Interview by Jason Gross (Sept. 1997)
For almost twenty years now, Burning Spear has been an important voice in reggae in many ways. His distinct, wailing voice is an unsurpassed trademark that goes along with his preaching of the works of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey in his songs. Spear has been steadfast in his view and his music, keeping true to them throughout his career, and led to a large international following: this kind of conviction is something that's sadly not seen too often in the music industry. I'd been a fan for his for years now, enchanted by a spell weaved from the longing in his voice and the hypnotic rhythms of his music. Needless to say, it was a real honor to speak to him about his career, his music and his views going from the beginning of his career to his latest CD, Appointment with His Majesty (on Heartbeat).
NOTE: I realize that Spear's comments are not in 'proper English.' Out of respect to him, I thought it would be better to print his comments as they were actually spoken and not all 'cleaned up.'
PSF: Could you talk about growing up in St. Ann's Bay in Jamaica?
I grew up there, I went to school there, I do everything there. That was my turf. I was invovled in normal things like any other young person. Listening to a lot of different types of music then getting involved in the music business later. I was listening to reggae like ska and rock steady like Delroy Wilson, Justin Hines and the Dominos, the Tamlins. I was listening to all those people before I got started in the music business. I think that there are a lot of special things about that area. Marcus Garvey is from that area. Bob (Marley) and some other great people are from that area too.
PSF: How did you get interested in spreading the teachings of Marcus Garvey?
I was listening to other people in the music business with what they were saying and who they were saying it about. I didn't hear anything about Garvey or Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or any of these great black people doing constructive things. There was nothing about them in the music. That is really what inspired I to get into Marcus Garvey, just to get some lyrics and music together and present him through the music.
PSF: Have your feelings and understandings about his work evolved or changed?
We have so many different changes and understandings that take place. A lot of people get a lot of stories about Garvey that have never really been told about Garvey. The teachings of Garvey have spread themselves more since first I get invovled in Garvey musically.
PSF: What would you say about the revelency of his teachings in relation to current events?
Situations all vary. You're not going to find all the people in comfort. There are always people in need and in want and people complain. People always not treated properly in Jamaica, United States, Europe, Africa. Today, the whole world is full of unreasonableness. It's not like we can't prevent these things from happening. All things lead people to the need to speak out and speak out as one. If the people administrate as one, that will create a lot of the changes. If the people do not administrate as one, you have all these problems, unsolved problems.
PSF: How did you first pick up the name 'Burning Spear'?
The name is coming from Kenya. Jomo Kenyatta- it was the name they called him, Burning Spear. He was the first president of the Republic. Before I even sing the first song, I was looking for a name. I can remember that this elderly person told me this about Jomo but I didn't know anything about him to be honest. This person was thinking that for the kind of melody and lyrics that I was presenting, that would be an appropriate name. So that's how it came about, Burning Spear.
PSF: The first recordings you did were for Studio One. How do you see this as being different from your later work?
There's a lot of changes after getting started. In my coming up, I never really wanted to be like anyone or be a part of anyone. I just wanted to be me. When something good should happen, I wanted it to be for me. I would think that I would like to do things my way. In 1969 with Studio One, that was the starting point of Burning Spear. The lyrics I do for albums like Marcus Garvey or Man In the Hills, that was a change but still maintaining the history, the roots and the culture. At all times it will be different but still maintaining that full concept. The album Mek We Dweet is totally different also and Marcus' Children is totally different. If you go back and look, you can see we try to maintain the original concept of still having the historical blend of roots and culture within all these albums' lyrics and arrangements.
PSF: What part of Garvey's teachings were you trying to put across in your music?
Everything that I do in my music is pertaining to Garvey. When you listen, you can see that the message is within the music. It's for all the people of the world so that they could listen to what I'm saying and gain something. People can see that the lyrics have much to do with their way of knowing or their way of doing. Every section of his philosophy is very important.
PSF: During this time when you started, Jamaican music was shifting from ska and rock steady music to reggae. What did you think about that?
Ska was there before rock steady. Everyone was playing ska and it turned itself into rock steady. It was the same music but it have a little change along the way. I think that I started in the business from when the whole thing was leaving from rock steady, turning itself into reggae. It's not the changes really take place just for me. It was for all of us who were singers and musicians.
PSF: In the 1970's, reggae became an international phenomenon. How did that effect your work?
I think it does something good for all of our music. We started the music in Jamaica and then the music required a bigger and wider level of recognition. The music find itself starting to grow. Music find itself going into different countries. People start to recognize the music. It get a higher level of recognition, which was good for all of us as singers and musicians. The music was moving up and people start to identify the music. People really need the music and they reaching out for the music. I think that once the music started to grow on that level, it's a good healthly thing for all of us who were in music business at that time.
PSF: What did you think of the other reggae groups at that time?
The high light was shining on some of us more than some at that time. Some of us came right behind the other- not like all of us was there at the same time. They were great- everything was right. There was one singer springing out and another singer springing right behind you. That was very, very exciting.
PSF: One of your early records Garvey's Ghost helped popularize dub. What are your thoughts about that type of music?
Dub was there even before I put out Garvey's Ghost. Jamaica earlier on believe in a lot of dub music. It still believes in a lot of dub music. Dub music is another section from the whole vocal aspect. It's good when people get to hear that music all by itself with the seperation and the vocal is not there so you just listening to the rhythms and those instruments. Now and then, here and there, you might get a little vocal. I think it's very important that we put out a couple of these sounds here and there. It's just another section of the music.
PSF: One of your early songs was 'Throw Down Your Arms.' Do you think that expresses your political views?
People might term that to be political but it's just reality. If you have people throw down their arms, then you have many people live longer. You'd have less people shooting or going to war. The world would become more peaceful and people would live among other people without any fear or any doubt. 'Throw Down Your Arms' is very appropriate and very important and very intelligent.
PSF: What was the message behind 'Social Living' (from 1978)?
Social living is a very old standard saying. You got to be socialized. When you can socialize with people then you get to know people better and people get to know you better. Socialize with people and then people can know you from inside out. Today, you don't find a lot of people socializing with people. I think socializing is very important in peoples' style of living. You try to love people the best way you can. You get to know people the best way you can.
PSF: What did you think of the dance hall music that got popular in Jamaica in the '80s?
Dance hall was where there was music within rock steady time. It wasn't like now. It wasn't so outrageous. In those days, dance hall delivered some CLEAN lyrics. Lyrics that people would listen to and feel good. It never scary. It's not like you prevent your child from listening to it. It was music that at that time anyone could listen to it. Anyone could dance to it. It wasn't anything where in creating a form of violence. It was just clean. Dance hall now I see is totally different. Some of these dance hall stuff is too much. When it became that kind of too much and carrying that violence and misunderstanding, I don't think it's good, especially for the younger set of people who are listening to reggae music. They might naturally go thinking that this is where the music start from but it's not. They don't do it where they do things clean and you feel relaxed listening to it. You feel scared of the music.
Then again, it's the kind of music that the producer leads these brothers to do. Some of these brothers who are doing these dance hall hits, it's not like this is what they really want to do. This is how you're told they will market them. If they don't do it in that kind of way then most naturally, that marketing wouldn't be there for them.
PSF: Do you think that your music and your message have changed with Appointment With His Majesty?
There's no changes in the messages. It's just different lyrics coming in a different way, delivering the same message. This message deliver on all different levels. People also find the message in their own way. So there's no changes within the messages.
PSF: You're a very spiritual person. How would you say that a person would lead a righteous life?
I think that spirituality is how you think and how you feel. Each one has to think within their own direction. Each one has to discipline themselves. Each one needs to accept all the good things. Each one has to accept. Spirituality is not like the individual has to be in church for 24 hours or you always have to be discussing about spirituality. It's just a simple thing. It's how you think. It's how much you want to know and how much you want to do.
PSF: Do you see your music as being an inspriation or giving comfort to others?
I see the music as that way for me. I always think of that. I think my music provides comfort for people and uplifts the mind and the heart of a lot of people. People start looking in the right direction on many different levels. There is a lot of reggae that do the same thing to a lot of different people.
PSF: Do you see your music as something like a ritual?
I think that everything which is good is within the music. Sometimes people feel it differently from how I present the music. I'm just the presenter. Sometimes the music hit people and take hold of the people and carry them on different levels, different heights. Only they can tell you the kind of vibes or the level that the music take them to.
PSF: What kind of things do you hope to be doing in the future?
In the future, I think that I will always be in the studio to do some records before I can have music to present to the people. I can't promise the people that I will always be on the stage performing live. Some time I have to look in the direction of retirement. When I speak about retirement, it's not like I'm running away from the music. There will always have music coming from Burning Spear. I've been touring so much. For the future, I will always be recording. I will always be doing something within the music business.
PSF: When that time does come, how would you like to be remembered with your work?
Well, I would just like people to remember Spear as Spear. A man who would stand up for what he believes in musically and otherwise. I think my views are very strong. I think my thought is very together. I think people always remember Spear on all different levels and all the good levels. They can look back and see some of these great performances. They can listen to these great albums by Burning Spear from 1969 until when.
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