Levis Roots at the University of Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 16:42 21 October 2011 | UPDATED: 11:21 23 October 2011
ADAM SMYTH PHOTOGRAPER
IN a “guess the celebrity” picture quiz, you could probably identify Levi Roots just by his hands.
Those big, bejewelled fingers could not belong to anyone other than the 53-year-old reggae singer-turned-sauce magnate, just like the long black dreadlocks, Jamaican patois and natty range of business suits are also, unmistakably, Levi.
It’s the hands I notice first, as he extends an arm to greet me in the Green Room of the Weston Auditorium on the University of Hertfordshire’s de Havilland campus, in Hatfield.
The man who launched his Reggae Reggae Sauce empire off the back of a musical appearance on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, is here to give a talk at the culmination of Enterprise Fusion day, which showcases the uni’s various entrepreneurial initiatives.
His mission is simple.
“I’ve been on this journey since February 2007 when I went into the Den, and that journey is to tell my story to as many young people and start-up businesses as I can,” he says.
“Young people, people from my background, need to hear this story. It’s my duty to say my motto: ‘If Levi can do it, I can do it’.”
It’s a story worth hearing.
Born in Jamaica, Levi – real name Keith Valentine Graham – moved to Brixton, south London, aged 12. He was always musical, and began building a name for himself in the early 80s as an MC and as lead vocalist of his band, Matic16.
He’s supported James Brown, performed for Nelson Mandela, and was nominated for a MOBO award in 1998.
But his career dipped in the early 2000s, as a wave of homophobic sentiment began to creep into reggae.
“I stepped away from music,” he says. “Reggae was getting a bad press regarding homophobia.
“Although I didn’t do any of that, I thought I had to do something else.”
So Levi worked as warehouse manager, and continued selling his family-recipe jerk sauce around his native Brixton and at the Notting Hill Carnival, as he had done since the 1990s.
Then, in 2007, he appeared on Dragons’ Den, armed with a guitar and singing a song about his Reggae Reggae Sauce.
It was enough to convince Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh to part with £25,000 each for a 40 per cent share of his business.
“I was working in a warehouse and I thought: ‘I’ve sung for Nelson Mandela, I was friends with Bob Marley’, and I knew I was capable of more,” Levi says.
Today, the Reggae Reggae brand produces sauces, snacks, drinks and ready meals, while Levi has published a Caribbean cookbook, presented his own cookery show and appeared as a guest on several others.
Crucially, his brand has outlasted the Dragons’ endorsement. No longer does Levi’s products bear the label “As seen on Dragons’ Den”. Reggae Reggae is the UK market leader of Caribbean food products, and an instantly recognisable brand all of its own.
And it’s all down to Levi himself. The man is a walking brand. From the rings, to the dreadlocks to the suit, Levi Roots is Reggae Reggae – and that’s exactly how he wants it.
“There’s a thing called inspiration, and there’s a thing called inspired action,” explains Levi.
“You get the inspiration but you let it pass you by, because you don’t believe in yourself enough.
“Many times I’ve had inspiration and let it pass me by. But then I had the inspiration to stop looking at the music on its own.
“The inspiration was to merge the sauce and the music together – that was my inspired action.”
The following morning, a quick internet search reveals that most sources estimate Levi’s empire to be worth around £30m.
If Levi can do it, you can do it.
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