Burning Spear: African Teacher

Meeting and reasoning with the man Winston Rodney had been a personal goal of mine for some time. I got my chance before Spear played the Grand Emporium in Kansas City on August 30th, 1995. I found Spear to be much as I had anticipated - reserved, distant at times, and very dread.

The following is exceprted from the full interview.

Let's talk about your new album before anything else, Rasta Business. Let's talk about a "Subject In School" on Marcus (Garvey) in here. I'm wondering if you were to teach a class on Marcus, what would you have your students study most crucially?



Of course. Students have to be taught about everything. So therefore the knowledge of the students would develop around and about everything.

Are there any particular works that you feel are most important.

To be truthful everything is important to a student when it come to education. Everything is very important, and that's why you have so many different subjects in school. If a youth would just penetrate in one subject, he or she wouldn't learn anything. You just learn about one thing. So that is why the most subjects you can have is the best. You just going place pon an educational level.
"Subject In School" is very important. Is not like just subject in school on Marcus Garvey. You have so many great people who were there doing a lot of constructive things not only for themselves but for people. Where people like those should be taught about in school, to all the children, so you would get an international understanding.

You and Garvey were both from St Ann's. Were you always aware of Garvey? Cause some people were not aware of Garvey till an older age. . .

Most times, to know about some things it take you a time to know. No one just come up and know about everything. It take ya a time. I never been told about Garvey in school or from no one when I was a young person. But by coming up as a young person, trying to reach towards being a big person so the whole knowledge of understandings, knowings, start to exercise itself. You start to ask questions. You start to deal with people who know things -- who would know things before I.
So that is where I get my first lecturing about Marcus Garvey by dealing with elderly people - people who believe in that historical level of tings, you know. I just get to know who is Marcus Garvey and deal with Marcus Garvey through the music.

Certainly, many many people know of Marcus Garvey through your works. Do you have a perspective on your having spread the work of Marcus Garvey. Do you see that come back?

What I did, you know, I did something wherein people who were there musically before I... I never happens to hear them mention anything about Garvey or none of these great black leaders who were there who set the pace for I & I to be here today. I never remember hearing none of these singers mention none of these people in their interviews.

So you see, a lot of the people who even knew about Marcus Garvey wasn't exercising nothing (material) about Marcus Garvey. And I did a lot around the philosophy of Marcus Garvey by presenting a lot of Garvey sayings in the music and this became a high hope for people who never even heard about Garvey.

David Hinds (lead singer of Steel Pulse) told me that you were responsible for the birth of the philosophy of Ras Tafari in England. More so and before Bob Marley, there was your music, Studio One, especially the Marcus Garvey album and Rocking Time as well . . .

Well, musically, we were all singers and musicians working together, and we still are, but we wrote different songs. And some times, some of us songs reach out to some people different from how some of us songs reach out to people. And maybe around the whole concept or religion of Ras Tafari, the lyrics wherein I was writin within that time did more, became, a strength towards the whole concept and religion of Ras Tafari.

Then again... A lot of us was even doing that still. For as you mention about Bob; Bob was singin some nice songs also, also writing some good lyrics wherein signify a lot of strength around the concept and the religion of Ras Tafari also - lot of us.

But we all write different kind of lyrics even though we all sing reggae. And you have some people into some lyrics more than they into some lyrics.

You see the music became a guideline and people (get) choose it, for if people choose the song where it can strengthen he or she. Music is more than just listening to it. People use the music for them protection at times.

How did you get the original opportunity to record for Coxson (Coxson Dodd of Studio One) in the late sixties. How did that come together?

Well, how I get started recording for Coxson is through Bob Marley. Bob is from the same Parish (St. Ann's) where I is from.

And you always knew him as a youth?

No, no. Not always knew him as a youth, but after many years pass I became big young man and he became big young man. We met, in the same Parish but like opposite part, like, in the hills. I was traveling and him was traveling and we just happen to buck. And from there we were like reasoning bout music, Rastafari, roots and culture, et cetera, et cetera. I speak the word about getting involve and Bob told me about Studio One and since that time it been working.

How about Jack Ruby (producer of Marcus Garvey and Man In The Hills)?

Jack Ruby came by after I decided to rest - not doing anything for Studio One. That is when Jack Ruby came by and he needed to get involved in the music business. I don't know why. For how many get involved in the music business not because they love the business or need to strengthen the music.

Some people get involved in the business cause they need to invest their money and make a money and dem money. And they don't care about the artist or the music. A lot of these people don't even listen to reggae.

But anyhow Jack get involved because Jack did love the music. Jack was like and sound system man. And doing two album for Jack; that was Jack first time getting involve in the recording business. The two album was Man In the Hills and Marcus Garvey. It was good dealing with Jack.

So the coming years, reggae changed a whole lot... In the next two, three years after Bob died. How did you decide what course to strike on with the music changing into a more . . .

I don't decide what course. For I can't change my course. My course already set, you know, so I couldn't change my course. Those and them who come after did have to change their course, but my course remain the same way. And today, plain to see that all the people who came after... Now everybody come back to the original. But they didn't work off a course, they just do some tings without a plan, ya know.

So the roots consciousness that's come back . . .

Of course. I been talking about that for couple years knowing that the original is coming back. It got to.

Young people business going through musically phase and stuff. While the mind and the thought of the people get so confused and need to hear something more solid, something more firm, something wherein a parents could play for their child.

I said three, four years ago wherein these people was putting out . . . it was no music to uplift the mind of nobody. They try to promote the music to have the people more ignorant than anything else. And they always think that people who listen to those kind of music is stupid. But that is what they promote. And it go right back to the music wherein the young people listen to. If you listen to a song wherein dealing with violence or outrageousness then technically you going to become violent, you going to become vile, you going to become outrageous. If you going to listen to some lyrics telling you how fe disbehave yourself to people, and disrespect yourself to people, creating unnecessary tings where we really don't need it then that is how you're going to behave. You're going to lose the respect for yourself and everyone.

Back up to Rasta Business.. Some things on here . . . I notice in the song "Africa," a theme that I heard at least three other times in Burning Spear songs - the foundation in the mountain - "Queen of the Mountain" and some other songs. Talk about that theme, that foundation.

Well, because is a theme you know, and that theme can exercise itself pon many other levels in different tracks.

I mean what is, why is the mountain the only foundation . . .

Well the only foundation is in the mountain of course. Any place that you go, you looking for the only foundation, it got to be in the mountain. It couldn't be downtown. No way(!)

Seen. Another thing, talking about recurring, bringing things back into your new music from your old, you have kind of a refrain from "Slavery Days" in a song here.

Well, that's normal, for many people would sample Burning Spear or other artists by bringing back couple lines from which track, so I just did it on my own self, which is pretty good, you know.
But that song, you must feel that that song has been a most crucial song for you...
"Not Stupid"?

No, I mean the original "Slavery Days." The importance of that song.

Of course that song is very important. It's even more important to the public than how it important to me. When you can present something to the people wherein the people don't think that something like that can be presented to them, it's very strong.

How many people was thinking that a song could create itself by the name of "Slavery Days"? And telling you as it is. Then when people hear lyrics like those, you draw them attention. They got to listen. They got to check it out.

In the song (on the new album "Rasta Business"), you have an image here about Selassie, the throne. You call it the 'rainbow circle throne.' I don't know that image or that concept. (The line originally appeared in "Red, God and Green" on the Marcus Garvey album -- ed). What is the rainbow circle throne?

The throne, His Majesty throne -- rainbow circle. You ever see a rainbow? You see how the rainbow shape itself? Is like actually the same shape of a throne, you know -- the rainbow circle throne -- His Majesty seated in His throne.

Is that a concept that came out of a vision that you had?

Is not a vision, is reality. It's true. Is like the Ark of the Covenant still around, still there, in Ethiopia.
My favorite track of this album (Rasta Business) is "Old Timer."

"Old Timer," "Old Timer" is a very nice track.

Beautiful rhythm and beautiful message to it. Who were you thinking of when you were singing this?

No individual, can be anyone.

Old timer though, why old timer?

It got to be old timer. Is like you're reminding a good friend or a good friend reminding another good friend about some good old time days they usually have, and things they usually discuss about and reason about is that kind of concept for "Old Timer."

Yea. And, then finally, who is "This Man" that taught you a lot?
This man?


Bwai! This man is a historical man, ya know. He is a man wherein I myself don't even know the man to be truthful, but the man is there. (Spear laughs).

Come again. I don't understand . . .

I say, possible, I myself don't even know the man, but the man is there. The man just show himself to I through the music and the vibration and the vibes, but you know, physically, him don't show himself. So, I myself don't even know who is the man... But, the man speak I through the music, and I sing the lyrics what him speak I . . .

Selassie I?

Could be... As I say, you know, he's the man. So if you think that He is the Man, you will speak the word.

Interesting. That song is very mysterious to the outside ear . . .

Damn right! This Man!

Copyright 1995 Carter Van Pelt
the full text of the preceeding interview appears in Volume 1 Number 1 of 400 Years along with an interview with Spear's drummer Nelson Miller and a Burning Spear album discography.