The Rasta always try to live a life within the system, at the same time living around the system," declares Winston Rodney, the international reggae superstar better known as Burning Spear. "So he's preventin' himself from feedin' the system and preventin' the system from taking all of him. So regardless of what the system do, Rastaman gonna present himself with no interference."
Speaking by phone from a hotel room in Prague, Rodney sums up the political balancing act that has accompanied his 34 years as one of reggae's most exalted composers and fiery performers. The seemingly tireless 58-year-old (who currently calls Queens, New York, home when he's not touring), boasts one of the longest and most influential careers in popular Jamaican music. While synthetic, recycled dancehall sounds have gradually eclipsed the conscious roots era, Rodney has continued to deliver the same purposeful music since day one, eschewing gimmicky formulas for more contemplative methods. With a back catalogue of over forty full-lengths and countless compilations and anthologies to his credit, the Victrola-shaped paperweight he received a few years ago has only boosted his rocksteady confidence.
"If you weren't doin' something constructively, musically, you wouldn't end up ever winning a Grammy," Rodney says without a trace of irony or contempt for the Christina Aguileras of the world. "A lot of things involved in winning a Grammy -- a lot of poli-tricks in it, mon. I been nominated eight times. I knew that I did a lot of strong records, clean records. They don't think any time is right to give I a Grammy. There's so many album I know that deserves to be a winner: Appointment to His Majesty, you know?"
Rodney did finally win a Grammy in 2000 for Calling Rastafari, though as he puts it, "I been winnin' since 1969 -- winnin' until this time."
During that fabled year, when Woodstock made rock-and-roll history in upstate New York, St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, was emerging as a legendary musical breeding ground in its own right. The rural northern coast town claims not only ska pioneer Justin Hinds of the Dominoes as a native son, but also Rodney and his righteous childhood pal, Robert Nesta Marley.
"We hung out together on the back road; we kick soccer and burn a little tree here and there," Rodney remembers. "I really know Bob, and Bob was the man who told me about [Kingston's] Studio One. But even before I met Bob, I was singin' active, singin' here and there amongst friends and bredren."
Rupert Willington was among those friends and bredren. Rodney formed a harmony duo with Willington and borrowed their stage name from Jomo Kenyatta, leader of the Mau Mau Rebellion's successful war to free Kenya from British colonial rule in 1953.
"I get to know about Burning Spear from an elderly person by the name of Pantan who read a lot of African history and stuff like that," Rodney recalls. "He was like the people's mon, who run a business on Industrial Terrace off Spanish Town Road. If you need a little tree, Pantan could give you that little tree to go burn. He was all-around in that sense."
"I think smokin' should be private," Rodney says when asked about the creative applications of the "tree." "I'm not gonna get into that. No disrespect. Many people might give a journalist the impression that without smokin' there is no music. But I don't believe in that. It's not like when I discuss smokin' that I am promotin' smokin' or tellin' people that smokin' is part of the music. Music is music, and smokin' is smokin'.
"It's not like people need to feel different or get high or junked or everything like that," Rodney continues. "Without the smokin,' can the music be created? Of course! The music will always be the music."
Either way, once Marley fatefully pointed Rodney in Kingston's direction, Burning Spear mesmerized Studio One producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd with a fat, rootsy sound that showcased the frontman's throaty, gospel-tinged voice and hypnotic style of chant-singing. After cutting the debut single "Door Peep" (a somber, earthy tune based on ancestral ghosts), Burning Spear became a trio by enlisting Delroy Hinds (Justin's brother) and released a series of singles; those were followed by the group's 1973 debut album, Studio One Presents Burning Spear, and by Rocking Time a year later. After splitting with Dodd in 1975, Spear released a pair of back-to-back dread classics that most critics consider watermarks in reggae music.
"What brings me out in an album like Marcus Garvey and Man in the Hills was Jack Ruby," Rodney says. "Jack was the producer and introduced me to Island Records and give to Island those albums."
During reggae's mid-'70s gold rush, Island head Chris Blackwell -- whom Peter Tosh perpetually referred to as Chris Whiteworst, despite the Englishman's far-reaching distribution network for black product -- remixed Garvey for U.K. consumption; Blackwell added squealing guitar solos to a sped-up tempo that clashed with the album's overall themes of oppression, repatriation and religious devotion.
"Island do a lot of things with those albums; they do a lot of changes," Rodney notes. "Those albums reach out to a lot of people, and they sell a lot of those albums. But since that time, they made compilation. They re-release. They do a little touchin' up here and here. I think one of the reasons they keep doin' that, Island didn't have no unreleased track of Burning Spear. But at that time, I didn't sign no contract with Island; Ruby could only give them as much as I did for him.
Disillusioned with Island's tinkering, Rodney began his own Burning Spear label to maintain artistic control. (Over the years, however, he's changed horses several times, releasing albums on Slash, Capitol and EMI, but most often through Heartbeat and Island's subsidiary, Mango.)
"So today I'm on my own," he says. "Everything I do now, I'm doing for myself. I'm free from all record companies. I just have to think about what is best for I." Spear's latest album, Freeman, was released through Burning Music Productions on his own Burning Spear imprint.
Contractually emancipated, Rodney conjures less of the searing Spear of yore on his latest release. Instead, celebration and introspection take precedence over militant politics -- with the exception of "They Can't" and its haunting mantra: "They can't kill us all." There's also a vague demand for democratic betterment on the album's closing track, "Changes." Otherwise, Rodney offers plenty of history lessons and spiritual advice, combining enjoyable, loose-limbed rhythms, punchy horns and glossy production throughout.
Freeman also includes another prerequisite track ("Rise Up") in honor of St. Ann's other claim to fame: Marcus Garvey. In fact, the singer's devotion to Jamaica's "Black Moses" and champion of the Back to Africa movement even surpasses his devotion to Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia who is given God status by a majority of Rastafarians.
"It's not a competition about Marcus Garvey and His Majesty," Rodney insists. "Regardless, the system write more bad things about [Garvey] than about the good things what he do. But he set a number-one example for African-Americans. He's the one who originate the red, the black and the green so the African-American would end up havin' a flag for themselves. 'Cause there was no color for African-Americans; there was no speaker, and there was no right.
"I'm sure that Marcus Garvey was the first black man ever did what he does," Rodney adds. "And I think His Majesty has the right to rule him. And people should know that all creators grow into just one creator. People call the creator all different names. People call him Christ. People call him Lord. People call him Jesus. People call him Savior. People call him Allah. And then I call him Jah Rastafari. And today, every nation see they creator in a different way. But I know that there's one creator and one creation."
Thankfully, within Rodney's cosmology, any evangelical hard sell takes a back seat to the preaching of global non-violence -- excepting, of course, when the day finally arrives that Jah kicks Babylon's ass once and for all. There's no heaven, no hell -- just a continuum. But like any religion, Rastafarianism still requires a certain amount of self-reliance and faith.
"Of course, there's a lot of people who lost their trust in Jah. People wearin' dreads don't mean anything. It became fashion. It became tired," Rodney says. "And I want you to know that Rastafari is a way of life. It's a conception. And some people have it as a religion. So I say, 'Don't trust that man that could lose his trust' [from Freeman's opening cut, "Trust"]. We still have to think if the person you gonna trust has trust himself."
In addition to a potential mass crisis of faith, Rodney worries about the trends of gratuitous girls and guns that seem to be saturating so much current Jamaican music.
"Dancehall is not a problem to me; the outrageousness within the music is a problem. Some people talkin' things that don't make no sense. There's some dirty things, some nasty things," Rodney says. "Music should be 300 percent clean, so your 'family-family-family' will be playin' the same music for their 'family-family-family.' Music is something you should glean something from when you listen. It's supposed to educate people. And when one represents the music, degrading down the music, that's not good. We have to think to keep the scandal out of the music so we will always get our international recognition for what we does."
More of a Motown fan ("I would like to open five minutes for Aretha!" the gruff-voiced singer enthuses), Rodney views rock and roll with high regard, although on his latest tune, "Rock and Roll," he refers to the genre as both "whiny" and "shaky."
"I'm singin' happily, mon!" Rodney is quick to clarify. "I can't criticize no music! Burning Spear don't do that, mon. That's rock and roll! You rock-and-roll people get wired when they hear some whiny-whiny dance and some jerky-jerky dance, mon. Let's rock and roooooll! You whiny-whiny-whiny! You jerky-jerky-jerky! I'm singin' about the enjoyment of the music! I'm not here to criticize no one, mon!
"I have a lot of rock-and-roll fans," Rodney continues. "I opened for Talking Heads. I opened for Slash. I opened for UB40. I opened for Simply Red. So no way I could criticize rock-and-roll music. Neither musician: If a musician have a habit or a bad way, I will say, 'He need to clean up him act.' But when it comes to music, I listen to everything!"
Catching his breath, Rodney deflects a hypothetical question as to whether or not his likeness deserves monumental inclusion on the "Rastafarian Mount Rushmore."
"I don't know," he says, laughing. "Leave it to the people who are gonna be doin' that."
Instead, Rodney sums up his ongoing relationship with Burning bandmembers and aficionados alike as if it were a simple recipe handed down through the ages.
"These people, these reggae fans, light a fire for me to cook," he says. "Same thing with the musicians. I am the pot, and they are the fire. What I want the people to do? Keep the Spear burnin'!"
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