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World Music Features

Burning Spear

By Judson Kilpatrick
Published November 22, 2006

Calling himself “a messenger of His Majesty,” Burning Spear has never deviated from his mission of preaching positive messages, teaching about oppression, and spreading Rastafarianism. Internationally known, he won a Grammy in 1999.

One of reggae music’s leading figures for over 35 years, the man known as Burning Spear was born Winston Rodney in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, which is also the birthplace of Marcus Garvey. Bob Marley, another product of the lush, lovely St. Ann’s Parish, was already a rising star when Rodney met him. Rodney said in an interview that he and Marley “played a lot of scrimmage” together, and Marley acted as Rodney’s mentor, telling him that Studio One (which Marley had already left) was the best place to get started as a singer. On his very first Studio One single, “Door Peep,” Rodney decided to name his duo Burning Spear, adopting the provocative appellation of Jomo Kenyatta, a colorful and influential African politician who rose from being a prisoner of the British colonists to become the first president of Kenya (“It seemed like a perfect name for I to use.”). Later, Rodney took the name Burning Spear as his own.

Calling himself “a messenger of His Majesty,” Burning Spear has never deviated from his mission of preaching positive messages, teaching about oppression, and spreading Rastafarianism. But although he is internationally known and won a Grammy in 1999, his brand of cultural reggae has not had nearly the impact of Marley’s. On the other hand, millions of Americans who say they don’t even like reggae heard Burning Spear’s music when the rhythm of his song “Columbus” was used for a popular remix of Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name” (no, he did not receive any royalties). As for the subject of the original song, Burning Spear notes, “Before Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica, many people were living there. How can you classify that as ‘discover’?” 

Burning Spear himself discovered America decades ago and has been living in the Laurelton section of Queens, New York, for over 17 years. His new album, Our Music, is the second on his latest label, Burning Music Productions. It was recorded using ProTools at the Magic Shop in Manhattan, but it still manages to recapture the earthy, roots-rock sound of such 1970s Burning Spear classics as Marcus Garvey, his breakout album. In fact, two of the best new songs are entirely about Garvey. When asked about the “Back-to-Africa” activist’s importance, Burning Spear explained, “He’s important to African-Americans. He decided to become these people’s speaker. The government wouldn’t allow Marcus Garvey to do the things he wanted to do. Nobody’s seen the importance of Marcus Garvey. He created a flag for African-American people, the red, black and green.” 

Marcus Garvey is an African Jamaican
who been accused many times wrongfully.
We need his name cleaned up,
and set his record free.
(“One Marcus Garvey”)

“Down In Jamaica” celebrates (along with Paul Bogle and, of course, Marcus Garvey) Queen Mother Nanny, the fearless leader of the Windward Maroons who held off the British forces at the height of their empire’s strength. The song’s chorus is “We want a first lady, down in Jamaica.” Though Nanny is a genuine Jamaican national hero, some might consider it unusual to promote the idea of a female leader in a country not necessarily known for embracing equal rights. “We can call for a first lady any place,” Burning Spear explains. “Sometimes, ladies need to be in certain positions. I think that men should give ladies a chance.”  

As further evidence that Burning Spear truly respects the power of women, his new album includes a love song called “Fix Me.” He calls it “a strong song to help strengthen your courage and strengthen their minds and their confidence. And jump up and down!” 

Burning Spear usually keeps his tempos hot enough to jump to, and his concerts are legendary for their energy. But he made sure to