After famously launching his ‘Reggae Reggae Sauce’ after arguably the most renowned and successful appearance on TV’s ‘Dragon’s Den’ to date, Levi Roots became a household name.
But did you know that, before the runaway success of his business ventures, Mr Roots (born Keith Graham) once sang for Nelson Mandela? OX Magazine’s Jack Rayner spoke to Levi to find out more…
Hi Levi – you’re obviously a household name because of your passion for food, but you’re also a musician. Which one do you love more?
I couldn’t take away one from the other. If you have two passions, and you can make both of them work, then you can be just like a clock – all parts work.
So which one came first?
Well, again I think they both arrived with each other. My musical skill comes from my family – my grandmother and grandfather were both singers in the baptist church. The cooking was taught to me by my grandmother from the age of nine, so I was born with the ability to vocalise and my skill for cooking came through parenting.
I’ve read that you once performed with James Brown. How did that come about?
That was fantastic. I was in a relationship with a lady who ran Essential Festival, which was a massive festival that ran for years and started off in Brighton. Between the both of us we would arrange to bring over the artists for the festival, and one year we had James Brown. So, not only did I get to promote the show, but I got to perform on the same stage as well, and meet the man in rehearsals. I had a really inspirational time with one of the greatest musicians on the planet.
What was James like as a person? Was he just as electric and flamboyant offstage as on?
Absolutely. One of my fondest memories of him was when we were in rehearsals – I listened to the band rehearse for about half an hour, thinking that I was listening to James singing, and was mesmerised by the sound. After that half an hour, I looked around and the real James Brown walked in – I’d been listening to his backing singer the whole time!
Did you not also perform once for Nelson Mandela?
Haha, isn’t this some great name-dropping? I’ve been so lucky in my life. It was 1996, when he came to Brixton – Brixton is my life and very much a part of me – he was in the recreation centre doing a talk with Prince Charles. I was just one of thousands and thousands just hoping to catch a glimpse of the man, and I was spotted in the crowd by one of the bouncers inside the rec that knew me. They were looking for a few people to sing to Mr Mandela, and this bouncer said to his boss, “There’s Levi Roots, one of Brixton’s singers.” I was half-ushered and half-pushed into the rec, and we all sung to Nelson Mandela as he came in.
What an incredible story to be able to tell.
I’m genuinely just a lucky, lucky man.
Moving onto your famous food, how did you come up with the recipe for Reggae Reggae Sauce?
It was an attempt to recapture memories of my grandma’s food. I’ve written eight books since I came onto the scene, with thousands of recipes, and all of it is trying to recapture what she used to cook for me, including Reggae Reggae Sauce. My restaurant in Westfield has started to win awards, and that is just brilliant because it’s still trying to recapture what my grandmother cooked when I was a young boy.
You were a judge on the Big Bucks Bake Off earlier this month. How does Caribbean baking compare to the traditional English style?
Different flavour combinations. Obviously, we use rum quite a lot, and that’s why we’re always pissed in the kitchen! We also use a lot of spices, especially from Grenada – nutmeg, ginger...
In your now-famous appearance on ‘Dragon’s Den’, you seem incredibly at ease and not at all nervous. Underneath it all, were you actually a bit scared? Or were you really that relaxed?
I think, at the very start when I was singing, I was totally relaxed. That’s the Levi Roots which is easy to present – the rasta man with the guitar, expressing his grandma’s love for food. The bit afterwards, with the numbers...that was different! I hadn’t really bashed the numbers into my head beforehand, but I think that’s ultimately what Peter Jones invested in: the real Levi Roots. I was just being true to who I am.
It’s clear to an outside viewer that it’s just part of your character.
Exactly. That’s what I wanted people to see, and I was lucky in that they did see that. On ‘Dragon’s Den’, they’re always ready to get you with the business strategy and the numbers, and everyone falls down on that bit. But, not everybody has a song and a sauce like me!