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Positive: An Interview With Burning Spear

Positive: An Interview With Burning Spear

Positive: An Interview With Burning Spear

By on - Photos by Christian Bordey - 9 comments

"An artist can retire from touring and from other things, but in terms of musical creativity, I don't think you can retire from that"

Sampler

I have chatted with Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear - or ‘Spear’ to those who know him - several times over the years, and every time we’ve spoken I realize how much different he is than the dozens and dozens of other musicians and artists I have interviewed.  Of course, he’s interested in talking about his newest project – that’s part of the business – and as one of the torch bearers for the first generation of reggae artists, he’s able to reason at length about the history of the music, but what always strikes me is how well-rounded and considerate an observer of the human condition he is and how more often than not the most interesting part of our conversations have nothing to do with music. I recently caught up with Spear at his home in Brooklyn as he was putting the finishing touches on mixing ‘No Destroyer’, his first new CD since ‘Jah is Real’ was released in 2008. Over the course of an hour on the phone, we talked about how he’s opted for a heavier approach to the material on ‘No Destroyer’ before we moved on to discuss more personal and philosophical subjects.  As ever, when we finished speaking, and I began to ruminate on our conversation, I felt that I had been blessed to have spent time with a truly inspiring and unique individual whose words and thoughts left me feeling richer and more focused than I was before we began to speak.  Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Burning Spear

Thanks for taking the time out to speak with me, Mr. Rodney.  I understand you’ve been working some long days putting the final mixes on ‘No Destroyer’

Yeah, mon.  Everything is right now!  Looking forward to this call.  Yeah, we’ve been going back and forth in the studio.  We just did one week in the studio mixing the album.

How are you feeling now about how the sessions have turned out?

I feel really good about it.

I’ve been listening to the new songs and they have a heavier sound than you’ve created in the last few years.  Heavier than ‘Jah is Real’

Oh yeah!  Each time I go into the studio, I try to keep my creativity active and my expression fresh.

Yeah, it sounds really dense and dubby.  I love it and it reminds me of the sounds you created with ‘Postman’ or ‘Jah no Dead’  - that kind of layered sound.

It is a strong album.

So, do you have a vision when you begin recording of how you’d like things to sound?

Of course!  Each time I go into the studio to lay a track, I have a musical sensation about what I want.  After so much time, I know how to set about getting what I want or how I want a track to sound.

So, you’ve been at this since 1969 and you’ve seen reggae music change a lot in that time.  When you first started recording, reggae was essentially Jamaican music for Jamaican people, but that’s all changed.

You know, to be honest, when I first got involved, I could identify that I’d been called upon to do a work, but I never thought in terms of creating music for Jamaicans.  My creativity was an international creativity.  When I say that it is an international creativity, I mean that I had a concept of creating music for all people, not just Jamaican people.  I know that music reaches out to all different kinds of people.  Music does so many good things for so many different people all over the world. 

When you first began touring in the mid seventies, did you have any idea, positive or negative about how people might receive your music?

Based upon what I used to hear about myself, other musicians would come back from the road and tell me ‘people are talking about you and your music.’  I was thinking about that when I hit the road, I would be accepted by many people.  The first time I did that was to tour Canada, in Toronto in 1974.  That first show was sold out and the place was packed.  At that time, the clubs we played were really small, but that changed of course.

Toronto has a huge Caribbean population, so it would be a good base to start spreading the word about your music.  In the early days, were your audiences mostly ex-pat Caribbean audiences?

From the beginning, it was a mixture.  I would come on stage and see some white faces, some other coloured faces in the audiences.  So, from the beginning, I was getting a wide exposure to different people.  For me, white or black, I don’t care.  Music is for all people. 

This may be a good time to ask you about the role that music has – as an educational tool or more importantly as a source of healing.  I know that you’ve been through a lot in your personal life, your personal journey, in the last few years and when I listen to ‘No Destroyer’ I can really hear – more than in a long time – how you’re using music to turn personal pain into strength.

I think what happened with recording ‘No Destroyer’ is that I put more of my experience into the tracks – as a man and as someone working in the music business – than I had before.  This is what I would say inspired I man to put this album together.  Actually a lot of things have happened.  I have seen so many reggae artists of my generation struggle, get sick and suffer because they had nobody in their corner to watch out for their interests.  

I have seen so many reggae artists of my generation struggle, get sick and suffer because they had nobody in their corner to watch out for their interests

It is tragic to recall how many people have been lost – perhaps before their time – in the last few years.

Yeah.  I, myself, was one of the ‘reggae slave’ artists and I started to see what was going on, so I ran away from the ‘reggae slave’ masters to start my own thing.

It’s a funny thing because that ‘slavery’ benefitted your fans for so many years.  There were times in the late eighties where you passed through Vancouver two or three times a year.  That kind of grueling schedule must have exerted some stress on you and your family.  It must have deprived you to a certain extent of a ‘normal life’ if there is such a thing.

Of course.  These are the kinds of things that I’m talking about in ‘No Destroyer’ so that people can overstand or feel what it was like.  Another thing what inspired me when I looked at reggae music was that reggae music was like an open range in which bootleggers from Vancouver to Paris could come in and steal I music.  It was time for someone to take a stand.  So, I was in a position where I had to stand up to protect my musical history and my musical culture.  It’s been my working life, I have to defend it.

Many artists are also in your position.  The digital age has made piracy so easy and the fruits of their piracy so easy to obtain.  It doesn’t take much to find cheap or free pirated music online.  Is it difficult to be creative in a climate where you know there are people waiting in the wings to ‘take’ your product?

Burning SpearNo.  There is no interference with my creativity.  It gives me more encouragement musically.  (Big laugh) All of these things we’ve been talking about have gone into inspiring me to make more music.  They have allowed me to get deeper into the concept of ‘no destroyer.’

We’ve talked about that before, but perhaps you could tell your fans what those two words ‘no destroyer’ mean to you as a concept or an area to explore.

No destroyer means that there are a lot of destroyful minds out there trying to take what you’ve got.  There’s a lot of destructive minds out there – that’s what it really means.  People out there sometimes engage in a destroyful way.  They are out there and we have to be prepared.  There’s a lot of things some people try to destroy.

Greed is a powerful motivator.

Oh yes.  Oh yes. 

As an artist and as a business owner, you wear two different hats.  Do those roles ever conflict?  Does Spear the artist ever argue with Spear the music executive?

(Big laugh) No. No. No. No.  There is no interference.  Both roles work together to strengthen each other. 

At what point did you become aware of the extent of the bootlegging of your music, the theft of your art?

At first, I was just playing around on the Internet and I started bumping into things that weren’t right.  In life, these things are going to happen, but they don’t only happen to me.  They happen all over the world.  I have to realize as important as these things are, there are other things that are important.  Bad things happened then.  Good things happened then, but you can’t bring these things into now.  It’s a new beginning and you can’t carry forward the things you left behind.  It’s going to interfere with you in the present if you try to do that.

It's a new beginning and you can't carry forward the things you left behind. It's going to interfere with you in the present if you try to do that

That is very wise, but I see how easy it is to get caught, like you’re in a swamp, with this kind of futile anger and it becomes very difficult to move ahead.  How do you avoid getting stuck in the mire of so much bitterness?

It’s your mind.  You develop your mind so that it can do the work of separation.  Otherwise, you won’t go nowhere.  You think you’re going forward, but you’re going backward.  There’s a lot of good things to be done moving forward!

That’s true.  But, you haven’t held back.  As a friend, I sometimes worry because I know this is the period of your ‘semi retirement’ and it seems like you’re taking on Goliath and you’re just one David!

(Huge laugh) A lot of things gonna take place.  You see, what really happen is that I realized that the music business is a lot like a door and once you identify that, you learn how to space yourself here and there.  You then get your thing going and get what you need to get done done.  Now, all the doors have been closed and they’ll do anything to get that door open again.  This is what’s happening now.  How I can pretend it’s not?

You could stick your head in the sand.  (laugh)

(More laughter) NO!  Sometimes you have to just laugh at these things because what is it you’re going to do?  It’s a joke and at the same time, you’re moving on.  It’s a new beginning.

We certainly need one!  It seems we’re in a very troubling time in history. There are so many traps, addictions and temptations out there.  You’ve had lots of experience.  Is there anything you’d advise to the people out there, trying their best to live a good life amidst all of those things?

That’s a very good question, but we all are going through different things. If I knew what a specific person was suffering, perhaps I could say something.  Essentially, we are in the same boat going through the same issues at different times.

Surely, your faith, your belief in the creator as Jah God, has had an influence on how you conduct your daily life.  Has your faith changed or deepened over the years?

Not changed.  When you are in control of your faith, you are in control of your destiny, you are in control of yourself.  You have to be in control of the things you do and the things you say.  I would say that if you leave yourself open to it, things can interfere with your faith.  But, if you are aware, you can block out such interference.  Your faith will always be tested.  If it can be toppled, it was not faith that you had. 

Your faith will always be tested. If it can be toppled, it was not faith that you had

I find it easier to have faith at a cabin or a mountaintop than in the middle of a traffic jam on a Friday afternoon.  Spear, you live in New York and I know from going there, there are a lot of distractions.

(laugh) There is a lot going on!  You have to know where you want to be in that and what you should do.

I know that you spend part of the year at your home in St. Anne’s.  Is there a certain kind of recharging you get there that you can’t get anywhere else?

Oh yeah.  You can go there and really chill.  I put myself in a low gear.  In neutral!  You just let the vibes flow in, the essence you know.  All of the good things – the beach, the good food.  It is a meditation as well as a vacation and I feel the benefit. 

When we’ve talked before, you’ve said you’re semi-retired.  What I’m wondering is if you believe an artist can ever truly retire.  You tell me that you hear melodies and snatches of lyrics in your head while you’re walking around during the day doing something that has nothing to do with music.

An artist can retire from touring and from other things, but in terms of musical creativity, I don’t think you can retire from that.  I’m always going to hear and do things that are creative.  So, that remains and is never done.

You continue to do a few concerts each year.  Can you say something about your motivation for doing that, and what the experience is like now when you sing live.

I do it for the fans.  There are certain places that have supported me for so many years.  They draw inspiration from the essence of I man and I know what my music has done for some people.  It can change people and turn around people life.  I don’t do it, play live because I have to do it if that’s what’s in people’s minds.  I do it and I do it mindfully and I do it properly.  Of course, I enjoy it still, but it is a work.  A work I was called on to do, but not in the sense of an obligation in the sense that most people would understand.  But, I have to deal with what some people say out of whatever sense because they can’t understand that I’m not touring still.  They say that I am sick, that I have cancer, that I have a blood disease!

Really!

What a thing for one man to do to another.  It takes away one’s freedom and one’s rights!  I read and hear all this garbage and I wonder what is wrong with these people.  I am 67 years old and I’m the best of health and I have all intention to stay that way.  I’m who I is.  I’m firm.  I’m clean.  To spread such rumors is one of the wickedest things one person can do to another. 

Well, I can see how it happens.  So much information is sent from our isolated position, sitting in front of our computers.  One right click and someone has sent a message they would never have the guts to say if the person was standing right in front of them. 

Burning SpearYes, true.  But, there has been so much wickedness.  As you know, we lost our son, Kevin recently and there has been so much going on, it’s only recently we have had the time to grieve.  My wife, Sonia and I are grieving people and grief needs its proper care and attention.  I can’t let other forces get in the way of what is a natural thing.  People need to respect that.  We need to respect it.  It is part of the natural thing.  Everything lives and passes.

That is true.  But, as a parent, I can’t imagine the pain you went through.  As you’re going through the grief process, you have had so much to deal with – including the continued pressure of ongoing expectations from the business side of music. You’ve told me that since ‘Jah is Real’ won the Grammy, you’ve had lots of lucrative offers to tour.  I’m sure you could keep touring till you dropped if you wanted to.

Oh yes! (big laugh) 

So, you’ve just played a big big show.  People loved it more than ever. Do you ever wish you could jump in your bus and drive to the next town to play another concert?

NO.  NO.

NO?

Yaggghhhh! (laugh)  NO!  I forget that kind of feeling!  I love to play, but the idea of getting on a bus and touring for three or four months through Canada, the States and Europe never crosses my mind no more.  I don’t think I will get that itch again. 

You’ll probably live ten years longer as a result.

Mmmm Hmmm.  I think every retirement person has to use their discretion and not overdo it.  Whenever I play a show, it’s not because I called a promoter.  They call me.  They have to abide by my rules.  I do these things because of the fans.

You’re playing the Marley family’s 9 Mile festival.  I assume you took that date because of the association with Bob.

Yes, I do it because of Bob.  Something like that is important.  Bob’s birthday just passed and it is a celebration of his birth in a sense.  It is an important thing because of course he was one of the foundations of our music.  It’s also been a few years since I was down in Florida and I have had some very supportive fans down there from the very beginning.  It will be like a family thing.  It is a people’s festival.

We’ve talked at length before about the founding fathers and mothers of reggae music.  Do you think there’s anyone, any younger performers, who are carrying the torch in a positive direction?

Well, if they are there, they are not getting the chance to be heard enough.  Now the DJ thing controls everything – especially back in Jamaica.  If you’re doing anything different, no one will hear your music, no radio stations will play your music.  It is hard to be a roots reggae singer coming out of Jamaica these days.  It is very different than when I was a young artist trying to break through.  It is a shame that I can’t answer this question the way I should like to.

But, that’s a powerful answer in itself. 

Every day, I ask myself questions about this. What happened to the real reggae?  The environment is different.

I think that what some younger people don’t realize is that none of this was a given.  People like Chris Blackwell were taking some real risks when they took a chance on Bob, or Jimmy Cliff or yourself.  There were no guarantees it would work out the way everyone involved hoped it would.  You came into a very competitive market at the end of the sixties that was dominated by ‘hippie music.’  Granted, the hippies were quite open-minded, but it was still primarily a music industry dominated by white people – with acts like Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Sly Stone being noticeable exceptions.  Yet, you came in and – against considerable odds – did very well.

Yes, it was a very competitive time.  But, I do think that the companies at that time did take risks and did do some work for us to get us exposure.  I would say what you said about Chris Blackwell was true, you know, he gets a lot more criticism than credit.  Yet, he believed in our music even if some people will take exception when I say that.  If not for someone like that, our music could still be stuck in Jamaica exclusively.  It was a very good time when I got in to things.  I couldn’t do it in the same way if I was starting today.

Before I go, I want to ask you about a quote from an older song when you sing ‘No one remember Burning Spear.’  Well, I don’t think that’s true, but given that, how would you like to be remembered?  What do you consider to be your greatest contribution?

That song came about because I was still in the whole Jamaican thing where there was this kind of environment where people weren’t respecting Spear and this whole new kind of music was dominating the scene.  Since then, on another level, I have come to realize that people will always remember I and my work.  I feel good about it.  I’ve made my mark.  I’ve done the right thing as I feel I should have done it.  I have listened to Jah and got the work done.

You seem to have avoided a lot of the pitfalls – such as serious drug use – that mar the music industry and entrap performers.

I’ve seen it all.  I’ve seen a lot of things.  In the music business environment, a lot of things surround you.  You have to choose what you want to do.  Do you want to be a part of the material world they are encouraging you to join?  Or, do they want to be a part of me?  If I’d become a part of them, I wouldn’t be here today talking to you.  No one is perfect.  Don’t get me wrong, but I think I’ve managed to avoid a lot of the temptations that could have surrounded me and put me down.  I’ve always tried to put forward a very positive, clean image where the work I’ve done has been good work and positive work.

Do you feel that the expectation of fans puts any pressure on you?

In what sense?

In the sense that whether you choose it or not, they may rely on you for a certain level of spiritual guidance?

Well, it’s my work and my duty to do what I do.  Perhaps they know that there are certain things that I know, but I don’t think it’s pressure really.  I do music as I know how to do it.  I strive to do it the right way. It’s a calling, but there is no pressure from my true fans.  No.  I am working for them and I get the job done.  I don’t stray from that.  It’s the way I started and it’s the way I will end.  But, I’m not the message.  I am just a messenger.

Nice.

Life, you know Brother Doug.  Life is here.  Seen.

Seen.

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Read comments (9)


Posted by nick on 03.13.2012
Seen!

Posted by karen on 04.09.2012
Burning Spear I love you, I love your music.

Posted by ERIC C. MAYLOR on 06.01.2012
ALWAYS LOVE THE BURNING SPEAR AGAIN SPEAR FOR LIFE

Posted by roots on 04.19.2013
I am a great burning spear fan, but ever since hail him and far over and the fittest, burning spear never impressed me any more with his records.

Posted by everton r. silva on 07.28.2013
BURNING SPEAR MUITO BOA SUA MUSICA É E SERÁ IMORTAL.

Posted by Ras Tim on 10.23.2013
JAH NAH DEAD...LONG LIVE BURNING SPEAR!Indeed my Roots l will never forget,l alwez remember the Road l travelled.From African Teacher,Message and JAH IS MY DRIVER...SONGS...to me the spear has been Burning and will burn forever...!from 1969 till now.....ROCKING IN TIME!And we can't forget the COLUMBUS EXPERIENCE.....!JAH LIVE n RUN TINGS!!

Posted by John Moseley on 12.04.2013
Thank you for this wonderful article. It was truly uplifting. Deep Respect for Burning Spear!

Posted by Myke Pam on 06.11.2014
Behold the Mighty Spear of JAH, Ital Blessings Father! Non-stop faya, the Spear still Burns! African Teacher, blessings be!

Posted by Kimbo Brummie UK on 06.16.2014
I took a journey through life with the Spear from the 70s till now. I too lost my child the year after he lost his child (grown or not they are still your child) his dairy helped me and his music has always been an inspiration to me. Long may he go on singing. Jah bless him and all of his family.

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