#319: The Wailers, "Burnin'" (1973)

Burnin’ asks us to consider what we all want most: freedom and love. Over and over the Wailers task us with understanding the sacrifices necessary to make these elements manifest. On Burnin’ we hear the heartbeat of the new Jamaica, freshly independent from Britain in 1962. These songs tell the birth story of reggae music. They represent transition. The album is fervent, filled with the possibility of growth and revolution, while recognizing and acknowledging the barriers ahead.

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” This is Bob Marley’s famous “Redemption Song,” from Uprising, the last album he appeared on before his death in May 1981. He paraphrases Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican leader and orator whose black nationalist, Pan-African, and black empowerment philosophy influenced the spiritual beliefs of the Rastafari, of which Marley is one of the most well-known. Garvey said, “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or for ill.” Many Rastafarians regard Garvey as a prophet. Marley too, is often thought of this way. Nesta Robert Marley (later changed to Robert Nesta Marley) had many names throughout his life—Nesta, Robby, Bobby, Tuff Gong (so given for the way he defended himself in the streets of Trenchtown, Kingston, Jamaica), natty dread, and natural mystic (perhaps because he was rumored to have read palms as a child). If Marley is a prophet, Burnin’ is the prophecy of his life’s meaning and work, later realized on Uprising.

There’s a song on Burnin’ that I always return to, and it’s actually a re-recording of an earlier Wailers song, “Small Axe.” It’s inclusion with this volume is no coincidence. The Wailers had moved out from under the system that raised them—the management of legendary producer Coxsone Dodd. It was a right of passage and a necessity—Dodd was not paying the band very much, despite their growing success, and there were rumored issues with the direction that the Rastafari faith was taking the band’s message. “Small Axe” is a metaphor for revolution—a declaration of independence against the systems that were in place, the big tree, or big three record labels that dominated Jamaican music. The Wailers are the small axe, or small acts, underestimated at one’s peril: “So if you are the big tree / We are the small axe / Ready to cut you down (well sharp) / To cut you down.” It takes commitment, faith, and belief to know that your singular changes will add up to something meaningful. Many want to be the big tree, but you need honed precision to wield the small axe. It is the most beautiful kiss-off to believe in oneself enough to know that starting small will ultimately make you stronger. No weak heart shall prosper.

Burnin’ is about control—who has it, and who gets to use it. “Burnin and Lootin” asks, “How many rivers do we have to cross, before we can talk to the boss? / All that we got, it seems we have lost / We must have really paid the cost / (That’s why we gonna be) / Burnin’ and a-lootin’ tonight / Burning all illusion tonight.” Did Marley’s staunch commitment to evolution, to an emotional Exodus, give him the strength to follow through even when it meant leaving behind old structures—burning down illusions? He did this again and again—when he left the small country town where he was born, Nine Mile in St. Ann Parish, to move with his mother to Kingston, when he left Kingston to work in America, and when he came back because he wanted his freedom. Perhaps one of the most significant transitions was when original Wailers members Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer (Bob’s childhood friend) departed the band and he formed Bob Marley and the Wailers with a new lineup. Burnin’ was the last album they made as the Wailers.

Control isn’t just who takes up the most space, it’s about whose message is strongest. On Burnin’ it is confident, brash, and often understated. It’s So Far Gone-era Drake saying, “Diss me and you’ll never hear a reply for it.” It’s cocky, but not unrealistically so. It’s a quiet storm. On “Duppy Conqueror” Marley lets us know in no uncertain terms that no “duppy,” or evil spirit, real or imagined, will hold him up, or hold him back from his destination. In the end the warning was the truth—he would not be stopped. Not even when gunmen shot him in his own home over political beef. He got on stage to perform a concert for his people just two days after. He wasn’t dedicated, he was dedication. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight.

You can’t put a price on freedom. There’s a CBS Australia interview with Marley and reporter Gordon Bick, who could barely conceal his disdain and disgust at the Rasta lifestyle long enough to conduct the interview. Bick questions Marley’s reported wealth and asks him if he’s rich. Marley looks at him, tough as nails—Tuff Gong—and asks a rhetorical question. “Possessions make you rich? I don’t have that kind of richness. My richness is life.”

Trying to understand what makes this album so visionary is like trying to speak a language that can only be felt. A mix of genres—Ska, soul, R&B, rock, Mento, and Calypso—come together to create this sound and signify something new. It’s easy to just focus on the musicality, because it’s lush and hypnotic. You can’t not dance when “I Shot the Sheriff” comes on. I could barely stop moving long enough to write about it. The breakdown at 2:35 gets me every single time. Marley wails, “If I am guilty I will pay,” and pay reverberates until the drums start back up, foreshadowing dancehall riddims.

Music in the 70s took on a darkness and a militancy that reflected the signs of the times—political turmoil, sexual revolution, violence, civil rights, and war. In Jamaica, warring political factions, warring gangs, racism, and poverty demanded to be heard and understood. Bick got one thing right when he said, “Reggae and reggae bands like Bob Marley and the Wailers have become a musical rage throughout the world.” Maybe that rage was purity of intent. The ability to create meaning, moment by moment, and then suddenly, you’ve created a movement, a recognition of a people and ideologies and there’s no turning back. Sheriff John Brown always hated me / For what, I don’t know / Every time I plant a seed / He said kill it before it grow / He said kill them before they grow / And so / Read it in the news: (I shot the sheriff) / Oh, Lord! / (But I swear it was in self defense) / Where was the deputy? (Oo-oo-oh) / I say: I shot the sheriff / But I swear it was in self defense (Oo-oh) Yeah!

At Bob Marley’s funeral, the prime minister of Jamaica said, “Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter. Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation.”

Reggae artist Gary “Nesta” Pine was the lead singer of the Wailers Band during the late 90s–mid 2000s. I had the chance to see him perform recently at Shrine, in NYC. Watching him was transcendent. He channeled an energy that shook the floors and took over the entire room. He flipped his nearly waist-length locks and told us to “Get Up, Stand Up,” and we listened. No one sat down for the rest of the set. He said his performance was a conversation between him and Bob. In that moment, he encapsulated just what it is to listen to Burnin’. Everyone in that room wanted to feel like we were communing with Bob, with that message, with that prophesy, with the hope for peace, for love, for personal and political freedom. We all want some of that sun to shine on us, to feel some of that magic and mysticism, to feel free—even just for a night. We don’t always require a message from our artists, but when we receive one, the experience can be holy.

—Lee Erica Elder