As Spear said,"Bob was Jamaican number one star. Bob was the man. There was no other man. We have a lot of singers who were even in the business before Bob. But Bob ended up being the man,"(qtd. in Boot and Salewicz, 1995, 81).
For the next five years, Spear recorded two albums worth of material on the Studio One label. In 1974, he began recording with Island Records. He was working with producer Jack Ruby. He produced three albums, which in effect have caused Spear to be known among reggae fans and the like as one of the great reggae masters. These three albums were Marcus Garvey, Man in the Hills, and Garvey's Ghost. He later produced two more albums on the Island label, Dry and Heavy and Live, (Messer, 1995, 2).
With the 1980's came Spear's move to Bob Marley's Tuff Gong label in Jamaica. Apparently Spear wanted to give"back his talents to the community that had helped establish him as an international star,"(Messer, 1995, 2).
The majority of Spear's following at this time consisted of white people from Europe as opposed to African Americans or people of color in general. Apparently this disappointed Spear, but did not affect his work at all (Messer, 1995, 2). As Sarah Messer points out,"In an interview with Melody Maker, Spear told Roz Reines that he found 'the white population getting into reggae music much more deeply than the black population.... We're trying to do our best, but our people just sit down like lead.' Yet even with a predominately white audience, Spear continued to make a connection with the people,"(Messer, 1995, 2).
In 1981 Burning Spear, along with his new band, the"Burning Band", traveled through Italy and Europe to tour. He also arrived in America to tour with bands like Talking Heads and the Clash. When Bob Marley died of cancer in May of 1981, Spear wasted no time in producing a tribute album. He was one of the first to do this. This album was called"Farover,"(Messer, 1995, 3).
After Marley's death, and with the rising trend in synthesized reggae, Burning Spear moved to Queens, New York in hope to be able to maintain his career in conscious roots reggae style that he began with. Spear continued to produce albums, working with Slash records, Island (Mango), Heartbeat and independently. He has produced over twenty albums throughout his career (Messer, 1995,3-4). His reggae continued to grow and reach out to the masses with his emphasis on roots and culture, history and living. He continued and continues, even now at the age of 52, to tour regularly. He has been a five- time Grammy nominee (Messer, 1995,1).
Burning Spear is dedicated to touring. According to many, he is the best reggae performer of all. Spear's concerts have been written about repeatedly. As the liner notes in Spear's 1995 release Rasta Business say,"...Burning Spear has been around the world several times over, making him one of Reggae's most recognized and sought after performers,"(Rasta Business, 1995). An excellent description by Amy Watchell of Burning Spear and his concerts takes place in the liner notes to the Chant Down Babylon: The Island Anthology album. It goes as such:
"He's the fire man; a higher man; an inspired man. Burning Spear, like his live stage shows transcends time and space. He is a prophet on the burning shore. He is Moses. He is the Messiah. He is Garvey. He is the shepherd, the gatherer of the flocks, uplifting the people. He carries the souls of the African ancestors; he is the incarnation of those who survived the middle passages, and those who did not. It's as if he personally bore witness to history's tribulations, sufferations and struggles. He brings forth and utters an ancient melody that beckons us to remember,"(Chant Down Babylon, 1995)
Spear himself says in an article in the Los Angeles Times."Music is creation. In reggae the lyric, the music itself, arrangement, that vibe, such melody-everything within the music moves the people, understand? Then the whole of it is seeing the man live in concert. You know that you're going to get everything from the man, all the vibes and that force and that inspiration keep comin' out, coming right out going toward the people, so the people being uplift,"(Washburn, 1990, 19) It is therefore evident that Spear believes that the listening experience is in full when listening to reggae music live.
Burning Spear is a conscious, roots-reggae singer. As Don Snowden said,"There is no more pure exponent of roots reggae than Burning Spear,"(Snowden, 1989, 10). His trance-like lyrics are very much dedicated to speaking the truth, as he sees it. Spear's voice has the power to attract the ears of many, and to attract the minds of many. People listen to his words, and understand his words. Elena Oumano wrote,"The listener doesn't just hear Burning Spear, he hears him inside,"(Oumano, 1991, 17). As the writer for the Toronto Star said in August of 1994,"Spear's [music] was a declamatory, socially conscious brand of roots reggae. It fused the political teaching's of Kenya's Jomo Kemyatta and Jamaican Afrophile Marcus Garvey to the nyabangi rhythms of West Africa, the sounds called the heartbeat of reggae,"(Stoute, 1994).
Spear's musical style has remained consistent for over 25 years now (Messer, 1995, f12). He is dedicated to creating music that will uplift, inspire and humble his listeners. Both his musical style and the philosophies he incorporates do this. As Lenny Stoute said,"Rodney's vocals alternate between the strident and the hypnotic; he's a dubwise vocalist with the best, chanting phrases until they lose all linguistic intent and become mantras unlocking the primal groove within,"(Stoute, 1994). Spear repeats words and verses over-and-over again throughout a song. This is the implication in"dubwise vocalist."Take for example the song"Old Timer."A verse to this song goes:"Old timer, do you remember, remember, remember? / Old timer, all of us come from Africa / Old timer, do you remember, remember, remember? / Old timer, all of us come from Africa,"(Rasta Business, 1995). This verse is repeated four times in the song. The lyrics to Spear's songs are simple, yet when combined with his singing style and the music of the band, and Spear's spiritual energy, the simple lyrics become intensely unforgettable. Rick Mitchell described Spear's music in this way,"What gives the music its extraordinary power is Spear's spiritual presence. His trancelike chanting penetrates arrogant cultural assumptions like a flaming arrow to the heart of babylon,"(Mitchell, 1995, 6).
Spear's singing style is quite a unique one that enhances his music incredibly. Don Snowden described Spear's voice as follows:"It's the vocal equivalent of Guinness Stout-rich and grainy, dark and gritty. When people praise a vocalist by saying he or she could sing the phone book, they usually mean the singer can turn the mundane into something beautiful. But Spear, who has been described as a shaman or a village elder passing on cultural traditions, could turn it into a mystic incantation,"(Snowden, 1989, 10)
Spear is a firm believer in being proud of one's roots. He is quoted to say,"I feel that no one should be ashamed or have fear or doubt within themselves when they speak about the roots or Africa where I and I originate from. It is an individual who tries to disown himself, and to me, it is a form of defeat by disowning yourself,"(Snowden, 1989, 10). It is clear that Spear finds the strength to fight oppression in his African roots. In his song"My Roots,"on the Mek We Dweet album, he sings,"My roots I'll never forget, I always remember the road I travel,"(Mek We Dweet, 1990). He is quoted in a 1990 Los Angeles Times article to have said:
"Man should remember your roots, your history, your culture, your living tree. Some people see life as many steps up, and try to forget where they are coming from, you understand? A little step in life on a commercial or a material level is a good step, but a big step does not mean a strong step you tend to lose your roots-and if you don't be careful, you can fall,"(qtd. in Washburn, 1990, 19)
Spear believes that music is a tool that speaks to many people. As quoted in the same article,"Music has a responsibility to uplift the minds and thoughts of the people, especially the youth,"(Washburn, 1990, 19). His music most definitely uplifts. His voice is deep and hypnotic. His music is exceptionally rhythmic and spiritual. In Newsday, the author says this of Spear:"[Burning Spear] is known for his righteous reggae- he's the voice of Rastafarian orthodoxy,"(Robins, 1991, 86). He says that Spear's"Jah Kingdom"album is"virtually Jamaican gospel music."Spear calls music"the fertilizer"for the growth of the future, which comes about when one immerses oneself in roots and culture (Washburn, 1990, 19). Burning Spear is a believer in the Rastafarian religion. This means that he views former emperor, Haile Selassie I as the living God and that Africa is the only place where blacks can attain redemption (Bloodlines, Davis and Simon, 1992, 72). Spear is an intensely spiritual man, finding inspiration in the idea of producing music to serve Jah-the Rastafarian word for God. Spear is quoted to have said,"What keeps me going is that Jah wants me to,"(Stoute, 1995, f12). Spear has not always been a Rastafarian however. He converted the Rastafarian religion one-day while combing his hair after a swim. The comb got caught in his hair and broke in half. Apparently, in the reflection of the mirror he saw a Rasta man. He has been wearing dreadlocks-a symbol of the Rastafarian religion-ever since (Messer, 1995, 2). On the 1995 album Rasta Business, and after twenty-five years of producing music, he is still praising Jah just as strongly and sincerely as ever. In his song"Africa"on the Rasta Business album he sings,"Jah is my life. Jah is my strength / Jah is my redeemer. Jah is my provider / Jah is my savior,"(Rasta Business, 1995). On his Jah Kingdom album he sings songs like"Call of Jah,""Praise Him,"and"Jah kingdom,"which includes the verse"We are the Lions of His Kingdom,"(Jah Kingdom, 1991).
It is important to understand the history of something before full comprehension can be attained. Jamaican history is something that the majority unfortunately knows very little about. Beginning more than five centuries ago, the majority of the inhabitants of the Jamaican Island have lived under extreme oppression and repression. Because Burning Spear sings so much of the importance of knowing the past- knowing your roots, it is important to give a brief glimpse at the Jamaica that existed centuries ago, and in some respects, still exists today.
The Arawak Indians were the first inhabitants of Jamaica. They led a peaceful existence, enjoying smoking most of all. They cultivated maize, sweet potato, and arrowroot. During their gatherings, they brewed intoxicating drinks of fermented cassava. The cannibalistic Carib Indians invaded the Arawaks just before Columbus's ship arrived in 1494. After Columbus's arrival, the Spanish began to colonize. They were interested in finding gold. With the colonization, the Spaniards slowly but surely rid the island of almost all of the indigenous Arawak tribe. They forced them to work in the gold mines they had created. The incredible strenuousness of the labor the Spaniards required of the Arawak caused many to die from the arduous work, and others to commit suicide by either hanging themselves or drinking poisonous cassava juice. The Spaniards also brought over many new diseases, which killed off a good number as well. (International, Davis and Simon, 1982, 17-19)
When they discovered that there was no gold to be found on the island, the Spaniards lost interest in Jamaica. At this point, the English were ready to take over, with European mouths drooling for sugar--a newly discovered good to the Europeans. With this discovery, the Europeans were extremely enticed by the island of Jamaica. Growing sugar cane was impossible in Europe. There remained a desire for the sweet product, and the Europeans were anxious to get to Jamaica and begin the process of cultivating. As the author of Reggae International expressed it,"It was Europe's insatiable lust for sugar that developed the Caribbean Island from a buccaneer's haven to an agricultural factory during the late 17th century,"(Davis and Simon, 1982, 21). By 1655, the English had completely taken over. (International, Davis and Simon, 1982, 20-22)
In Reggae International it was said that,"Sugar was the cocaine of its time. Arcane Historians feel it energized the white race to enslave the blacks,"(Davis and Simon, 1982, 21). The Arcane Historians may be right, for the slave trade became active at a disgustingly alarming rate. Africans were ripped from their indigenous land and brought to the Caribbean to work on the plantations as slaves to the white Europeans. In Jamaica, captured African slaves were traded for sugar, rum and molasses. These commodities were then taken to England, traded for other goods, which were then taken to Africa to be traded for more slaves. (International, Davis, Simon, 1982, 20-23)
The conditions in which the slaves lived were, of course, horrible. They had no rights anymore; these people who had been ripped from there home land and stuffed into ships, the way one would carry cargo, were expected to obey their new slave masters without any objections. States Reggae International,"Punishment for disobedience would be sever flogging, the loss of a limb, or death,"(Davis and Simon, 1982, 21).
In 1838, slavery was abolished in Jamaica. However, even with the abolishment, the living conditions for Africans in Jamaica remained devastating. There was very little work on the island, and what work there was to be found paid very little. On top of all that, droughts began to occur, drying up the gardens. The Civil War in America caused the prices of imported food to rise alarmingly. Most all of the inhabitants of the Jamaican Island were in extreme poverty. (International, Davis and Simon, 1982, 22)
Therefore, the Jamaican Island has, since the arrival of Christopher Columbus, been a land of extreme oppression of a very serious kind. It involved the genocide of the indigenous people; the industrializing of the land; and, possibly worst of all, the robbing of African people to be used as slaves for the white man. The majority of the people of Jamaica have, since the beginning, lived in conditions worse than most Americans could imagine.
Burning Spear, being a man believing in the necessity of remembering the past- being conscious of the past, has from the beginning of his career sung of the repression of the African race. He urges his listeners to remember the days of slavery. As he sings in"Slavery Days,":"Do you remember the days of slavery?"(Marcus Garvey, 1975). This line is repeated repeatedly, so that the message is implanted in the listener's head. Again, the lyrics of the song"My Roots"come to mind:"My roots I'll never forget, I always remember the road I travel,"(Mek We Dweet, 1990).
Elena Oumano, of Newsday, has said this of Spear's music:"Spear's music reflects the indelible link between the Maroon rebel slaves, Garveyism, and the reggae messenger of personal liberation. The mesmerizing chants and emotive refrains of early classic recordings such as"Jah Is My Driver,""Dry and Heavy,""Social Living,"and"Marcus Garvey"carry the power of revelation and the messianic fervor of an ecclesiastical judge. He has viewed the panorama of man's history, found it sadly lacking, and deeply wishes it weren't so. The listener doesn't just hear Burning Spear, he hears him inside,"(Oumano, 1991, 17)
Spear's music is overwhelmingly powerful. The writer for the Los Angeles Times made this analogy to Spear's voice,"If trees could sing, they might sound somewhat like Rodney, whose deeply grained, biblical-quality voice can seem as if he's speaking for all of nature when he's on a roll.... To the devout Rastafarian, his work isn't a career but a calling,"(Washburn, 1990, 19).
Later in the article, Spear eloquently says this of music and his direction:"Music is so strong and truthful, and looking towards the right direction. Some people always cry out that our music seems to be too political. All that's political is the music speaks the truth, the music see and know what's going on. And when the music start to move itself and move amongst people, it start opening the eyes of people so they can see what's ahead of them. Too political? It is not so. Something has to be around to be a help for people, so they can understand themselves more clearly, and communicate with each other."We also speak out about the danger for ourselves and our children. We don't need no more danger, we don't need no more difficulties, we don't need no more misunderstanding, and we don't need no more violence. We need the people to see each other, and know of each other, feel each other, touch each other, share with each other, and change hearts with each other,"(qtd. in Washburn, 1990, 19)
Burning Spear is a peace loving man. He is concerned with the incredible amount of violence that is going on, especially in Jamaica. In an article in the Boston Globe he is quoted to have said,"We have to stop creating unnecessary environments of violence,"(qtd. in Morse, 1995, 61). The article goes on to say,"Spear say's he's pleased to hear that some of the young dancehall/rap reggae acts that once espoused violence are now lessening their 'talk of garbage',"(Morse, 1995, 61). In his song"Creation"he sings,"You running there, you running here, you running everywhere / Slow down, youth man / Slow down, young girls slow down. You should have an aim / You should have a plan / You should have a direction,"(Rasta Business, 1995). This is a call for peace and consciousness among the younger generations. It also indicates Marcus Garvey's influence on Burning Spear.
Marcus Garvey was born in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica in 1887. He was a Black Nationalist, who founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). In the 1920's, this organization was the most influential Black Power movement. Garvey created this organization in an attempt to awaken the African race, which for centuries now has lived in a state of oppression. He was anxious to see the black man rise to an equal level as the white man (Bloodlines, Davis, Simon, 1992, 66-67). The author of The Rastafarians said this about Garvey's movement,"His movement was designed to restructure a fallen race and, like a prophet, he was impatient for its accomplishment,"(Barrett, 1997, 78). Garvey himself is quoted in the same book to explain his purpose as follows:"The United Negro Improvement Association represents the hopes and aspirations of the awakened Negro. Our desire is for a place in the world; not to disturb the tranquility of other men, but to lay down our burden and rest our weary backs and feet by the banks of the Niger and sing our songs and chant our hymns to the God of Ethiopia,"(qtd. in Barrett, 1997, 79). He was also the originator of the Back-to-Africa movement. He is highly revered among Rastafarians not only because of the inspiration he provided for Africans across the globe, but because it was he who prophesized the coming of a black messiah. He is believed to have said,"Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is here,"(qtd. in Bloodlines, Davis and Simon, 1992, 69).
Garvey wanted all blacks to feel proud; to be disciplined; to be educated; and to be self-sufficient--so that whites could not oppress blacks through monetary means. He believed that Africans who had been taken away from the mother continent should be returned. This was the idea behind his Back-to-Africa movement.
Burning Spear, like most Rastas, is a huge fan of Marcus Garvey. Garvey's name appears in a number of Spear's album titles, song titles, and lyrics. One of the first albums Spear produced was title Marcus Garvey. In his song"Subject In School"Spear sings,"We want a subject in school on Marcus,"(Rasta Business, 1995). Spear believes that Garvey is not acknowledged nearly as much as he deserves, for being the powerful black man that he was. Spear said in a 1995 interview,"The one thing that most hurts and disappoints me is how people have come to look upon Marcus Garvey. Garvey was [a] strong, clean man, who was a leader in liberating Jamaica from its colonial past. The youth now don't even know about that, because over time, you don't hear anything about Marcus Garvey that speaks of what he did that was constructive,"(qtd. in Stoute, 1995, f12)
Burning Spear combines political viewpoints, roots and culture, spirituality, and the concept of oneness into his music to create a sound that is a transcendence of all physicality. A conscious listener can find him/herself in another time and place, chanting down Babylon to the African drum inspired beats of Burning Spear. The music has the ability to lull a person into a spellbinding state, where one is feeding off the energy that the music produces. Spear has continued, and continues, to create exceptional reggae music. His confidence in his music and life is evident and inspiring. He is a servant of the lord, doing what he believes the Lord wants him to be doing. Spear has said,"What keeps me going is that Jah wants me to. I will continue until the most high tells me to do otherwise,"(Stoute, 1995, f12). As it was said in the Toronto Star,"Long may he poke his burning spear into the belly of the beast,"(Stoute, 1995, f12).
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