It is impossible to talk about Burning Spear now without talking about Burning Spear then. Four decades and still dropping knowledge: no other artist, with the possible exception of Toots Hibbert, can lay claim to being reggae’s true elder statesman. And of course, when it comes to art, there are two types of living legends. There are those who get props for simply surviving, even if their better days are far in the past. The other, far less common cases, are the ones who remain relevant and, by the sheer quality of their output, difficult to ignore. Burning Spear is without question of the latter ilk, and his latest release, Jah Is Real, should appeal to fans and attract new listeners.
Nevertheless, when people speak of Burning Spear, it is usually his early work that is fondly invoked. With good reason, as his third album (and masterpiece), 1975’s Marcus Garvey, is correctly considered one of the absolute cornerstones of reggae music. Burning Spear spent the rest of the decade establishing his legend, and the series of records that followed are all considered classics. While most of his compatriots dropped out of public consciousness, due either to death or the ever-shifting whims of the public (the ‘80s were a challenging time for rock music; to be certain, times were considerably more difficult for reggae), Burning Spear soldiered on, releasing a steady stream of albums and seemingly never not on tour.
Still, there was always something missing. If it is a distressing commentary on the record industry that an artist of Burning Spear’s caliber was having problems getting paid, it’s a common one. One thing that differentiates his story from countless others is that, quite simply, Burning Spear was getting screwed longer. Fortunately, times have never been better for musicians everywhere to take control of their own business, and cut out the blood-sucking middlemen who have always made sure their piece of the pie is biggest. They who do the least gained the most: this is the sordid epitaph for entirely too many artists, especially African American artists, all through the 20th Century.
Burning Spear, who operates these days out of Queens, New York, is no babe in the woods. Enough was enough, so he finally took matters into his own hands. That he now controls the recording and distribution of his material is reason enough for celebration. That Jah Is Real is a fairly incredible addition to his catalog seems almost like just rewards, for the artist and his fans. Burning Spear, who has long been one of the most ardent and convincing advocates for the positive power of Rastafarianism, has developed a sound and style that makes his work instantly identifiable. That he has avoided a formulaic approach is to his credit, but he has not been especially noted for taking risks (Why should he? Nothing was broken, so there was nothing to fix). It might at first seem a curious decision to welcome the participation of funk legends Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell. A risk, possibly, but one that pays substantial dividends. How could it not? Collins adds his signature, grooving thump and Worrell’s keyboards flesh out the proceedings with an authoritative elegance. The result? Another solid Burning Spear outing, but there’s something more here. The production (by Burning Spear) is stellar, and the songs sound tight, but animated. From first note to last, this album is infectiously alive.
The songs have an added urgency, courtesy of Burning Spear’s recent activities. His decision to go it alone is covered in the celebratory “You Were Wrong”, while “Stick To The Plan” is a reaffirmation of an unwavering commitment to his peaceful, but empowering vision. The other fruitful source for this new material is a trip Burning Spear took to Kenya last year. That he was asked by the United Nations to perform is testament not only to his reputation, but to a collective acknowledgment of the man’s ability to educate and inspire. “Music is what I give, music alone will live,” he sings on “Step It”. Song titles such as “One Africa” and “No Compromise” make it abundantly clear where he is coming from. One is unlikely to come away from any Burning Spear album, and Jah is Real is certainly no exception, without feeling a little more informed and a little more enervated. His message remains the same, and in a year where many people are looking for positive change, it would be proper, and more than a little righteous, for one of our great living artists to acquire a larger audience—at home and abroad.