Photograph excerpted from SOUL REBEL: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley © 2009 by David Burnett. All rights reserved. Published by Insight Editions. Used with permission. www.InsightEditions.com
This past Sunday, while 19-year-old Chris Brown was chilling in the L.A. County Jail and 20-year-old Rihanna was recovering from her injuries at a local hospital, 63-year-old Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney was at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards collecting the Best Reggae Album Grammy for his latest release Jah Is Real.
It was his 2nd such award and his 11th nomination in the category, more than any other artist in history.
This year the Spear edged out Elephant Man a.k.a. The Energy God, nominated for his album Let’s Get Physical (VP/Bad Boy), Heavy D, a hip hop icon nominated for his first reggae project, Vibes (Stride), Lee “Scratch” Perry, the visionary producer nominated for his notably unrepentant album Repentance (Narnack Records), Shaggy, the multiplatinum hitmaker nominated for his harder-edged release Intoxication (VP Records), and drum and bass demigods Sly & Robbie, nominated for Amazing (Fontana Universal).
The Reggae Grammy has taken a beating within the reggae blogosphere in recent years. But for just a moment let us put aside our concerns about whether the Best Reggae Album Grammy represents the best of the music (it doesn’t), whether it should be split into two so as to create a separate Dancehall category (it should), and what the lack of young fresh talent among the nominees says about the future of the music (nothing good). Those will all be addressed in a future post. Right now, let us simply give Burning Spear his due respect. As he once sang, “When you fling it man, it stick up, oh yes it catch a fire” and that fire is still blazing. When the first Grammy ceremonies were held in 1958, Winston Rodney was 12 years old, scarcely imagining that a half a century later he and his wife Sonia and his son Kevin would be there in Los Angeles hob-nobbing with Sir Paul McCartney.
Progressing from Sir Coxsone’s Studio One to Jack Ruby to a succession of overseas labels including Island and Mango and Heartbeat, Spear has maintained the highest standard of musical and lyrical quality and never even come close to dumbing down or selling out. Spear has not just sung about Marcus Garvey, he has put the man’s philosophy of self-determination into action, establishing his own company, Burning Music Production. The struggle of the independent producer is well known, and Spear has taken on the hustlers in the business with a quiet ferocity worthy of his namesake Kwame Nkrumah. “They’ve been robbing I since 1969,” he chants in this video from his website that details his dispute with the distributor Megaforce/MRI. Apparently Megaforce (what a name!) destroyed thousands of his self-produced CDs, after which a representative of the distributor filed a complaint alleging that Mrs. Rodney had threatened her. “My wife ended up turning in herself to to the police station,” Spear explains. But when he and his wife and their attorney went to answer the charges in court, the Megaforce rep did not show up. After all these years, Jah Spear is still chanting down wickedness.
To celebrate this latest honor in a long and distinguished career, let’s rewind a vintage Spear interview from 1999, just months before he won the 2000 Grammy for the album Calling Rastafari:
When did you start singing these revolutionary songs?
I can remember when I first rode to this audition to sing “Slavery Days” and song like “Marcus Garvey.” And I’ve been turned down.
Auditioning for what?
They were like having a talent ting, in my town. And you know, I go to do my ting, and the people who were in control of the talent ting, it was my time to sing what I think I should be singing. And when I draw for song like “Slavery Days,” everybody was like, “What you talking about, slavery days?” When I draw for song like “Marcus Garvey” everybody was talking about “Whaaat? Marcus Garvey?” Y’understand, it’s like people couldn’t fit in with those kind of lyrics. What I’m saying is like far away from the mind and thought of the people. People wasn’t looking within that kinda direction.
At the time it was some love songs or some other kind of songs…
What was there, people were dealing with those kinda flavor song. And I get started this way. I get started the roots and culture way, for my first song was “Chant Down Babylon.”
So you start from there.
First song called “Door Peeper shall not enter this-a holy land, where wise and true man stand, sipping from this cup of peace.” So therefore I and I did have to chant down Babylon. That was my first song, so it
plain to see my direction where I get started in. I get started in a roots and culture direction, a historical direction. I get started in a direction for the people direction.
But those talent-show people didn’t wanna hear that.
No they couldn’t deal with that.
Were you discouraged when the talent show officials rejected songs like “Slavery Days” and “Marcus Garvey”?
Well, to be honest, I did feel a way. For I thought these songs was appropriate, I thinkin’ that, yes, these are the songs people need to hear
But when I draw for these two song, is like, “Naaaaa. No Way.” Yunno, I draw for a lot of good songs early on wherein people couldn’t identify whatsoever I was saying.
Another outstanding song was a song called “Throw Down Your Arms.” That song came about when a lot of outrageousness was really taking place back in Jamaica amongst the political people. People who just
misbehave themself without any proper understanding, or misbehave themselves without, one another, a strong cause. They just do things. After a while, we did need something to draw the attention of these
people who behave in an outrageous manner. And I think that “Throw Down Your Arms” was an appropriate song to really match up with the kind of behavior that was really taking place earlier on in those
When I hear those lyrics, I think of armed violence.
Throw down your arms. Yunno, it was so vicious. People just hurt people without a cause. People hurt people without even knowing them. And within that time, in that season, I think that “Throw Down Your
Arms” is an appropriate song. People did listen to it, and people knew that the song was right. For no way you could tell a man to take up his arms, it’s like more to tell him, throw down your arms.
So by that time, after all the suffering they were going through, people were starting to accept your messages.
Yeah, people start to accept the message, and people start to see Spear in their own way. It’s a lot of people know ’bout Spear and see Spear, and sometime I don’t know even how the people really see I, fe
truthful. People see I pon all different levels, you know. Give me different names and stuff like that.
You don’t know what is in anyone’s heart.
I don’t know. But then again I could see the people who’s there for Spear, and I could feel them. But there’s so much people, you couldn’t feel all the people, or identify the people. But sometimes I don’t know how people see me, to be honest.
But those who have ears will hear.
I think so.
How do you keep so fit for so many years?
You have to keep yourself strong to handle life. Once the body get weak, life start think it can’t stay, time to exit.
First me love [to] cook. Me love fish – eat fish all the while. Sometimes them ask if my skin have scales. Make all my own juice, lime juice, sugar cane, orange.
What about drugs? You hear all these great entertainers getting mixed up in all different kind of drugs, and sometimes it can hurt you as a fan.
Drugs – that is out. Period. Never even think to try nuttin’. I used to smoke a lot, but now sometimes I go six months without any ganja and don’t miss it. Me believe fi never mix up in no environment. You never supposed to hear anything but Spear doing him music.
It’s better you defeat me than I defeat myself. [WORD TO CHRIS BREEZY! —RobK007] For if you defeat me, I have a chance to come back. As an entertainer your job is to stay strong that you can be an instrument for Jah music. That’s why I say “It’s a long way around.” A lot of people waiting for it to come to them. Once I lost it, it’s not coming back to me.
What about women? how do you handle it when women rush you as a big entertainer?
Them never rush me. I don’t know why. Maybe they can just feel the vibe that I can’t be nobody’s plaything or whatsoever. Is not rush dem rush me, but maybe some sistren might want to talk to me after a show
to express her appreciation, but it’s just clean hands, pure heart. Me have fi me African queen already, and one good woman is all I need.