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Can this very private and very rich American save reggae?

Jamaican reggae music has an unlikely but passionate ambassador: an aging white American businessman who is spending a lot of energy and even more money to spread the gospel of reggae and draw tourists to its source. His name is Joe Bogdanovich. This California native could have invested his fortune anywhere in the world, but he chose the island nation of Jamaica. He doesn’t like to talk about the origin of his money, but it is well known that he is the grandson and heir of the late Martin J. Bogdanovich, the founder of StarKist Tuna.

“There is a lot of poverty here,” Bogdanovich says of the Caribbean island with just 3 million people, roughly the population of Brooklyn. “But there is also a lot of talent. Talent means that there are many opportunities. It is a country small enough to make a difference. I really do, and some people say I already do.”

Bogdanovich’s investment in Jamaican entertainment remains unmatched and has silenced suspicions that he is just another white man trying to exploit native culture for his own gain.

Recently, his Sumfest 2022 reggae festival injected $20 million into the Jamaican economy. It was the culmination of Bogdanovich’s involvement in Jamaica dating back to 1999, when he moved his company DownSound Records from Los Angeles to Kingston and began developing local talent that eventually crossed borders, including Nuff Nuff, Ninjaman, Elephant Man and Nanko. In a story straight out of the hit movie The hardest that will comeNanko had come from the country to Kingston and worked as a window cleaner until her musical talent was discovered. Bogdanovich even went public with his business tactics and his problems by putting himself in a humorous music video taking on Ninjaman vs. Upstart Specialist Dweet.

Beres Hammond (L) and Shaggy perform during Reggae Sumfest on July 28, 2013 in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Shelby Soblick/Getty Images

From producing records, Bogdanovich expanded into organizing music festivals, beginning in 2015 with the long-running Sting festival outside Kingston. The clashes, in which the performers on stage defeated their opponents, often turned into violent clashes. One of the most notorious was Supercat vs. Ninjaman in 1991, which was cut short when the audience rained bottles on the performers. Even more infamous was a 2003 confrontation between Vybz Kartel and Ninjaman, when Kartel and his entourage physically assaulted his opponents. When the violence scared off patrons, the festival owner contacted Bogdanovich.

“When I had the opportunity to put my name on this festival called Sting, the baddest concert in Jamaica, I jumped head first,” says Bogdanovich. “For me this was just amazing. This was the wildest Wild West in Jamaica. It was the last chance for Sting to get any sponsorship. I took a risk to keep this 30 year old product alive because I couldn’t let another festival close.”

Bogdanovich went to work and found additional sponsors after promising a more commercial approach without the renegade thrills, gunshots, heavy drinking, and violence that had spooked sponsors. He also sent the festival to the world, to 179 countries through Comcast pay-per-view. “We were even on time with the start time,” he says. “It ended without the use of profanity, violence or stampedes. That was something that had never happened before, and sending it to so many countries has never happened before or since.”

When the broadcast was hacked by millions of viewers around the world, Bogdanovich was undeterred. He realized that this was actually a good thing, a huge audience expansion. Since then, the festivals of him are broadcast for free. “That’s how you get a huge fan base that will come to Jamaica to see the festival in person,” he says. “Promotes tourism”.

In 2016 DownSound Records acquired Jamaica’s leading music festival Reggae Sumfest. Since then, the festival has grown exponentially in both size and quality. Now the largest reggae festival in the Caribbean and one of the largest in the world, Reggae Sumfest takes place in Catherine Hall, a beautiful park on a Caribbean beach in the north of the country, near Montego Bay, which is already tourist friendly. Bogdanovich has leased the property for 30 years for what he describes as “very expensive and a big commitment.” He doesn’t like to talk about money, but he will say that Sumfest has caused a financial boom. “In 2019, Sumfest has contributed more than $10 million (US) to Montego Bay and the country of Jamaica,” he says. “This year, we doubled that in a six-day period. That’s hotels, planes, and restaurants, right down to the little peanut vendor. Now I want to do several of those festivals annually. Can you imagine how this can heat up the Jamaican economy?

The prestigious Sumfest is also a golden opportunity for Bogdanovich to showcase the new talents he has recruited. He is currently promoting three artists, veteran Harry Toddler, and two young artists. “There’s D’ayni, and he could cross over into the international market,” says Bogdanovich. “He’s a great writer, handsome, the ladies love him and he’s nice to work with. The other is Marcy Chin, a dancehall artist. She’s turning into a very entertaining artist, she could burst at any moment.”

Sumfest now features a variety of artists, ranging from younger, R-rated dancehall artists to old-school roots reggae, including the indelible Beres Hammond. At this year’s festival, Bogdanovich honored the artist Spice crowning her as the Queen of Dancehall. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of reggae: the absence of age segregation, as old stars and newcomers happily share the stage. Regardless of the age of the artist, the audience is always a mix of young and old, partying together late into the night.

A general view of the atmosphere at Reggae Sumfest on July 28, 2013 in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Shelby Soblick/Getty Images

Right now, Bogdanovich is upgrading Sumfest’s location in Catherine Hall, making this place even more appealing. The construction of hotels and restaurants is underground. Although he is certainly in love with Jamaican culture and music, Bogdanovich is also a canny businessman. He is the CEO of Hardware and Lumber, the island’s largest retail chain, which will benefit handsomely from his improvements to Catherine Hall.

The local also wants a house the world’s largest reggae archive, which Bogdanovich recently purchased from his old friend Roger Steppens in California, for, once again, an undisclosed sum. The archive contains rare and unreleased recordings, images, manuscripts, books, trinkets and paraphernalia, plus a wealth of fan material from around the world.

But the archive must be classified, curated, and properly stored and displayed. For now, the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston is the most visited museum in Jamaica, but the Bogdanovich archive might steal that title, especially since it has a plethora of Marley memorabilia. “It will give you a real sense of the life that reggae music embodies, it’s a living thing,” says Bogdanovich. “The file belongs to Jamaica. I’m taking it home.”

When one considers the many activities of this reggae jack of all trades, one imagines a dynamic young businessman. But Bogdanovich, who declines to reveal his age, was a student at Boston University when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He remembers the ’60s as “a time when John Lennon sang ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ black and white color barriers were broken, and ‘Peace and Love’ was the operating mantra of my generation. To this day I am influenced by that kind of thinking. How to unify, how to stop killing everyone, how to stop destroying the planet. This got out of control. I wonder what can I do about it? Here in Jamaica, with music, I can make a difference.”

In pictures, music videos. and television interviews for the past 30 years, Bogdanovich’s appearance has not changed. He always hides behind dark sunglasses, has no gray hair on his head, and wears shirts decorated with his company logos, always with some open top buttons. But if you do the math, this dynamo is hitting 80.

His appetite for new projects remains relentless. Right now he is in the midst of his first publishing venture: a book called reggae my life. “It gave me the opportunity to put one more gem in my Jamaican playbook,” she says. “I am currently signing with the main points of sale around the world. It’s a story about Copeland Forbes and his various journeys as one of reggae’s most important ambassadors. That’s important to me”.

For Americans to become more interested in authentic Jamaican music, it’s pretty simple for me: I have to produce hit records.

Joe Bogdanovich

Whether all of his activities will have an impact in the United States remains to be seen. Reggae is the music of choice for many of the 4.4 million Caribbean immigrants living in the United States. About 13 million of the US population have Caribbean ancestry. Despite this important market, if judged by the billboard reggae charts and concert attendance, then the attractiveness of reggae in this country lags far behind the rest of the world. In 2021 the No. 1 reggae album sold in the United States was by Bob Marley Legend, which originally opened in 1984. At a recent Venerable Beres Hammond sold-out show at Brooklyn’s Coney Island Amphitheater, all but a handful of audience members had Caribbean ties. Meanwhile, this year’s Grammy for best reggae album went not to one of the Jamaican finalists — Spice, Etana, Gramps Morgan or Sean Paul — but to SOJA, a white dreadlock-adorned band from Virginia.

Rough, punchy dancehall may understandably have limited appeal in America, since the lyrics are mostly sung in native Jamaican Patois and are impossible for most English speakers to understand. Americans seem to prefer smooth, old reggae that wouldn’t be out of place in an elevator. After 140 consecutive weeks at the top of the billboard graphics, Marley’s Legend recently dethroned by wisdom, an easy listening reggae album by a white band from California called Stick Figure. Of course, Bogdanovich is aware of these obstacles as he thinks about how to reach a broader American audience. “Thank God, we’re in a transition where young people are doing old-style reggae again,” says Bogdanovich. “Chronixx, Protoje and Lila Iké – these are the people who are reviving true Jamaican reggae culture right now.”

Bogdanovich believes that tourism to Jamaica will spark more interest in reggae among Americans, and he is delighted that more tourists visited Jamaica last summer than at any other time in the nation’s history. “When you visit a festival,” he says, “you experience more than just music; you experience the people, the food, you experience a culture, and it’s really magical, it really is.” But in the end, there is only one viable solution for Bogdanovich. “For Americans to become more interested in authentic Jamaican music, to me it’s pretty simple: I have to produce hit records. Hit records connect and cross borders. Music has to penetrate the soul, it has to go through”.

There is a chance that this unlikely ambassador of reggae, this white octogenarian from California, could break through.

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