They think I-man could not reach this far in life
But one thing they forget is my determination
— from “They Think,” by Burning Spear
Within the first ten seconds of “The Spear,” the first track of No Destroyer, the recently released LP from Burning Spear, roots reggae fans will immediately recognize the sound of the venerable Jamaican musician. Beyond his wonderfully iconic voice which promptly announces, “Talk about the Spear,” his formula remains consistent – richly layered instrumentation with robust, jubilant horns, lively bass lines and perfectly-placed guitar accents delivering resounding melodies, all of which serve as a vehicle for his keen commentary on society. While this consistency could have something to do with the fact that No Destroyer was actually recorded 11 years ago, more likely it’s because Spear, also known by his birth name, Winston Rodney, has been making music professionally since 1969. While an old dog can in fact be taught new tricks, why reinvent a process that has been so successful throughout a lifetime of glorious achievement?
The burning question needing to be addressed is why would Spear sit on this incredible work of music for over a decade before finally releasing it into the world? He hadn’t released an album since 2008’s Jah is Real, which won a Grammy award for Best Reggae Album. It had been the second time winning the prestigious award, surely one of the high points of his extraordinary career, and one would think he would have liked to capitalize on that recognition and keep the momentum going.
“Well, the time got to be right, you know?” Mr. Rodney began during our recent conversation over Zoom. “I thought at the time of recording the album, the music business start to create a lot of changes within itself. You know, the music business wasn’t moving the way it used to moving. You find people get out of the business, drop out of the business, you know, you find certain kind of music not selling no more, no more record store and stuff like that. There are so many things we were thinking about, you know, saying I should not release the album.”
Mr. Rodney went on to reveal that his wife, Sonia Rodney, who co-produced the album for their Burning Music label and had served as his business manager for many years, felt the time was right to release the album. “So I said, yeah, let’s do it,” he said. “This album contain a lot of strong songs wherein the listeners can relate to what I’m saying. I know for sure the people will enjoy this album and they will get the full understanding about what I’m saying.”
Seen. One of the joys of listening to Burning Spear music is hearing the elder Rasta statesman’s take on things that are happening in the world through lyrics that are often quite personal, sometimes conversational in nature and at times infused with wit and subtle humor.
As the title suggests, “The Spear” fittingly opens the album by announcing, in third person, the esteemed musician’s triumphant return while proclaiming his performance prowess. Throughout the song, he names some of his notable hits from over the years and big ups his stage presence with the passage:
When he hit that stage
He give you your share
Look around but maintain his tone
Jump around but not like a clown
The album takes its title from its second song, which finds the musician, over a super upful melody laden with resplendent brass, expressing his disdain for the invaders of his farm, imploring them not to destroy his plants. Here in the Northeastern U.S., the ubiquitous presence of those pesky spotted lanternflies that pose a serious threat to our flora and fauna comes to mind. Worldwide, while farmers as well as people tending to their personal gardens can all undoubtedly relate to this message, I had to wonder whether the intention of this song was literal or if it was an analogy for something more. Mr. Rodney confirmed it was the latter: “This song is a mixture. This song have so many things within it, you know, can branch off in different messages, you know, based upon the music business, you know, based upon how and what you’ve been through.”
From the bouncy beat of “No Destroyer” the song, No Destroyer the album drops into a killer groove with the next track, “Independent.” Punctuated by triumphant flurries of horns and sublime guitar riffs, this track finds Spear proudly professing his perseverance in the face of “tribulation upon tribulation,” as he resolutely states: “Who and what should I be afraid of? I have no fear” and “I will never let no one control my destiny,” as well as, “I will never give up my right, no matter how they fight I.”
These statements clearly refer to a major turning point in Spear’s career when, decades ago, seeking to buck the system and forge his own path in the music business not beholden to record labels, he created his own Burning Music Productions. This allowed him to make the music he wanted without having to answer to a record company during a time when artists had to depend upon labels to finance and distribute their music, and those in control often bullied artists, at times compromising their creative vision and integrity, while also taking the bulk of the profits.
This inspirational tune also includes wonderful nuggets of wisdom such as “I got to control my focus, my focus and center, and I will never surrender” and “The major value of life is not what you get, it’s what you become.”
Next comes what Spear has said is his favorite track on the album, “Jamaica.” This song adopts a more serious and militant tone while still offering Spear’s sage advice with lyrics like “It’s best to stand up for something than stand up for nothing” and “There is more to balance than not falling over.” About the song, Mr. Rodney stressed the message that you “can’t give up the essence of yourself or the place where you’re from” and said “Jamaica is a place wherein the whole world want to go to Jamaica, to see Jamaica, the atmosphere, the greenness, you know, the roots, the culture, the history about various things and people. Everyone would like to go to Jamaica at an earlier time to be a part and to see and to feel all this good inspiration about what we’ve been singing about. So the song, ‘Jamaica,’ is a very deep, strong, important song to I, you know, by sharing what I felt through the music with the people back in Jamaica.”
“Jamaica” is followed by a classic roots reggae tune titled “Cure for Cancer.” Over the years, thanks to the dedication of countless researchers, science thankfully has led to massive improvements in how cancer is treated. Yet, still so many sadly perish at the hands of this this insidious and dreadful disease, and as the title alludes to, with this song, Spear implores researchers to step up their efforts. Sadly, the inspiration of the song goes beyond just knowing what a problem it is for humanity as Mr. and Mrs. Rodney were personally touched by this tragedy when Mrs. Rodney’s son passed due to brain cancer. “That was my wife only child. That’s the only one ever, you know, really touch I as a father,” Mr. Rodney shared. “I could see that fatherhood, that father love, everything was coming from him towards me and his mom.”
The singer recalled how the music and words came to him after his stepson had been diagnosed. “After he took sick, that’s where the whole inspiration start to develop itself. I start to feel the melody. It just came, and I stay opened up, and the lyrics came, and I could accept the lyrics and match it with the melody. And I see that it’s working. So I continue until the song complete. You know, it just started to develop within him, and I just spill it out through the music.”
Knowing this, lyrics such as “Something is in the air interfering with all those brain, all those parents they leave behind in pain,” hit even harder. The song also judiciously calls out our political leaders with a passage that warrants highlighting:
Take some money from the military action
To help searching for the cure, the cure for cancer
What about the families without medical insurance
Come on leaders, give them a helping hand
No Destroyer continues with the hard-nosed, “Obsession,” which speaks to the misinformation plaguing our divisive society these days. Lines like “You should check up on yourself before you start to unwind, you can’t blame no one for telling you lies” call out people for being misled by propaganda and letting it twist them into weapons of fury, while Spear admonishes people to “take full responsibility for your action.” This song also shows Spear flexing his muscle and resolve as he exclaims, “What the hell are you thinking that I-man a go run, I-man would never run!”
About the song, Mr. Rodney said, “Obsession coming from the way I would see people behave, you know, and the things that people just say and how they really say it, and how they express themselves saying it. You could see that greed and that grudge, you know, you could see that bitterness, the obsession overcome them, that they couldn’t cover it up. It just spill out. Bam! Obsession is the thing can make you lose your mind. Obsession can make so many things happen to you because you not in control of yourself. Obsession, take all of you, like expectation, obsession, all those things work together. And once you live with those things within you, you’re not going any place.”
Spear maintains the rough and tough vibe with the following track, “Mommy,” which had been released as a single in 2021 to give fans a taste of what to expect with his next album. Once again, the musician displays his empathy for the plight of the average citizen, trying to raise children in a world where employment can be tough to achieve for those young adults entering the workforce and to maintain for those who have mouths to feed. Through his singing he poses the question, “What can these parents do to prevent the kids from fall?”
In another standout track, “Open the Gate,” Burning Spear pays respect to many pioneers that were essential to spreading reggae music internationally and growing Jamaica into a more popular vacation destination. It should be noted that within an album that contains a major theme of independence from an unfair music industry, among the foundational greats that Spear names during the song, he also mentions Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records and, as one of the first people to record Jamaican music, played a huge role in the growth of reggae and its subgenres.
As opposed to the somewhat boastful opening song, Mr. Rodney humbly neglects to mention himself among the reggae icons he name-drops, although he most definitely would deserve to be included. The chorus of the song highlights the most popular reggae singer in history, Robert Nesta Marley, and Spear often playfully rolls his Rs when singing the legend’s name.
“I can remember going back and forth to Tuff Gong, you know, and I could see what Bob is doing and I could see Bob is in control of what he was doing,” Mr. Rodney said. “That’s the first artist I could identify standing up for his independence, you know? I think I follow a few of Bob’s footsteps, you know, when it come to independence, when it come to be in control, you know, when it come to make your voice being heard that this is yours, you know, I own this.”
He continued, “I think some things from Bob rub off on I-man, you know, business wise and musically too. The way he would approach doing what he doing or singing his song, you know? And to top it off, when we meet at Nine Mile together before recording the song, ‘Door Peep,’ his advice to me, you know, it was very encouraging. And I follow his instruction, and I went there, and since that time, I’m still here.”
While in his daily interactions Mr. Rodney exudes a gentle warmth, he brazenly expresses his disdain for the record industry in the rocker, “No Fool.” Over a gritty riddim, Spear recounts his story coming up through the biz and he pulls no punches with lyrical passages like these:
In the music industry
There’s a lot of tricks
Some people know
Hot to fix and twist
Reputable companies committing fraud
And they think they are so smart
The artists name copyright and trademark
They never give the artist a part
If we don’t work
Dem say we lazy
And when we talk
They want to criminate we
From the simmering scowl of “No Fool,” the album takes a hard turn towards joyful reverie with the following song, “Negril,” which was co-written with his wife. In this lighthearted tune, Spear praises Jamaica’s popular geographic gem while recounting his own personal experiences there, which included a complimentary stay at Mr. Blackwell’s high-end resort, The Caves. Colorful lines like “Is there a dreadlocked mermaid at the cave?” bring smiles while fans will surely relate to the emotions commonly felt on vacation when Spear sings, “Everyone just wants some more so they can freshen dem soul” and “In the Cave when the time come to go home, you just say no,” which Spear follows with a playful chuckle.
In one line, he mentions eating ital stew, so my question about where to find the best ital stew in Negril brought a hearty laugh. “In those times, you have a lot of best ital stew all over Negril, for everyone doing ital stew, you know?” he exclaimed. About the creation of the song, he shared “Me and my wife been going to Negril way before Negril developed, you know? And the way it were at that time, I see a lot of things by going back and forth to Negril and a lot of those things turn itself into lyrics. So at that time it was fun. You go to Negril, you just want to hang out for days, you know, for it was just so ital, you know, natural.”
The album wraps up with a couple of songs, “Talk” and “They Think,” two more songs that make reference to the evil, greedy ways of the music industry and to Mr. Rodney’s personal resilience and determination to create his own path to lasting success.
In “Talk,” the resolute musician tells us he’s not afraid of the “musical sharks” that want him to “bargain” and “subdue,” while he steadfastly repeats the mantra, “No more slave trade, no more surrender.” Throughout the song, Spear maintains the on-target analogy with passages like these:
I will never forget
The ways of those sharks
That truly have no heart
Sharks intention is to eat up small fish
Come lets cast the net
To see what we could catch
They’ve been feeding off my bait
Thinking they could escape
What a disgrace
From the foreboding tone of “Talk,” the album pivots again to end on an upbeat note with the buoyant “They Think,” in which Spear proudly stands up for himself with these inspiring affirmations:
They think I-man could not win the race
But one thing they forget, I-man have my faith…
They think I-man could not think for myself
But one thing they forget, I-man make my choice…
They think I-man could not break the chain
But one thing they forget, I-man know my strength
They think I-man could not bear the pain
But one thing they forget, pain is not a shame
Considering the album as a whole, the overarching theme of this record is Mr. Rodney’s defiance toward Babylon vampires, the corporate oligarchy of the music industry, as well as touting his own self-reliance and tenacity. With the many challenges the artist has endured not just as a professional musician, but as a human being, I wondered, as he approaches 80 years on this planet, what motivates him each and every day. Does he still have goals, either professionally or personally, or is he content with what he has achieved and now maybe poised just to relax and enjoy life a little bit?
“Self motivation is the key, you know?” he responded. “So you try to be strong, as strong as you can for yourself. It’s all about me, you know, without me, I wouldn’t able to really present what I do best to the people. So I have to know how to keep me, you know, how to cure me, you know, how to live me, or how to move me. And how to do me, you know, is all about mi self, self-motivation, you know?”
Continuing, he said, “In the beginning you’ll see many things, you know, and you try to be some of the things what you’ve seen, but unfortunately it never work. Come right back to be yourself. You know, once you can be yourself and stand up for yourself, you have no problem. Things gonna happen around you, but no matter what is going on around you, never give up. You know, you’ve got to stand up for something.”
Over a decade since this album had been written and recorded, Spear is still feeling inspired as a musician. “I think I’m holding a good spot in the business,” Mr. Rodney assured. “I still standing strong. I’m standing as strong as I can, you know, and maintaining my creativity, you know, I’m still working on songs. It’s been four years now, I’ve been working on four songs. I’m looking forward to going to the studio sometime early next year.”
At that moment, he began singing, treating me to a snippet from one of the new songs he mentioned, titled “Big City.” Even without instruments over an occasionally shaky Zoom connection, the tune immediately resonated with me. Super catchy, quintessential Spear, I still find myself singing it weeks after our conversation. I can’t wait for this song to come to fruition and be released for us all to enjoy!
For now, though, Spear fans can relish in the delight of this magnificent release.