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June is Black Music Month and WERS at Night will recognize black musicians, composers, singers, and songwriters who have made enormous contributions to the music industry. Today, June 4th, Rockers is highlighting Burning Spear.
Burning Spear formed in Jamaica in 1969 is largely the brainchild of vocalist and songwriter Winston Rodney. Rodney began working early on with legendary producer Clement Dodd and the Jamaican label Studio One upon the suggestion of childhood friend and Reggae icon Bob Marley. After assembling a group of musicians to play with, Rodney and company cut a number of singles, eventually leading up to their full length debut, simply titled “Studio One Presents: Burning Spear”. Burning Spear’s real success came when the group switched producers and began working with noted reggae producers and DJ Jack Ruby. This new partnership brought about the making of perhaps Burning Spear’s most celebrated record, the roots classic “Marcus Garvey”. Heavily influenced by the Black Nationalism movement professed by Garvey, Rodney wrote a deeply spiritual and historically conscience record, mixing his faith with a desire to create change through his music. Burning Spear continued releasing records, eventually ending up on the major label EMI in 1980. Throughout the 1970’s much of the western music audience was still getting used to hearing reggae and other island music on the radio and in their culture. While the groundbreaking success of Bob Marley changed much of this, a label such as EMI taking interest in a band as potentially controversial as Burning Spear was notable.
This label change marked the entrance of Burning Spear in the western cultural consciousness as the band started to be nominated for Grammy awards and was touring internationally. Winston Rodney has been nominated for 12 separate Grammy awards—winning two of them for 2000’s Calling Rastafari and 2009’s Jah Is Real—for the Best Reggae album category, which was added to the awards list in 1985. Over Burning Spear’s several decade career, Burning Spear has been recognized by critics and fans alike for their unique brand of soulful reggae grooves, along with an intense devotion to Rastafari and drive for social rights. The purely musical side of Burning Spear set new precedents for musicianship within the reggae world, utilizing the talents of the Black Disciples and later on the Burning Band. The incredible musical chops exhibited on the host of records produced throughout Rodney’s lengthy career helped establish credibility amongst the music industry. The studio musicians in Jamaica at the time functioned similarly to the famed black American musicians found at legendary labels such as Stax or Motown. During this time, as reggae music was becoming increasingly accepted in American music markets, this obvious display of serious musicianship garnered respect from entirely new markets of music fans. Another important aspect to be considered regarding Rodney’s music and outspoken beliefs requires one to look at the cultural context of the time. In the 60’s the Rasta religion was very much maligned as an evil and countercultural force in Jamaica. Rodney, as well as many other roots musicians were outspoken about the struggle of the poor Jamaican community and their struggle to bring acceptance to their newly formed religion.
For years of expanding the genre of Reggae and exemplifying the roots style with a number of classic recordings, as well as being a champion and advocate for black rights, Winston Rodney and the rest of Burning Spear have earned a well deserved nod for their accomplishments by the WERS at Night staff in honor of Black Music Month.