Bonfire Night is just around the corner, an annual event which is celebrated primarily in the UK and takes place on the 5th November. This is a commemoration of the foiled Gunpowder plot of 1605 which was spurred on by long-standing religious conflict between the Protestants & Catholics. Bonfire Night is usually characterised by the burning of Fawkes effigies and elaborate firework displays.
There is some debate as to whether Fawkes was a freedom fighter or terrorist, however it is clear that he represented an oppressed minority who were treated badly and socially relegated because of their beliefs. Interestingly, he has gone on to become an international symbol of British Culture. Reggae was born from a similar climate of socio-political unrest before its rise to worldwide prominence and mainstream acceptance.
The music offers commentary on said matters, whilst teaching the importance of equality and steadfast tenacity. Taking its cue from Biblical teachings from the Old Testament – synonymous with Rastafarian doctrine – many reggae songs use the analogy of fire as a metaphor for protection against injustice and purification; a symbol of anger and passion, desire and destruction. Let’s look at a run-down of some of reggae’s best fiery nuggets:
10) Chronixx – Start A Fyah (2012)
He often speaks out against perpetrators of social injustices and the systematic oppression of the working class; here, he talks of burning down The Vatican. Now, before I really studied the international, historical backdrop of the music a few years ago, I often found myself wondering reggae is generally Anti-papal. Many others wonder the same thing; after all, the reasons aren’t always very clear in the songs. In short, the Vatican and Pope are viewed as symbols of Paganism and injustice. It’s a bit long to go into right now but look up the Vatican’s involvement in the Fascist crimes committed against Ethiopia (1935) for which they have neglected to make any kind of apology, as an example.
9) Bushman – Fire Bun A Weakheart (1999)
This track comes courtesy of King Jammy’s ‘Hypocrites’ riddim. Bushman challenges the colonial “spell” and the “weak heart” (unscrupulous) powers that be who systematically oppress “ghetto youths”.
8) Burning Spear – Christopher Columbus (1980)
Winston Rodney OD decided to adopt the stage name ‘Burning Spear’ which is the translated first name of the First Prime Minister of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta. The moniker is a symbol of strength (incidentally, his album of the same name was nominated for the ‘Best Reggae’ Grammy award in 1986) and fortitude. ‘Christopher Columbus’ blazes a fire by tersely rewriting ‘his-story’ and replacing it with ‘the story’ which is rarely told!
7) Marcia Griffiths – Fire Burning (1992)
The widely proclaimed Queen of Reggae lent her dulcet vocals to this track which was written by her good friend and long-time collaborator Bob Andy. The message behind this commentary resonates today just as much as it did back then; this is the stuff that real hits are made of.
6) Dennis Brown & John Holt – Wildfire (1985)
This love song was penned and produced by the pair. Did you know that the 12″ vinyl was released in 1985 via Yvonne’s Special – a label which is said to have been founded by Brown and dedicated to his flame & wife Yvonne. Adorable!
5) Capleton – More Fire (Album, May 16 2000)
Although most entries on this list are singles, an exception had
to be made for this classic twenty track compilation. It boasts production from the likes of Steelie & Cleevie, Sly Dunbar and Morgan Heritage to name a few and the fruit of such work resulted in some of Shango’s best work. Tracklist includes classics ‘Who (Slew) Dem?’, ‘Jah Jah City’, ‘Good In Her Clothes’ and ‘Hunt You’.
4) Fire Fe The Vatican – Max Romeo
This anti-papal outcry gave a spin on the singer’s classic single ‘War Inna Babylon’. Produced by Lee Scratch Perry, it was released via his own Black Art Music label and also appeared on his compilation album ‘Open The Iron Gate: 1973-77’.
3) Bob Marley & The Wailers – Catch A Fire (Album, 1973)
It was released to rave reviews and contains some of the Wailers’ most popular songs; a critic described it as “one of the best reggae albums ever made”. ‘Catch A Fire’ draws upon some of the aforementioned fiery motifs such as passion (‘Stir It Up’, ‘Baby We’ve Got A Date’), destruction (‘Slave Driver’) and protection (‘No More Trouble’).
2) Chuck Fenda – Gash Dem & Light Them (2006)
Not every ‘fire’ song is a counter-attack against ‘Babylon’ or ‘the system’; this track lashes out against the injustices served by rapists and murderers. However, two of Jamaica’s leading radio stations Zip FM and Irie FM banned the inflammatory hit based on recommendations made by the Broadcasting Commission, claiming that it incites violence.
1) Anthony B – Fire Pon Rome
This song is possibly one of the greatest social commentaries of all time. Although Anthony appears to personally lash out against Politicians and Businessmen who he addresses by name, he expresses in an interview with Angus Taylor that the song“wasn’t directed at any individual or physical person – it was at this myth of control, these titles of control…colonialism”
In closing, are reggae artists generally burning a metaphorical fire as much as they were in the 80s – early noughties or have things become more politically correct? If more of this fire was being burned, would certain trends that are populating the music & scene be as prevalent? Food for thought.