Born Winston Rodney, March 1, 1945, in St. Ann's, Jamaica; immigrated to the United States, 1986; married; children: five. Religion: Rastafarian. Addresses: Record company--Garret Vandermolen, Heartbeat Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Agent--Burning Music Booking, P.O. Box 130187, Springfield Gardens Studio, New York, NY 11413.

Burning Spear--born Winston Rodney in 1945 in St. Ann's, Jamaica--easily shares the title "The Father of Reggae" with his musical contemporary Bob Marley. Since 1968, Spear's music has defined the genre of "roots reggae," which emphasizes Jamaica's historical links to Africa, the self-determination teachings of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, and black consciousness themes. Spear's resonant voice and hard driving drumbeat and bass lines create a hypnotic sound that lulls the listener and enhances the message of his lyrics. On his 1991 album, Jah Kingdom, he sings the praises of black leaders Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, often delving into historical analyses of Western revisionist history; his acclaimed Hail H.I.M. features the song "Columbus," which clearly dismisses the notion that Columbus "discovered" Jamaica, ending with the emotional declaration: "Christopher Columbus was a damned blasted liar."

Yet despite his strident politics, "Rodney views the world and its people as a whole," wrote Ed Paladino in The Beat. "Through his everlasting belief in the ideals of Garvey and his preeminent concern for all of Africa's descendants, he has captured an even greater ideal for all of the human race. When he sings on 'World Power': 'Yes we suffer/Let's not talk about race/let's not talk about color,' he surpasses labels and politics." Taking the name of controversial Kenyan freedom-fighter and president Jomo Kenyatta--"The Burning Spear"--Rodney metaphorically unites his political beliefs with his Rastafarian faith, preaching an end to suffering and slavery for all people. Over the course of his career, Spear has released over 20 albums and has been nominated for five Grammy awards. In a 1991 interview with Mean Street, he stated that he "would like the people to know when they hear the name Burning Spear that it is a constructive name, a strong name.... The music is for all of the people and the people are for the music."

Considering his heavy emphasis on the importance of "roots," it is no coincidence that Spear's greatest influences--Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley--also hailed from St. Ann's, Jamaica. Born in 1887, Marcus Garvey moved to the United States in 1916 and started the "Back to Africa" movement based on the belief that blacks would never receive justice in white-dominated or colonized countries. Throughout his musical history, Spear has blended the teachings of Garvey into his lyrics as a way of spreading the leader's message to the people.

There was a time, however, when Spear was neither spiritually nor politically inspired. According to an interview in Melody Maker, the moment of his conversion to Rastafarianism--a mystical West Indian religious movement that centers on the end of black oppression and the promise of an African homeland--occurred early one morning when he had returned from a swim and was combing his hair. According to the story, the comb stuck in his hair and snapped, both ends shooting to opposite sides of the room. Spear said that at that moment, he saw Rasta in the mirror; since that time he has been wearing his hair in dreadlocks and following the Rastafarian way of life. Of his musical inclinations at the time, Spear told High Times magazine: "I'm not a man with a musical background. I was a flexible man who was there until Jah call I."

The call was answered in 1968 in the form of a trio Spear created with harmony singer Rupert Hines and Delroy Wilmington of the Hep Tones. In 1969, he recorded his first single, "Door Peep Shall Enter," for Studio One after Bob Marley introduced him to the label's owner, Coxsone Dodd. "I just run into Bob one day and as a St. Ann's man like myself, he told me that I should check out [Studio One] as a musical college," Spear mentioned in a 1991 press release. Spear stayed with Coxsone for two years, recording Burning Spear and Rocking Time, two albums that are now considered collector's items.

Spear took a few years off from recording and moved to Island Records in 1974 to work with producer Jack Ruby on three albums, Marcus Garvey, Man in the Hills, and Garvey's Ghost, which firmly established him as one of the world's preeminent reggae masters. Marcus Garvey, released in 1975, most clearly defines Spear's career and is still considered one of his best recordings, containing the hit singles "The Ghost," and "I and I Survive (Slavery Days)". Spear stayed on with Island Records to self-produce two more albums, Dry and Heavy and Live. Then, in the early 1980s, he returned to Jamaica to make several recordings on Marley's Tuff Gong label, giving back his talents to the community that helped establish him as an international star.

At this point in his career, however, Spear was more of a hit with white communities in Europe than with African Americans and other people of color throughout the world-- a fact that disturbed the singer somewhat. 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 predominantly white audience, Spear continued to make a connection with the people. As Reines went on to observe: "Watching him on stage I've never seen such a large number of people so completely united; I've never witnessed such a direct communication between an artist and his audience."

Nineteen eighty-one was an important year for Burning Spear; with his new "Burning Band" (Anthony and Devon Bradshaw on bass, rhythm and lead guitars; Nelson Miller on drums; Alvin Haughton, percussion), Spear toured Italy and England. In America, he went on the road with the Clash and Talking Heads. Around the same time, the world learned of the declining health of Spear's idol, Bob Marley. In the Melody Maker interview, Spear's response to Marley's lung cancer may have seemed flip: "I say Bob can get better. Why else did Jah create physician?" But Marley didn't recover, and upon his death in May of 1981, Spear was one of the first singers to release a tribute album.

Farover received mixed reviews in the press. Georgia Christgau, writing for the Village Voice, described Spear's break from five years of non-U.S. recording as "not hard to like," but "also not hard to dismiss." Melody Maker's Steve Sutherland began his review by calling Farover Spear's "first vinyl holiday," stating that the singer was "almost irreverent in his strident self- confidence." Yet Sutherland concluded that the album was "an inspired wake" for Marley. Christgau described Spear as having "at least two gifts, his throat and his pen," stating that since his first recording in 1969, "his voice carries [on] with no sign of weakening." She did take issue, however, with the song "Education," describing it as "incoherent" and "insidious" and a "pure sexist put- down." Yet as a whole, the album seemed to reinforce Spear's earlier themes of uniting black consciousness; on the track "Greetings," Spear sings: "One thing I don't understand how so many black people in America/Have no intention, have no respect for their culture."

Some music critics contend that reggae suffered a serious slump after Marley's death, as watered-down versions of the reggae style mixed with synthesized dancehall music and rap. Spear attempted to stay in control of his career by moving permanently to Queens, New York, in the 1980s and switching to the Slash label, where he recorded People of the World and Mistress Music. Randall Grass described these two albums in Musician as a "stretch toward accessibility, without sacrificing his considerable substance."

Back in 1985, Spear decided to expand his Burning Band to include a brass section made up of musicians Pamela Fleming, Jennifer Hill, and Linda Richards. His 1989 double album Live in Paris Zenith '88 was a huge critical success. Village Voice contributor Ben Mapp wrote that "Spear's output could either deconstruct your worldview, cause a revolution in your mind, or both," adding that the brass section's "punchy attacks" stung "like killer bees."

However, when Spear took his act on the road the next spring, troubles began to brew between the Burning Band and its burning leader. According to the Village Voice, Spear became dissatisfied with the growing melodic rhythms of bassist Devon Bradshaw, which he felt too closely mimicked popular reggae. As a result, Devon and his brother Anthony (on rhythm guitar) were kicked out of the band in Hamburg, Germany, halfway through their tour of Europe and Africa. Later in the tour, the brass section-- Fleming, Hill, and Richards--left in support of their former bandmates. Spear apparently felt that the members of the brass section were also "part of the bad weed."

"People have gone through a lot of changes since the 70's and 80's, but people think what they're hearing today is original. It's not; it's a copy of the original," Spear told the Jim Beal, Jr., of the San Antonio Express News in 1991. In the 1990s, Spear continued to promote his music as unspoiled by dancehall trends. Of his individual tenacity, Spear added: "Some of us have dropped out and couldn't maintain the resistance and have gone the other way. I give thanks and praise to the original most high God Jah Rastafari for keeping I on the original path from that time until this time."

The path, however, was often rocky: in 1990, after three somewhat unevenly produced albums with Slash, Spear returned to Mango/Island Records and released Mek We Dweet ("Let's Do It"), earning his fourth Grammy nomination for reggae album of the year. With romantic songs like "Woman I Love You" and "Say You Are in Love," Mek We Dweet finished high on Billboard's Top Ten List of World Music Records. Spear received the prestigious Jamaican Federation of Musicians Merit Award after he returned from headlining the 1990 Reggae Sunsplash Tour.

Of his original Burning Band, Spear kept in close contact with drummer Nelson Miller, who helped produce many of the reggae master's later efforts. Jah Kingdom, released in 1991, offers a return to Spear's original themes of spiritual devotion. Containing such tracks as "Call on Jah," "Praise Him," and "When Jah Call," the album was described by Reggae Report as promoting "incantations of faith and immaculate covenants of love." On the song "Tumble Down," Spear reaffirms his religious roots, singing: "Jah is my light, strength and energy." Jah Kingdom also contains Spear's cover of the Grateful Dead song "Estimated Prophet," which he originally recorded for Dedicated, a Grateful Dead tribute album that included artists Elvis Costello, Lyle Lovett, and Jane's Addiction.

Throughout his career, Spear has struggled to maintain artistic integrity. In the early 1990s, he sought more control over his own promotion and business dealings with record labels. "Any time you are working with a company, you are sacrificing something," he told the Daily Californian in 1991. "You just can't lean back and say O.K., you are with this company, they are going to be taking care of everything.... They ain't going to be doing that." Consequently, Spear hired a publicist, left Island, and returned to Heartbeat/Rounder, which had released Farover and Resistance in the early 1980s.

Heartbeat re-released Hail H.I.M., two new CDs, and three live albums from 1993 to 1995. The World Should Know (1993) won yet another Grammy Award nomination, and in May of 1995, just after his fiftieth birthday, Spear won four International Reggae Music Awards (IRMAs).

In August of 1995, Spear headed off his "50th Birthday Tour" of the United States in promotion of his June release of Rasta Business. Interviewing Spear about his career, his birthday, and his prospective tour, Dave Shiffman of Forward asked: "And [your] reggae will keep growing stronger and reaching farther?" Spear responded: "Just springing, growing, putting out leaves, branches.... Roots and culture, history and livity. You gonna always hear that, always want that, there's no changes."

by Sarah Messer

Burning Spear's Career

Recorded first single, "Door Peep Shall Enter," at Coxsone Dodd's Studio One in Jamaica, 1969; became international reggae star in the mid-1970s with the release of Marcus Garvey; toured with Talking Heads and the Clash; headlined Reggae Sunsplash Tour, 1990; toured extensively in the United States, Europe, and Africa; released over 20 albums, beginning in 1969. Built the Marcus Garvey Children's Center in the mid-1970s.

Burning Spear's Awards

Jamaican Federation of Musicians 1990 Merit Award for Mek We Dweet; Martin's International Reggae Award for most educational entertainer of the 1980s, 1991; Nelson Mandela Award, 1991; NAIRD Indie Awards for best reggae album, 1992 and 1993; International Reggae Music Awards (IRMAs), 1995, in four categories, including best music video, Bob Marley Award for entertainer of the year, International Reggae Hall of Fame inductee, and Marcus Garvey Humanitarian Award; album of the year and best arranger honors in the reggae category at the Caribbean Music Awards; five-time Grammy nominee for reggae album of the year.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Books

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 2 years ago

I n i give thanks n praises to the Most High JAH RASTAFARI. Big up for "The Spear Burns Hot"still. Some much Love from the Mother Land,Botswana, Afrika !!!!! Ras Farover

about 6 years ago

Would like information on booking Burning Spear for the Monterey Bay Reggaefest, in Monterey CA, on Laborday weekend. Any day from 8/29/08 to 8/30/08.