Reggae icon Burning Spear is coming to Chico State to spread his socio-political message
On a warm afternoon in 1966, high up in the hills of Jamaica’s rural St. Ann Parish, two men met up in a way that would make history.
One would become Jamaica’s shining star and greatest export and the first international music superstar from a third-world nation. His name was Robert Nesta Marley. The other, Winston Rodney, would become known around the world as Burning Spear. That meeting produced a fateful discussion between two men who would eventually develop, along with reggae music, into iconic voices of the developing world.
On that day Rodney told a young Marley that he’d thought of trying his hand in music. Marley’s reply was clear: The place to go was Studio One. Marley arranged a meeting for Rodney at Studio One with its venerable owner-operator, Coxsone Dodd. Rodney arrived with harmony vocalist Rupert Willington, and together they auditioned three tunes. Dodd quickly prepared the now-classic roots anthem “Door Peep” for immediate release.
Needing a performing name, Rodney selected the name given to Jomo Kenyatta, the Mau Mau leader who assumed the Kenyan presidency. The record was credited to Burning Spear (which by then had become a trio, having added Delroy Hinds).
Several successful Studio One singles were soon combined in the creation of two LPs: 1973 brought Studio One Presents Burning Spear, and Rocking Time came in 1974. This material was important in how it carried exclusively social and political messages and embodied pan-African themes, citing such black leaders as Marcus Garvey and Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie (a.k.a. Ras Tafari). Burning Spear’s music was message music that remains as relevant today as it is hotly collected.
Shortly thereafter, Burning Spear partnered with sound-system legend Jack Ruby. Working with some of Jamaica’s best in a band called the Black Disciples, he proceeded to set the bar for heavyweight reggae. In 1975, Ruby’s Fox label pressed “Marcus Garvey” and “Slavery Days” as singles and found so much success in sound-system play that a full-length album quickly followed. Late 1975 saw the actual release of “Marcus Garvey,” which became such a force that Island Records soon added Burning Spear to its roots reggae roster.
Burning Spear’s relationship with Island didn’t last, mainly because of its choice to remix his material in an attempt to make the sound more marketable (similar to what was done with Marley’s material). Burning Spear felt the sound had been watered down and was infuriated. In 1976, his own label was born, and once again accompanied by Black Disciples and Jack Ruby he released Man in the Hills.
But by 1977 Rodney had determined that his own was the best path for Burning Spear. Retaining the name, he parted from Jack Ruby and his harmony support but stayed with the Black Disciples for 1978’s Social Living. He and the Black Disciples cut a total of five albums that continue to reflect those times as much as they do Burning Spear’s true dedication to roots and culture.
After a 1982 agreement with Heartbeat Records, Burning Spear partnered with the Burning Band, with whom he’s worked ever since. Their 1985 album Resistance was nominated for a Grammy, but that trophy would somehow evade the master craftsmen through numerous excellent releases until 1999’s Calling Rastafari.
It is doubtful, though, that the glow of his Grammy catches the eye of Winston Rodney or his Burning Band. It has never been about that, and it never will be. Rodney’s endeavor has always been teaching his cultural heritage, remaining deeply rooted in the traditions of Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie. That said, it is indeed fitting that this man who sees himself as a teacher of the traditions of his heritage should appear at our university to share his knowledge with the students at Chico State’s Rose Garden.