Why Levi stays true to his roots in food and music
On the face of it Levi Roots is everything you would expect of someone from the Caribbean.
His laid-back persona, love of music and food all hark back to the sunny Jamaica of his childhood.
But when you spend any time talking to the 56-year-old who in 2007 took the BBC’s Dragon’s Den by storm with his musical pitch for his Reggae Reggae sauce then you realise just how determined and structured Levi’s success has been.
Born Keith Valentine Graham Bilal Musa in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, Levi Roots was brought up initially by his grandparents until his parents, who had moved to Brixton for a better life, could afford for him and his siblings to move to London to be with them.
In London Levi went to school for the first time and also visited the Notting Hill Carnival, where he would later sell his famous Reggae Reggae sauce.
But it was music rather than food that was a driving factor for a young Levi growing up in deprived areas of London.
He joined the Coxsone Sound System as a teenager, writing songs in a Brixton squat, and travelling dance halls with his records.
“I played in front of 50,000 people with James Brown. But life in Brixton back then was tense,” he recalls.
He ended up brushing with the law and two brief spells in prison saw him determined to leave Keith behind and Levi Roots was created.
He enjoyed msuical success and was nominated for a MOBO award in 1998, and sang Happy Birthday to Nelson Mandela when the late South African president visited Brixton.
“I loved that time, but the music didn’t make me the superstar I wanted it to,” said Levi.
“My other passion is food and so it made sense to put the two passions together.”
He had been selling his secret recipe Reggae Reggae sauce for 15 years at Notting Hill Carnival and around Brixton.
In 2006, Levi was spotted at the World Food Market by a BBC researcher and invited to appear on the programme Dragons’ Den.
“I had never heard of the show and went home to the kids asking them what Dragons’ Den was. They begged me not to appear saying; ‘Dad, don’t go on that show, they’ll just tear you to pieces!’
“But because I had never seen it I just decided to be myself, a Rastafarian man in his late 40s singing about the Caribbean food he loved.
“I have never tried to split the music from the food. Although if I had seen the programme I probably wouldn’t have taken the guitar.”
But the hard-nosed Dragons loved Levi as much as his sauce. Levi was asking for £50,000 from the entrepreneurs to expand his business.
Richard Farleigh and Peter Jones decided to buy into Reggae Reggae Sauce and Levi Roots. Following his appearance, Levi’s famous barbecue and jerk mix sauce was exclusively supplied to Sainsbury’s where it became the chain’s fastest selling product.
Although Peter Jones is still very much part of the Reggae Reggae sauce empire which now includes Caribbean-inspired cooking sauces, ready meals, soft drinks, pasties and more, he bought out Richard Farleigh for ten times what he paid for his share of the business.
“Richard Farleigh saw the product where as Peter Jones saw the man. He wanted to buy into Levi Roots. Peter and I share the same office – he has 300 investments and I don’t see him sharing an office with them. He hasn’t just been a great mentor, he is a friend.”
Father of seven Levi is now estimated at being worth £30 million and beat of the likes of Harry Styles last year when he was named richest reality television star.
But despite all this he refuses to turn his back on Brixton.
“It is really important to me for people to see that I am sticking around, that I am not deserting the place where I grew up and formed me once I made a success of myself.
“It is so important for the black youths of Brixton to see a success story on a daily basis. I never saw anyone like that when I was growing up here.
“I still live in the same flat and cook in the same kitchen where I made the sauce with my children.”
He does admit that had he been younger when he found fame it might have been a different story, but now he says clothes are his only weakness.
“I do like to buy nice clothes.”
Next month Levi will be heading to Yorkshire for this year’s Malton Food Lovers Festival, where he joins Prue Leith, William Sitwell, Valentine Warner and Diana Henry. Levi will be doing a range of demonstrations for the public on Saturday May 23.
He will also be playing with his band at the inaugural Malton Food Lovers Festival night market on the Saturday evening with tracks from his new album Rise Above.
Tom Naylor-Leyland, Malton Food Lovers Festival director, said: “Levi Roots will certainly spice up this year’s Festival. I can’t wait to hear his band at the night market. His story is one which is really appropriate for this year as we have introduced the Community Kitchen area. This is a market area for community groups and individuals just starting out.
“I know Levi will have some very wise words to offer our fledgling entrepreneurs.
“His demonstrations are sure to be popular so we’re advising visitors to book early to avoid disappointment.”
For more information visit www.maltonyorkshire.co.uk