Burning Spear, who appropriated the name from former Mau Mau leader Jomo Kenyatta, then president of Kenya, entered the music business in 1969 after fellow St. Ann’s artist Bob Marley organized an audition for him with his erstwhile producer Coxsone Dodd. The three songs Spear sang for Dodd that Sunday afternoon included his eventual debut, ‘Door Peep’, a sombre, spiritual chant quite unlike anything that had previously emerged in the music, although a reference point may perhaps be found in the Ethiopians and Joe Higgs. ‘Door Peep’ and other early Spear recordings such as ‘We Are Free’ and ‘Zion Higher’ emerged in the UK on the Bamboo and Banana labels. Rodney continued to make records for Dodd until 1974, including ‘Ethiopians Live It Out’, ‘This Population’ and ‘New Civilisation’, nearly all in a serious, cultural style, mostly without any commercial success, although ‘Joe Frazier’ (aka ‘He Prayed’) did make the Jamaican Top 5 in 1972. Most of these songs can be found on the two albums Spear completed for Dodd. In 1975 Ocho Rios sound system owner Jack Ruby (real name Laurence Lindo) approached the singer, and the two, along with pick-up backing vocalists Rupert Wellington and Delroy Hines, began working on the material that eventually emerged as Marcus Garvey (1975), in honour of the great St. Ann’s-born pan-Africanist. ‘Marcus Garvey’ and ‘Slavery Days’ were released as singles, perfectly capturing the mood of the times and becoming huge local hits. The public were at last ready for Burning Spear and when the album finally emerged it was hailed as an instant classic. Spear became recognized as the most likely candidate for the kind of international success Bob Marley And The Wailers were beginning to enjoy, and soon Marcus Garvey had been snapped up by Island Records who released it in the UK with an added track and in remixed form. This tampering with the mix, including the speeding-up of several tracks, presumably in order to make the album more palatable to white ears, raised the hackles of many critcs and fans. Its popularity caused Island to release a dubwise companion set entitled Garvey’s Ghost.
Rodney began to release music on his own Spear label at the end of 1975, the first issue being another classic, ‘Travelling’ (actually a revision of the earlier Studio One album track ‘Journey’), followed by ‘Spear Burning’ (1976), ‘The Youth’ (1976), ‘Throw Down Your Arms’ (1977), the 12-inch ‘Institution’ (1977), ‘Dry And Heavy’ (1977), ‘Free’ (1977) and ‘Nyah Keith’ (1979). He also produced ‘On That Day’ by youth singer Burning Junior, and ‘Love Everyone’ by Phillip Fullwood, both in 1976. That same year Jack Ruby released ‘Man In The Hills’, followed by the album of the same name, again on Island, which marked the end of their collaboration. Rodney also dropped Wellington and Hines. In 1977 Dry & Heavy was released, recorded at Harry J ‘s Studio, which satisfyingly reworked many of his Studio One classics, including ‘Swell Headed’, ‘Creation Rebel’, ‘This Race’ ‘Free Again’. In October that year he made an electrifying appearance at London’s Rainbow Theatre, backed by veteran trumpeter Bobby Ellis and the UK reggae band Aswad. Island released an album of the performance that inexplicably failed to capture the excitement generated.
In 1978 Rodney parted with Island and issued Marcus Children, arguably his best album since Marcus Garvey, released in the UK on Island Records’ subsidiary One Stop as Social Living, again using members of Aswad alongside the usual Kingston sessionmen. In 1980 he signed to EMI who issued his next album, the stunning Hail *.I.M., produced by Rodney and Family Man Barrett at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studio, on his own Burning Spear subsidiary. Two excellent dubs of Social Living and Hail *.I.M. also appeared as Living Dub Volumes 1 and 2, mixed by engineer Sylvan Morris. Throughout the following years to the present day, Burning Spear has continued to release albums regularly, as well as touring the USA and elsewhere. Resistance, nominated for a Grammy in 1984, was a particularly strong set, highlighting Spear’s impressive, soulful patois against a muscular rhythmic backdrop. People Of The World similarly saw his backing group, the Burning Band, which now encompassed an all-female horn section, shine. His 1988 set, Mistress Music, added rock musicians, including former members of Jefferson Airplane, though artistically it was his least successful album. Mek We Dweet, recorded at Tuff Gong studios, was a return to his unique, intense style. His lyrical concerns – black culture and history, Garveyism and Rasta beliefs, and universal love – have been consistently and powerfully expressed during his recording career.