From the beginning, you could tell Burning Spear was a prophet in waiting. The Saint Ann's Bay, Jamaica native's hypnotic, roots-rock-reggae message music was fully formed before Bob Marley's version became popular. "The man who hails from roots," Burning Spear's early cover art proclaimed.
Back in 1969, the former Winston Rodney was looking for a stage name that would convey the power of the message he was trying to get across in his music. When a hometown historian informed him of the name given African leader Jomo Kenyatta (the first president of Kenya) by his people, Burning Spear found the name to go with his voice.
Spear was one of the first reggae artists to openly express the message of Rastafari. Marley would popularize the religion with his work in the mid-1970s, but when Spear met him, Marley was taking a break from music, disillusioned with his lack of success. Spear credits Marley, whom he encountered in the streets of their shared hometown, with steering him to late producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One, telling him to go by and "show the man what you got."
"And when they listened to it, they were thinking that it was a strong song," says Spear by phone from his current home in Laurelton, Queens. "So then I was told to come back farther in the day and I go and record the song. And that was my first song, called 'Door Peep.'"
Although Spear's Studio One catalogue is extensive, his name was not widely known outside Jamaica at the time because he didn't tour internationally. He started to gain popularity when he left Studio One in 1974 to record his first big hit "Marcus Garvey" with producer Jack Ruby. "To find Spear in the studio, that's good, but when they hear about you outside of studio, that's even better," Spear says. "That's when I started breaking away."
On his early Studio One recordings like "Creation Rebel" and "Down By the River," his voice sounds a lot like Marley's. In later works, Spear's voice had deepened and he adopted the hypnotic chanting style associated with his sound today. But he says it was a natural progression.
"I never did think about trying to sound like no one. It's a natural sound that I have, it's my sound. I never tried to take away anything from it and I never tried to add anything to it."
Spear's lyrics are simple, preaching Jamaican/pan-African icon Marcus Garvey's message of self-reliance, education and peaceful cultural revolution, backed by a hypnotic, plodding beat. He's remained true to his old school over the years. "A lot of the things coming out of Jamaica these days -- soca, calypso -- they're calling it all reggae. I don't know what to call it," he laughs. But he believes that some young artists, including Luciano, are wiling to carry on his sound. "A lot of young people are going to be looking within that old-school direction to try to get that kind of musical development."
Spear once said that it's the artist's duty never to feel satisfied about how your record company is dealing with you and to constantly argue with them to motivate them. Despite his success, he had found that -- like many older artists -- record companies were less than forthcoming in their dealings with him. "When you coming up in this music business, you gonna hafta go through some rough times dealin' with producers and promoters," the singer says. "Once you get the understanding of it, then you will know how to go about dealin' wid it."
He dealt with it by forming his own record company, Burning Spear Records, in 2002. The label's run by his wife, Sonia, and he's had no problems since. "We don't argue," he says, laughing. "There's nothing to argue about. We have control."
Spear's latest CD, Our Music (2005), was nominated for a Grammy, and 2000's Calling Rastafari won one for best reggae album. "I didn't win this year, but it's all right because there are so many people who never get nominated and I was nominated nine times. All Burning Spear albums good," he chuckles. "Our Music is also another good Burning Spear album."
The 61-year-old Spear still tours vigorously, not yet ready to give up spreading his vital message. "Of course, retirement is a must," he sighs. "But for now, I'm still doing what I have to do up until the time is right."
Burning Spear appears at the Visulite Theater; Thursday, April 13, at 9pm. Tickets are $22. www.burning-spear.com