Burning Spear believes that “music is so strong, [it] can change people.”
So long as the people don’t turn around and change the music, that is.
Reggae, says Spear from his home in New York, “[tells] people about all good things” — not about “all the little negative things.”
Now in his 60s, the 30-year reggae veteran grew up in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica (where, today, he regularly assists the St. Ann’s Bay Infirmary with fundraising concerts). Encouraged by his contemporary Bob Marley to record at Studio One, Spear laid down tracks to one of his earliest songs, “Door Peep.” From there, he saw his humble roots burst into an impressive legacy.
In fact, when Irish wild child Sinead O’Connor decided to record an album of her favorite reggae songs, Spear’s “Door Peep” was among her top picks. “Those were the songs that’d make you want to f••king live,” she enthused to Interview last year (of note: Spear conducted the Q&A).
But with three decades of music under his woven belt, what message does this Caribbean-born patriarch — slated to play the Orange Peel this week — bring to the newest generation of reggae fans?
Say the right thing
“As long as [I’m] still involved in the [music] business, I try to do my best to keep it clean,” announces the songwriter, his Jamaican accent still strong despite nearly two decades living in this country. In interviews he has expressed a desire to stay the course of positive roots reggae (think Luciano, Israel Vibration and the Wailers) — and dismay at the more worldly direction of dancehall, though he doesn’t go so far as to criticize any artist outright.
“I believe in the music business, we should point no finger at nobody,” he maintains. “[Those singers] have a right to say the right thing.
“They don’t have a right to say the wrong thing,” Spear adds with a laugh.
But the title track to his most recent album (Our Music, 2005, Burning Music) paints a darker portrait of the corporate-music ogre. “Our music, they think that we lose it … They want us to give it up to them, they want us to walk away from it, they want us to call them on the phone …” Spear chants over an upbeat groove.
“When I was coming up in the business, people would deal with us really mean, really selfish,” he explains. “[But] the whole [song] is a social concept, to be honest. We are they who’ve been through the tribulations. Most of the time those people who come through the tribulations and keep faith, they come out on top.”
Or, as his song puts it, “While they were sleeping, we were working.”
A few years ago Spear walked away from industry control, creating his own label. These days, he and wife Sonia handle all aspect of the business — a real grassroots mom-and-pop operation that just happens to include tours across the U.S. as well as in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and Italy.
The people’s singer
“There’s a demand now,” Spear notes of his European trip. “We’re gonna have a good time doing some big shows.”
Here’s a surprise: The reggae star finds he often makes a greater connection with European audiences. “There’s no barrier. They allow the music to reach in and take hold of them,” he says. “[Europeans] see themselves as a big part of what we’re presenting. It gives me a lot of encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing.”
In a 2005 interview with The Music Box, the performer admitted, “When the time is right, and I have said what I have to say, I will retire. Sometimes I ask myself the question, ‘Who is going to be the the replacement?’ Of course, there are a lot of singers saying Rastafari, peace and love, but it takes much more than that.”
Part of Spear’s recipe for success — both as a performer and as a teacher — is consistency in the message he brings to his listeners. Grounded in the philosophies of human-rights activist and fellow Jamaican Marcus Garvey, Spear preaches unity.
“I am the people’s singer, you know,” he told The Music Box. “I mean all the people in the world, regardless of color, nation, religion, or whatever it is.”
“If you change [the message],” he elaborates to Xpress, “it’s not so healing for the people.” So in his 30 years as a recording artist, Spear has only deepened his focus.
“I get so advanced in what I’ve been doing — I’ve been spreading my wings wider and wider.”
The performer’s press bio sums up his work this way: “Burning Spear continues his mission of expressing his heart, of entertaining and educating the masses. He cleverly accomplishes that by winning over his listeners’ bodies before he impact their minds.”
The bodies are won via that utterly inexorable reggae beat. Fans know well the singer’s powerful stage performances, often described as trance-inducing and marked by long, ethereal jams spiked with bubbly hooks. “Sometimes I myself don’t even know who I am on stage,” Spear admits. “But I’m there. I’m feeling me and I’m feeling the people.”
Burning Spear takes the stage at the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) Thursday, April 20 at 9 p.m. Garage DeLuxe opens. Tickets are $20 ($18/advance); every ticket holder receives a commemorative poster. 225-5851.