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Levi Roots Interview x Black History Month

For Black History Month last year I wanted to forget about worshipping black icons of the past and chose to focus on current. No disrespect to them, but people always complain there aren't enough about black role models about nowadays, so I thought I'd appreciate current one.

I went on a mission to find a black person who is doing something positive for themselves. Instead of an obscure politician or financial investment banker no one really knows, I thought I'd keep it contemporary, going with comedian and businessman Kojo. Everyone sees him as just a comedian but either don't realise or forget that he is more than that and has achieved a lot, namely his 5 years and (started) counting (again the other day) Comedy Club in West End's Corks Wine Bar.

Hate or love him personally or his jokes, one thing is undeniable; the man is doing a lot for himself and the whole urban comedy circuit FULL STOP! He has given a platform to most of our favourite comedians directly or indirectly. May not be on inspirational levels of Martin Luther and them guys but not many people are. And so what?! Does that take away from his achievements? Awwwl'right den! Read that interview here

This year, I really wanted one man. Never thought I'd get him but thought it would be a good look if I did. Then one day I get a BBM asking if I was free to interview someone I regard as very inspirational and rate highly. Mr Reggae Reggae Sauce himself, Levi Roots!!! Originally I wouldn't have been able to do a face-to-face but I managed to free the schedule so I could. "JAH PROVIDES" was my tweet (@MarvinSparks) after I finished.

Shouts to

Levi Roots, commonly known as Mr. Reggae Reggae Sauce man/entrepreneur returns to his reggae musical roots with the release of his album aptly-titled Red Hot. Marvin Sparks caught up with the former Best Reggae MOBO Award nominee Levi Roots to speak of growing up in Brixton in the 70s with the controversial Sus law, the rapid growth of Reggae Reggae Sauce, what a reggae singer turned millionaire celebrity chef sings about and which dish he compares his latest album to.

With October being the month we celebrate Black History Month, I asked one of the recently named 100 Most Influential Black People if there is still a need for Black History Month.

Marvin Sparks: Today we are in Brixton where you grew up.

Levi Roots: Yes I grew up here from the age of 12 and lived here for the whole of my life so I know Brixton quite well [laughs]

Marvin Sparks: What was it like growing up in Brixton back then?

Levi Roots: Well it was a rollercoaster really of good and bad. In the early days it wasn't really good because I grew up in the days of the Sus law when you didn’t really have to do anything but be black and you got in trouble. It was a terrible time when I was growing up in the 70s being a black man in Brixton, especially if you were young and wanted to have fun. If you were young and quiet then it was ok, but if you wanted to have fun, a lifestyle and an identity then you had a lot of problems.

Marvin Sparks: It has obviously changed a lot since then.

Levi Roots: It has changed a lot; Brixton’s cool now. I call it the centre of the universe.

Marvin Sparks: How did you find the whole Dragon’s Den experience?

Levi Roots: Easy! It was easy for me. It wasn’t difficult. I was doing what I knew best. I didn’t pretend, I didn’t go and lie to myself, I was true to myself, I was true to my ability, I played to my strengths, and when you do that you can’t go wrong if you’re true to yourself!

Marvin Sparks: So it was an easy decision to sing instead of the conventional pitches we were and still are used to seeing? It could have ended horribly wrong!

Levi Roots: For me, I never knew Dragon’s Den before. I’m probably the only person that’s gone on there that’s never seen the show. I don’t think anyone else would dare enough to do that. Everyone else that’s gone on there knows of the routine, what to do, they know what the Dragon’s are like, they know which Dragon to pitch towards and they know the setting. For me, I just thought I was going to a gig and that’s all it was. I’m going to do a performance to some guys who say they have a lot of money and they can change my life. I didn’t see them as 5 guys, I saw them as 5,000 guys as I normally perform at festival and such!

Marvin Sparks: Did you ever envision Reggae Reggae sauce would be this big so quickly after the show?

Levi Roots: I think quickly is the key word there. I believed it be massive and big, I really did believe that, but not in the space of time which it has. We were outselling Heinz Tomato Ketchup within its first 3 weeks of being on the shelf. It’s the fastest produced food type in 6, no it was 4 weeks from scratch; going from the factory, setting up the whole business, getting it into Sainsbury's and selling all that 250,000 in just a week. There hasn’t been anything like that ever in food manufacturing and that’s in Sainsbury’s history as the fastest selling product they have ever put out.

Marvin Sparks: Congratulations on that!!! But before the Reggae Reggae sauce, there was music. How did you first get into the music side of things?

Levi Roots: Music was always in the family and as a Jamaican I think most Jamaicans; music is always something that we aspire to be in link with. Whether it’s singing, producing or just being around sound systems or dancehall’s, most Jamaicans will aspire to do that and I was no different. I was in a very musical background family so it was a natural progression from me to get involved in music as I did when I left school. It has been a long time coming what is happening to me musically.

Marvin Sparks: Many people who just see you as Mr. Reggae Reggae Sauce may not be sure what a chef could be singing about. What inspires you musically?

Levi Roots: Well I come from the days when singers were singing about consciousness. When Reggae music was used solely to convey message of Africa, message of peace and love, message of what Rasta was up to and how Rasta see Haile Selassie I and the father [God/Jah], and how you live. It was about The Bible; I would say 80% of the lyrics that were coming when I was young were from The Bible - lyrics that people sung from The Bible and actually singing it in their own way. I had a very good introduction into the music because of the time I was from as opposed to nowadays where it is more about bling and me, me, me, especially within rap. But back in my days it was about roots and culture, that’s what made me discover who I am, want to dreadlocks my hair and change my whole identity and get involved in music.

Marvin Sparks: Who would you say were your favourite artists?

Levi Roots: Back then of course it would have to be Bob Marley because he was the voice for everybody back then in the 70s. He was the most charismatic artist coming out of Jamaica plus he was sending great messages. His songs after the 60 weren’t really about love - he did a lot of lovers in the 60’s, American stuff that he was influenced by - but when it came to the 70s and he started to become a Rasta, most of his lyrics were some kind of soul searching and try to identify yourself with what he was trying to say.

Marvin Sparks: And that’s what you try to replicate?

Levi Roots: Absolutely.

Marvin Sparks: What was the reason behind naming the album Red Hot?

Levi Roots: We recorded the album quite a few years before it actually came out, and Red Hot was just a track that I recorded with the producers Mafia& Fluxy. It was just a track about my days in the sound system where lyrics were predominantly talking about my sound [system] is better than yours. It was a soundman track back then and it was very well received. The rhythm became very popular because we had artists like Luciano and others on the same rhythm. So I named the album after that because it says about what I’m doing now; it’s Red Hot and the scotch bonnet and the food and everything like that.

Marvin Sparks: Have you found it difficult getting people to see you as a musician instead of a chef doing music?

Levi Roots: It will tell now. The album is not out yet, so people have not had a chance to experience the music yet. The album hasn’t had time to get around for people to hear or hear me in my natural way of inspiring myself which is with my own music. I’m hoping that in the next few months when the album gets around and people start hearing me sing different from the Reggae Reggae Sauce song they will probably say ‘Ah, he’s alright’ as opposed to me singing the same jingle all the time. I’m glad that people will have to chance to hear something different.

Marvin Sparks: Is it difficult balancing the business ventures with music?

Levi Roots: No it’s not; it’s not difficult at all. I think the best thing I did was to call it Reggae Reggae sauce, and call the business Reggae Reggae, because that allows me to keep the livelihood and the business going together and I think one bounces off the other. It’s precisely because its called Reggae Reggae sauce why it’s selling anyway.

The brand reggae is now in homes that normally wouldn’t have anything to do with reggae because of where the sauce is and this bottle with the Rasta colours and the typical Jamaican saying ‘I am black and I’m Jamaican’ standing out in some cupboard that would never ever have anything like that in there. I’m hoping that alone will help to break down certain barriers.

You open up a cupboard somewhere in middle England and see that there you’re going to think ‘what the f*ck is that doing in there?’ [Laughs] ‘I love that sauce man!.’ They send me emails and stuff.

Marvin Sparks: You yourself are an inspritational figure, but what would you say is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Levi Roots: Be myself and it was Peter Jones who said that to me. I remember coming out of the Dragon’s Den, and as I said I didn’t know what it was like and never knew what to expect afterwards, he had invested so I was like ‘How am I going to play this? Am I going to wake up tomorrow and be the one of the most famous people around?’ [Laughs] He just said ‘You haven’t got to do anything, just be who you are because that is what people liked about you on TV. They didn’t like you because you acted like you knew figures or business plan or you were an archetypal entrepreneur who knew everything about business. You just came as you and people loved you for that.’

I think being yourself is one of the best pieces of advice I could say to anybody who has got some plans, just be you. At the end of the day, it’s easy being you. Only you can play you the best way. You don’t want to go and pretend then get caught out later on, so it’s best to be yourself.

Marvin Sparks: October is Black History month. I’ll be honest with you, I really wanted to interview you for this month and luckily here I am. Many people question it; would you say there is still a need for Black History Month?

Levi Roots: That’s a very good question. Erm [pause] I really don’t know, you’ve got me on that one there because it’s like a double-edged sword. I think on one hand we still need it because you’ve still got people out there... for instance last night [14th October 2009] I was at the Prime Ministers house at 10 Downing Street and it was the calling of the 100 Most Influential black people in the country of which I am one of them.

In that sense, I saw that it is needed because when I saw 100 influential black people last night it really struck me that why are we looking for black role models? We’ve got a whole load of them here. The thing is nobody knows of them. I never knew them. I could count maybe just a few; I saw Tim Campbell [The Apprentice] who I know well, Kanya King [MOBO], Baroness Amos, Garth Crooks [footballer] and a few other iconic black faces that I know who have done great things, but 90% I didn’t know who they were and it was a sad thing.

I think in that respect it is still needed because our kids need to know how influential our people are in this country and there are ’nuff of them who deserve biggin’ up. Just say like how the white race big up their own and call it heritage, and make statues and all kinds of stuff of their great people and write about them in books so their children can see who Thomas Edison and those people are, we need to be knowing who Tim Campbell is, who is Alexander Amosu, who is Wilfred Emmanuel the black farmer and what he does - someone like him does great jobs and I’m sure most black kids don’t know who he is. Wilfred Emmanuel Jones has got a farm, he’s one of the biggest sausage selling factories going, he’s a millionaire and doing great things. In that respect it is needed.

In the other way, maybe what I said a lot last year and some people thought it was controversial is that we as a people look too much on the past. It’s time we started to look at the future. We big up the heroes of the past too much. I know that people without the knowledge of the past will never know their future - we done know that already - but we are always talking about Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, blah blah, but what about the people like I met last night? Let’s find them and start talking about them in the same vein as we do the dead heroes and we’ll see how much of a change can come about.

I’ll answer it that way; in one sense we need it because of what I saw last night, but in another sense we don’t need it if we keep biggin’ up these dead ones and these old ones. Let’s big up the new ones who were there last night who I was so shocked to see that so many powerful black people - millionaires - who have got a lot of money to invest in our young people.

Marvin Sparks: The BBC 2 series Caribbean Food Made Easy was very well-received. Are there any more lined up?

Levi Roots: Yeah, BBC are falling over backwards to fit me in other things. They’ve sent me so many scripts and bigger scripts because the first one was so successful, they really want me. It’s for me to look at these scripts and choose the right one. What I think will do good for Caribbean food, it’s not about Levi Roots. It’s about the bigger picture; it’s about how I can expose Caribbean food, because if I can be the market leader in Caribbean food then that’s massive, so I’ve got to be looking at Caribbean food. That’s what I want to take to the mainstream and then out of that I can have a big slice of the cake from that, but it will help Caribbean food be up there with Indian, Chinese and all other foods. I’m looking forward to another series on BBC definitely.

Marvin Sparks: Have you got a restaurant or anything where people can experience your food?

Levi Roots: Yes, the 'Rastarant' [sic] is in Battersea. The address is 8 Lavender Road, Sw11 2UG and it’s called the Papine Jerk Centre.

Marvin Sparks: Is Papine where you are originally from in Jamaica?

Levi Roots: I actually had a place called the Papine Pool Centre in Brixton back in the 80s which used to help people come off the streets and have something to do. It was really because Papine is a place in Jamaica that is like a terminus; all the buses go there and turn around before heading back to Kingston. It’s like a meeting place, so it’s like saying [the restaurant] is a meeting place, like Clapham Junction is the major train station, so it’s like come and meet at Papine.

Marvin Sparks: What dish would you compare your music to?

Levi Roots: [Long pause] I know one, I compare it to my Martinique chicken curry, because Martinique chicken curry, for me that recipe in my book is one that uses nearly all of the fruits in the Caribbean to cook with. It’s really a recipe cooked with fruits and it utilises a lot of fruits of the Caribbean and it’s pretty and sweet. I think that’s how my music is, it utilises the elements of Dub, Red sound and power, which is all the elements that go into making good roots music. It’s Rasta man music, so that‘s how I’d describe it. Also, there’s a door in my music that allows people to get in there and lose themselves in it, and there isn’t a lot of types of music that allows that.

Marvin Sparks: Anything else you’d like to say?

Levi Roots: My 3 points for young entrepreneurs trying to get onto the road my 3 prongs of advice are:

1. Make sure you have a plan. You’ve got to have a plan, a business plan about anything, whatever it is but you’ve got to have a plan.
2. Be passionate about that plan
3. Focus on long term

Interview conducted by Marvin Sparks []

Lead single So Out Of My Mind lifted from album Red Hot

Levi Roots album Red Hot is available to buy - 19th October 2009
Levi Roots cookbook Caribbean Food Made Easy is OUT NOW
Reggae Reggae Sauce is available is all good stores.
For more info on Britain's 100 Most Influential Black People click


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