‘The time is right’: reggae colossus Burning Spear on racism, rebellion and returning to Britain – The Guardian

He is the Jamaican legend who liberated reggae, taking it out of Kingston, drenching it in horns – and giving it a joyous, spiritual kick. As Burning Spear hits the road, he looks back on his astonishing life
It’s been two decades since Burning Spear set foot on a UK stage and almost as long since he took on anything that could qualify as a tour: a remarkable state of affairs for the man who has been Jamaica’s most exhilarating performer for half a century.
With an agenda that was equal parts celebration, Black history lesson and pulpit preaching – immersed in horn-drenched music that was at once modern and ancient – Burning Spear entranced and energised audiences across the world. Subdued lighting, smoke (much of which came from the crowd) and live dub versioning built the atmosphere around roots reggae’s greatest voice as he offered hope for the future while addressing the injustices of the past.
Throughout Spear’s career his music has been motivated by his devout Rastafari faith, looking towards African culture as the roots of Black consciousness, and sowing cerebral salvation throughout the diaspora: roots reggae was a vital, joyous contemporary expression of what was forcibly stolen 400 years ago. Burning Spear and his fellow Rastas celebrated the Black separatist activist Marcus Garvey and railed against the evils of slavery and colonialism, warning that a slavery of the mind can be more dangerous than physical subjugation. His goal has been to uplift.
“The time was right,” he says of his return to the UK this week at the age of 77, speaking on the phone from his New York home. “Look at the last two years – nobody going no place, nobody doing things together, nobody even shaking hands! If somebody stand next to you in a line and that man sneeze, everybody look at him with a bad eye! Now, as things start to come around again, the time is right to be playing my music live in a way that will bring people together.
“It’s not like I retired, but it’s best sometime to hold back. These shows are going to be amazing because people haven’t seen me for a while and that means we’re going to have a stronger force of energy in the place.”
Doing what he believes to be the right thing, as opposed to the most lucrative, has been a Burning Spear characteristic since he was still known as Winston Rodney. It’s a motivation that took him in and out of Jamaica’s legendary Studio One record company at the start of his career in the late 1960s.
A tiler by trade, Rodney arrived in Kingston from St Ann parish on Jamaica’s rural north coast in his early 20s, armed with an acoustic guitar and some self-penned hymns to Rastafari. Although the faith had been present on the island since the 1930s, it was still widely despised in the broadly Christian, British-ruled country – particularly in the embryonic music business. Coxsone Dodd of Studio One (“the best musicians, singers, engineers were in there,” Spear says) was the only producer in town that encouraged Rastas.
Spear has mixed memories of his time there. “Remember your first day going to school? You’re shy, you don’t know how to communicate, you don’t know who is a friend – that was what going to Studio One was like. I knew if I don’t say something that makes sense they would have kicked my arse out and I wouldn’t be here now. I stand up strong, and when I sing my first song to Mr Dodd of course he like the sound of it and he was like: ‘Damn! We’ll have to keep this one!’”
Sympathetic as Dodd was to Rastafari as a faith, he didn’t get it as a music. He recorded the Abyssinians’ Satta Massagana then refused to release it because he thought it too confrontational to have much appeal. Likewise, with Spear: Dodd cut two albums with him at the start of the 1970s but the recording was too restrained to capture the essence of Spear’s dread delivery.
This wasn’t the owner’s only failing, Spear recalls. “I could hang out with some of the best musicians and studio engineers and watch them work, so I learn a lot. Then I realised that you’re not getting paid. People write Mr Dodd was a good man. No! Mr Dodd would be taking credit for all of we songs. When it come to fixing up on the music, he can grow the music, he was good at that, but getting some money? No, that’s not Mr Dodd; he wasn’t an honest man.”
After several years, Burning Spear returned to St Ann, understandably disillusioned – he had failed at the island’s number-one hit factory, and his brand of roots music hadn’t found a place on the all-important Kingston sound systems. Back then reggae was an almost exclusively urban affair, the industry in the capital dictating musical development with a conceit that assumed anyone else had straw in their ears. Upon returning to life away from music, Spear fell in with local sound system owner and nascent record producer Lawrence Lindo, AKA Jack Ruby, who talked him into recording again. It was a revelation.
The producer’s lethargic time signatures, arrangements that left big spaces, and unique Addis Ababa-slanted horn phasing, gave Spear the ideal platform to properly explore his compelling vocal range. Most importantly he had hijacked Kingston’s edgier take on roots music and shifted it to the hills. This had the pace and tinge of melancholy that evoked the weariness brought on by life in rural Jamaica, where hard work from sun up to sun down – “from nah see to nah see” – was the norm, and carrying things along seemingly endless dusty roads was what people did.
On top of that, Spear’s lyrics had the spirit of rural resistance: these folk might be worked to exhaustion, but they would never be put down. This essence dates back to Queen Nanny of the Maroons, whose guerrilla army of rebel slaves held off British redcoats on the island’s mountainous interior in the 18th century until they were granted their own settlement.
Since the majority of Jamaica’s population were rural and a significant proportion of Kingstonians were recent transplants, hearing themselves in this music gave Burning Spear the success that had evaded him at Studio One. “Jamaican people always expected from their music that some consciousness and culture get mixed in – not all of it, but there must be some,” he says. “Music that carry a lot of strong vibes is a force to uplift the thoughts and minds of the people, so you would have more consciousness, less violence and people wouldn’t be so ignorant and so stupid towards each other.”
Four mid-1970s albums – Marcus Garvey, Man in the Hills, Dry & Heavy and Social Living – cemented Spear alongside Bob Marley as the most significant voice in reggae at the time. The songs weren’t so much an incitement to fight Babylon, but rather an explanation of why it was such a good idea; and although anger and indignation had their place, they set out the motivation for Black pride and self-celebration.
“When I put my lyrics together I know I have to tell a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end that people can follow and it will educate them,” he says. “If it’s about Christopher Columbus or the end of war or living good, the music needs to carry some form of education within it – if people know these stories, they can think properly.”
Songs such as Civilised Reggae and Slavery Days are Spear giving advice or providing information, rather than targeting individuals or situations. Even through Jamaica’s sustained political violence of the 1970s, he believed that people should and could govern themselves if given the knowledge and self-awareness to do so; for Burning Spear, “the oppressor” is a nebulous force rather than a particular regime, and as likely to come from within a person as from the outside.
In recent years, the issue that has most stirred Burning Spear is to see Garvey, who so powerfully influenced the Rastafari faith, recognised as the Black Jamaican hero he was. “The time is right for Marcus Garvey to have a public holiday in his honour and be studied in school. The time is right for the people of Jamaica to come together and make sure that take place.”
These albums pretty much established Burning Spear’s future career path – atmospheric, politicised roots music of the highest calibre, best experienced in a live environment. After 50-odd years in the business, he knows what works in a concert. “People knows what to expect, which is me, Burning Spear, and they are ready to accept it. They know. I will just be who I is – I can’t be less or more.”
But he hasn’t given up on recording, actually enjoying lockdown as a chance to “gather” ideas to take to the studio later this year. Judging by his 2021 single Mommy, which brought all the vintage Spear resonance and musical depth to bear but with modernised instrumentation and sounds, this new music will not disappoint.
“You can’t just come up with a melody, or you can’t just create lyrics – you have to let them come to you,” he says. “When everything closed, I could relax and enjoy the melodies and lyrics coming to me. I have to prepare myself to store them, then when I need them in the studio I can take whatsoever I need and put it where it belong. I’m filled with lyrics and melody ideas. That’s me, that’s what I is – music.”
Burning Spear plays the Birmingham Forum on 13 August and O2 Academy Brixton, London, on 14 August.


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