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Interview: Burning Spear

Interview: Burning Spear

Interview: Burning Spear

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“Don’t look back and don’t be thinking that you get left out of anything. That’s where the future of this music lies today.”

Burning Spear (born Winston Rodney, St Ann's Bay, Jamaica) has released over 50 albums during a long and illustrious career. He started recording for Coxsone Dodd in 1969 before making an impact on an international level with the Jack Ruby produced album Marcus Garvey, on Island records. In recent years he has declared his independence from the music business by starting his own label, management and booking agency. His new album Jah Is Real is out now. Angus Taylor spoke to him in New York about all this and more...

Tell us about your new album Jah Is Real.

Jah Is Real is a album I been working upon for a good while, getting the melodies and the lyrics together, and when I was thinking that the time was right I decided to go in the studio, call in a couple of musicians and lay some basic tracks down until we ended up doing the right thing. So we put the album together carrying a lot of very very strong tracks and a lot of various concepts you know? And I tried to create the album where everyone could have a taste, have their own taste, something is there where everyone could feel, that everyone could like, everyone could hang on to. It’s like a picnic you’re creating and you’re cooking the pot, and you cook various foods for everyone who eats different foods so they are able to get a taste from the pot. I think that’s what I do creating Jah Is Real

A lot of the lyrics talk about the music business. What sent you in this particular direction?

Well what sent me into that direction is basing it upon some of the things I’ve been through dealing with record companies, labels, distribution, and other bad ways of some people who is within the music business. I get a lot of squeeze and I been treated so unjust, I have sometimes not been getting no royalties from then people who I am supposed to be getting my royalties from. And at the time when you try to speak out people are thinking that you’re stupid or you don’t understand the business. So I have to make it be known, you can’t go to every other person and let them know what you been through, it just don’t work like that. So I use the music to carry the message to the people, based upon the condition a lot of us artists been through, dealing with record companies

In the song Wickedness you specifically discuss royalty payments. Was there a single event that inspired the song?

Yes, there was. The last record company I happened to deal with was Heartbeat. I wasn’t getting no royalty, up to today they owe me so much money. And nobody even try to talk to me about how they’re going to be paying that kind of money. So it was like from Heartbeat to Rounder [Heartbeat’s parent company] because Rounder and Heartbeat is the same thing, and they were collecting my publishing, my mechanical rights, they were collecting everything for me and I wasn’t getting anything. And people who I also do business with when I say that I were honest and I were straight up dealing with them, they show that they didn’t care about my honesty dealing with them, and they would try to take as much as they could off me, you know? So I have to make it clear, I have to shout it out, you know? There’s a lot of exploiters. People always try to take away from me what not belong to them. People just don’t care who you is you know? Or what you stand for or what kind of life you choose to live. Once people see that they can feed off you they will. They will feed off you. You have to identify it and secure yourself from people like those.

So I feel the best way to express yourself dealing with these kind of people is through the music, and the music will carry the message as far as it can go.

In the song No Compromise you say “My Music Is A Never Looking Back Music”. Can you explain to our readers what you mean by this?

Yeah. My music is not a looking back music because since 1969 – the year I get started – that’s the way I continue to go. I never look back, I never compromise, I never think that I’m doing the wrong thing, and I never that I get left out of anything. So the way I get started, that’s the way I continue, to what I have to do. And that’s what people expect from Burning Spear. If I try to do something different musically or in some way different then people would consider that I possibly might get left out of something, and I don’t see myself as get left out of anything. I think I’m on the right track doing what I been doing since 1969 – so no compromise.

In the song Step In you talk about your popularity around the world. Are you more popular in Europe than in Jamaica?

Well of course, Jamaica is where everything get started, and of course sometimes people don’t really appreciate you where you’re from, and to get that appreciation and that full respect you have to go to some different places. I think my popularity since I get started developed itself in various countries, most of these countries back in Europe, United States, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, you name them! All these different countries – Germany, France, Italy, Holland, all these countries there’s more appreciation, they embrace the music. I have so many fans based all over the world and back in Europe I think my biggest fanbase is in France. Back in America I think my biggest fanbase is in California. In Canada I think my biggest fanbase is between Toronto and Vancouver. And it go on and on and on and on in different countries where I go. So Step It is a song that’s reminding the people and especially my fans from whence I been stepping to all these different countries. I’m still stepping. I might not be stepping so often as before, I’ve toned down the touring so I might go out there and do say a couple of little festivals here and there – but I am still stepping.

How did the drum and bass remix of this song come about?

(LAUGHS) Well we tried to something different you know, with Mr Hard Groove. And it came out pretty good! That’s a club mix and that club mix also available on a single – a vinyl that we created. We also have a vinyl available of the album Jah Is Real. So that mix we talking about now it’s a single on the vinyl – a vinyl mix by Mr Hard Groove, and we just tried to do something different with the music, and at the same time maintaining the roots and the culture within the music. I been doing this kind of mix for a good while now. I do a lot of dub and this is just a different level, a bit more adjustment, creating a different sound from a dub album mix. Actually the two musics are close.

Another song with an unusual rhythm is One Africa. Tell us about this song.

One Africa – I was working on that song for a good while. The melody was there and others things, but the lyrics wasn’t quite there. So I went to Kenya. I had been invited by the U.N. for the people. And I get all the lyrics. All the lyrics just keep coming after the performance in Kenya. It was lively, it was happy, it was chirpy back in Kenya. I think I bring a light in Kenya, I think I bring all the people together. For at that time there was a lot of ups and downs - you know? - with the people against each other. But for the concert everyone was together, united, was one people for about two, three hours, and everybody was properly enjoying themselves. So the force of that song, One Africa, was really coming from Kenya.

Do you listen to much African music?

I listen to a lot of African music. I love the artists. Some of the names I might not be familiar with, but the music, I been listening to African music from way back. I always love to listen to African music, I love to listen to blues, I love to listen to jazz, R&B – I love R&B. Once the music is saying something and I can feel something from the music it make a lot of sense listening to the music. I used to listen to Curtis Mayfield, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, the Blue Magic… I used to listen to a wide variety of singers and musicians. As a singer and musician myself it’s a part of the whole thing for we to listen back to each other you know? It create that musical essence.

Do you ever listen to your own albums?

Yes I listen to my own works too. I listen to a lot of my works. I have so many works and so many unreleased works. I think I have one of the biggest reggae back catalogues in the business today. I can release up to two or three albums right now without even going to the studio. So I have a lot of unreleased stuff.

And can you give some background 2006 St Ann’s Bay Infirmary concert mentioned in the song 700 Strong?

We decided we wanted to do something for the infirmary in my town which is St Ann’s Bay. We wanted to buy them like washing machines, stoves and all them things. So we thinking the best way to do it is to put a concert together and we start to sell the tickets from over here in the states. And my fans turned out and decided to support this cause and everyone realise and find out what the cause was for. We did the show and the show was properly supported so we were able to buy all these things for the infirmary. And since that time we give to the infirmary every year a Christmas dinner and a New Year’s dinner and any other little things we can do to help. I try to do that at the best I can. So that is how the 700 Strong came about. It was a donation performance.

As well as yourself and Bob Marley, St Ann now has stars like Perfect and Chezidek. Why has the St Ann area produced so many great reggae artists in your opinion?

Well a lot of great people come from the parish of St Ann - a lot of great people come from Jamaica to be honest! – and sometimes we as great people take our time before we identify our greatness. So great people will always be coming out of St Ann Parish. And once we can identify our greatness then we should utilise it within the right and proper way and share it amongst the people and try to reach as far as we can, spreading our greatness amongst other people all over the world.

You were awarded the Order Of Distinction last year. How did you feel?

It was good, of course, to be honoured with the Order Of Distinction. Some times in life these are things you expect would happen at a earlier time but it didn’t. But along the way it happened so I have to give thanks that at least it happened and I were alive to go there and accept what them giving to me. Many of us been honoured and were not around to accept their things. Other people have to accept it on the behalf of them. So I were here so I have to give thanks. At least I get it. Nobody didn’t get it and then keep it and say “it’s for Spear”. Spear was there. I have to give thanks for that! (LAUGHS)

Why did you decide to found your own label - Burning Spear Records?

I always wanted to do this. Even when I was dealing with various record companies I was always thinking about doing things for myself. I believe if you don’t own something in life you have nothing. I was always creating music and giving it to various record companies. They sold it, they give you what they think it was worth or what you should get. And I know I never yet been treated the way I should. I never get the full amount of what I think I should get. So I say, “someday I know will be doing this for myself”. I start to observe, see how much these people does what they do - you know? – like companies, booking agent and promoters. I see everything. So I decided to do it and the first time I decided to do it I get started with the booking. The booking was my wife and she thought it was strenuous and I tell to her that she can do it. And she started – it was shaky when we just started – and after a while the shakiness became strong. And we get strong and we start to book ourselves all over, every place you can think of we were doing it. A lot of people thought it wouldn’t work, but it worked. So when we get strong booking we start looking in a different direction, trying to take a different step, by producing myself. Of course, I used to produce myself back in Jamaica. But when I come into this country and decide to do business, I start to think that the business is to take away from these record company and come to me. I’m the one who is presenting the music and I’m the one who is creating the music. So I start to do it. And my first release was Free Man and my second release was Our Music and my third release is Jah Is Real. It’s been doing good since that time that I insist I have to own something. And even when you own something there’s a outside force always want to take away from you what you own. And I insist that I’m not going to give it up to no one what I own. I will continue to own what I have and I continue to build these foundations. This is how a lot of people in the business today – especially big companies – this is how they get started. Maybe three people get started, maybe four people get started, maybe they started with three thousand dollars, four thousand dollars, maybe fifteen hundred dollars. They get started just as how I get started but they get started in a earlier time. Now I get started in this time. A lot of people be thinking I shouldn’t be doing what I been doing. A lot of people thinking that I’ve been unable to maintain my capability – you know? – and my determination. Determined to do what I want to do for myself. So after I started doing it a lot of people tried to set up a lot of roadblock. Distribution who I used to deal with calling people and telling people not to buy my record unless I am coming back through them. Today I have a distribution [company] in court – Mega Force – we have to go to court because of lack of payment and destroy a lot of my cd without a cause and stuff like that. So we have Mega Force in court, any time now the case is gonna call up and get this thing straightened out. So all these things I put them together and I say “yeah it makes sense for me to do something for myself” and block out these people and have less confusion and have less misunderstanding and less negativity. So I am continuing to do and build something.

What is the future for the reggae music business?

The future of the reggae music is in how the people really see it and how their heart is thinking. As long as we have good singers this music will continue to go places. The less singers we have, the less place we have for this music to be able to go. So the future of this music is in the hands of the singers and the musicians – you know? What is the next turn they are going to take? This generation come with a different kind of music, different from the original, and whatever they came with is springing from the original. So we are they who lay the foundations but they could come through. But a lot of people who come through they are not making on the original way of doing things. A lot of people bypass the original and do some quick things. Some things that just last for maybe a month or two or three. Maybe a year or two and that’s about it. There’s no longevity from what they are doing today. So I think we need more original, we need more roots. We need more artists with less compromise standing up strong and sticking to the programme. The way they get started - continue that way. Don’t look back and don’t be thinking that you get left out of anything. That’s where the future of this music lies today

When you started your sound was very different. Did you think roots music would take off the way it did?

Well of course. Bob was there. And other artists away from Bob was there. Jimmy Cliff was there. Heptones, Dennis Brown, a lot of artists was there. Yes, it take a time before the whole thing became international but most of these artists whom I speak of they were in the international section for a while. These companies they start to sign up all these artists, build these artists, promote these artists, market these artists and sell these artists. And the artists start to become international, the music start to spread all over and people start to identify the reggae music in various countries. So yes, I know things would happen. I also know things would happen for me but it would take some time. So I was like looking on more a long term way of doing this thing than a short term. Possibly if I was taking the short term way of doing it I wouldn’t be here today. My time would come to a end and I would finish for it’s a short term thing. But I believe in the long term. And in the long term you take your time before you see the true direction where you want to go, and I finally see my direction and I head straight into that direction. So I know with patience and with believing in yourself and believing in what you’re doing you can reach places. And after a while I see that I’m going to be reaching out to a lot of people in different countries. Sometimes you don’t know what gonna happen but you have to have a clean mind and a clear thought so when things start happen you don’t have to find yourself baffling around. You know exactly what to do.

And how have you maintained your singing voice all these years?

(LAUGHS) It’s how you condition yourself you know? I am not a night person who going from nightclub to nightclub, drinking beers and stuff like that! Coming in at like 5 o clock in the morning or 4 o clock in the morning – I’m not that kind of person. I try to live a clean and a healthy life, I try to eat the best food I can, I try to get a lot of rest. I just try to centre myself and balance myself just in case something come up where I have to go out there and do it, so I will always sound the way I want it to sound and the way the people looking forward for me to sound and expecting me to sound. It’s about how you take care of yourself and who is in your corner. My wife is in my corner so it’s a duo – it’s me and her! (LAUGHS) So I am properly taken care of.

What’s next for Burning Spear?

What’s next is to continue to do my documentary – I’m working on it – and continue to do as much as we can to keep pushing Jah Is Real for it still have a long way to go, and there’s a lot of people who it still don’t reach just yet, and our duty is to reach to as much people as we can. The documentary tells the true story about Spear. I’m telling the story about me because no one else can tell the story better than the artist. I wouldn’t have to question a lot of people asking them about Spear for I am Spear and I know about Spear… (LAUGHS) So the documentary going to be a very upstanding documentary, it’s gonna be very tight, and it’s going to be something that everyone gonna reach out to. A lot of people who don’t have the full understanding about Burning Spear, this documentary is going to lead them right into everything basing upon Burning Spear. From the beginning.

What is the one thing people should know about Marcus Garvey?

Self determination. Self determination. So many things can happen but if you don’t have that self determination to make what you would like to happen for you and in your life, then it’s not gonna happen. It’s only you who can make it happen and you got to have that self determination. Like a kid going to school and he or she can overcome this arithmetic test or this science test or whatsoever that test might be. But if he or she doesn’t have that self reliance, self confidence, all these things, you’re not gonna overcome the test. Everything is up to you - yourself

And what is the one thing people should know about Burning Spear?

(BIG LAUGH) I think it’s to always keep the Spear burning! Once you keep the Spear burning you can know everything about Burning Spear! Most times the Spear is just a simple laidback person you know? I’m not the kind of upfront person carrying a lot of excitement. I’m more like a laidback person and pretty easy to be with. Pretty easy to be with. I think that is one of the most important things about Burning Spear. Pretty easy to be with.

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Read comments (1)


Posted by George Browne on 04.08.2011
Selassie I,
I am seeking manager/agent services and after viewing your page I was encouraged to contact you, what is the format to deposit tracks for consideration?

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