How Tuna Fish Heir & Reggae Sumfest Owner Josef Bogdanovich Became One of Jamaican Music’s Biggest Advocates
Josef Bogdanovich, the American businessman and heir to the StarKist tuna fortune, has become one of Jamaican music's most unexpected, and fervent, supporters.
Josef Bogdanovich, CEO of Downsound Entertainment, wanted answers when he stepped to the podium at the New York City launch of Reggae Sumfest, Jamaica’s annual summer reggae festival held in the island’s resort capital Montego Bay, which he purchased in 2016.
“How can a country with just 3 million people receive so much recognition from people of so many different nationalities? Has anyone figured that out?” Bogdanovich asked. Struggling to be heard above the conversations fueled by the complimentary Red Stripe beer (Sumfest’s title sponsor) served at the bar of Lower East Side venue The DL, Bogdanovich, an American businessman whose experience in the entertainment industry dates back to the 1970s, raised his voice to a thunderous pitch.
“Yo! Have you figured it out yet? We must understand the power of this music and this festival. We must understand the economics of survival and acknowledge that unity is one of the keys to survival. Get educated! Stop the violence! Let’s celebrate unity and togetherness and show just how serious we are about our music, our festival, Reggae Sumfest.”
Bogdanovich’s plea to stop the violence refers to the spiraling gang-related murders/reprisal killings in and around Montego Bay stemming from notorious lottery scamming operations. In January 2018, the Jamaican government declared a state of emergency in St. James Parish, where Montego Bay is located, which remains in effect five months later.
Inaugurated in August 1993 at Montego Bay’s Catherine Hall as a vehicle to boost tourism during the summer’s low visitor arrivals season — and as a replacement for its predecessor Reggae Sunsplash, which had relocated to the outskirts of Kingston the same year — Reggae Sumfest has attracted thousands of visitors to Jamaica and generated millions for the island’s economy.
Artists like 50 Cent, Common, Destiny’s Child, Ne-Yo, Nicki Minaj, Lionel Richie, Rihanna and Kanye West and other American superstars have headlined Sumfest over the years, but it’s reggae that dominates. Many Jamaican artists’ careers have been launched, ascended to the next level or generated interest far beyond the island’s shores directly from the festival’s stage. The legendary Toots and The Maytals, veteran Rastafarian roots singer Burning Spear, dancehall superstars Shaggy and Sean Paul and millennial reggae acts Chronixx and Raging Fyah are among the diverse Jamaican talent that have appeared on the Sumfest stage.
Artists’ escalating costs, juxtaposed with the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar, as well as competition with European summer reggae festivals looking to secure the most popular Jamaican acts, yielded an uncertain future for Reggae Sumfest 2016, which prompted one of the Sumfest founders, Robert Russell, to recommended Bogdanovich as an investor.
“We knew we would have had to scale back Sumfest quite a bit because we reached a point where we couldn’t afford the foreign [American] acts’ prices anymore as the festival’s sponsorship diminished,” Russell told Billboard while in Manhattan for the Sumfest launch. “I initially suggested that Joe get involved as an investor, but then I suggested he buy the festival so he didn’t have to contend with those shareholders who weren’t prepared to move forward and put more money into it, even though they have been reaping the benefits for many years. Joe agreed to buy it [for an undisclosed sum] with the condition that I remain involved, because he needed someone who knew the ropes.”
Los Angeles born and raised Bogdanovich — just “Joe” to his friends and colleagues — began visiting Jamaica in the early 1990s before settling in the island’s capital, Kingston, in 1999. He’s the grandson of the late Martin J. Bogdanovich, the founder of StarKist foods; as an heir to that affluence, Bogdanovich could have invested his resources in any number of entertainment endeavors, anywhere in the world. Yet he chose Jamaica and its reggae and dancehall music, which haven’t yielded financial returns for the island and its artists commensurate with their pervasive influence on popular culture.
“No one gets into this for the money, we do it out of passion, for the love of the music,” Bogdanovich told Billboard in New York, on the evening prior to Sumfest’s April 17th launch.
Bogdanovich, who worked as a film screenwriter, producer and director before turning to music, learned the rigors of the entertainment business from his older brother, Robert, a co-founder of Los Angeles-based Pacific Presentations, one of the largest concert promotion companies of the 1970s. He started the Acid Jazz record label in Los Angeles in 1992, focusing on dance music; a year later he founded Downsound Records. By 1995, Bogdanovich had established a Downsound office in Kingston and ever since, the label has signed and/or released music from an eclectic array of reggae and dancehall artists, charting a musical identity that is as flamboyant, unpredictable and occasionally controversial as Bogdanovich and his wider business moves.
Amidst the resurgence in roots reggae in Jamaica in the mid 2000s, Downsound Records found success with Rastafarian reggae artist Fantan Mojah, especially his meditative chant “Hail The King,” featuring veteran master drummer Bongo Herman, its video directed by Bogdanovich.
Bogdanovich/Downsound were involved in the career of singer Jah Cure, who rose to stardom while serving a 12-year sentence following a rape conviction, the result of what many argue was a biased trial. In 2006, Bogdanovich produced the song and directed the video for what best summarizes Jah Cure’s saga, one of the biggest reggae stories of the 2000s, “True Reflections (Behind These Prison Walls),” which Cure recorded behind bars.
In 2013, Bogdanovich signed and brought resurgent interest to the iconic but troubled deejay Ninja Man, considered the king of clashing (a prototype of hip-hop’s MC battles) since the 1980s. Ninja Man, an admitted crack cocaine user, teamed up with Downsound’s younger signee Specialist as they sparred for generational supremacy on the popular dancehall single “Dweet“; Bogdanovich directed the song’s video and has a speaking role in its opening scenes.
Ninja Man parted ways with Downsound in 2015, was found guilty of a 2009 murder in 2017, and is now serving a life sentence.
Some Downsound artists’ well-publicized, occasionally-acrimonious departures from the label — including Fantan Mojah, deejay Foota Hype, sing-jay Nature and especially female dancehall artist Ishawna — have provided plenty of fodder for Jamaican tabloids and reggae gossip sites. Unsurprisingly, Bogdanovich now prioritizes other entertainment activities over his label pursuits. “We are not really interested in artists now because they sell us out; we’ve been shortchanged so many times that it’s irresponsible for me to spend my time and resources on them,” Bogdanovich said. “We lost a lot of years where my time could have been better spent for the industry, and that is in concert promotion and production.”
Over the past four years, Bogdanovich has elevated his corporate profile with several multimillion-dollar investments in Jamaica. He is a major shareholder in the KLE Group, which operates Usain Bolt‘s Tracks & Records, the popular sports bar/restaurant co-owned by the celebrated Olympian. Bogdanovich also acquired Hardware & Lumber, the island’s largest retail hardware chain, in 2016.
In 2017, Bogdanovich established Caribbean Love Now to aid Caribbean islands ravaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Caribbean Love Now held its inaugural fundraising concert, Jamathon, in November, featuring 30 primarily Jamaican acts, all of whom donated their time for the event. Bogdanovich wouldn’t disclose how much was raised from Jamathon, which is slated to be an annual event, but the organization has already sent containers of relief supplies to the Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica; Bogdanovich and a Jamaican team are scheduled to visit Dominica later in the year to oversee the rebuilding of a school and hospital there. The official song for the Caribbean Love Now campaign, “Carry On,” features an all-star Jamaican cast including Tessanne Chin (season 5 winner of NBC’s The Voice), Tarrus Riley and Chronixx, produced by Sean Diedrick, Dean Fraser and Sherieta Lewis, for Downsound Records.
But the brightest jewel in Bogdanovich’s glittering collection of acquisitions — and potentially its most valuable — is Reggae Sumfest. Since taking the reins in 2016, he’s introduced HD live streaming and a 360 virtual reality access app, which he says generated 60 million digital impressions in 2017, three times more than 2016. Bogdanovich has expanded the now 26-year-old festival to eight days this year (July 15-22), which will include the inaugural Sumfest Inspire Awards, given to industry practitioners; a reggae business symposium; and an international sound system clash, World Clash, organized by preeminent sound system promoters Irish and Chin.
Downsound Entertainment has pioneered a reciprocal promotion strategy between Sumfest and Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year (Dec. 1-5). Most significant of all, Bogdanovich has jettisoned American headliners from Sumfest’s concerts, Festival Nights 1 and 2.
“We use the slogan ‘our music, our festival’ because we’ve reinstated Jamaicans as Sumfest’s international stars,” says Bogdanovich of the lineup, which includes legendary vocalist Beres Hammond; English-Jamaican singer Maxi Priest; dancehall stars Popcaan and Aidonia; Fantan Mojah; Rastafarian chanter Sizzla; longtime Downsound artist Harry Toddler; and Marley. “I want to highlight reggae and dancehall, to bring more business to Jamaica because it’s a great, blessed island,” Bogdanovich says. “And I am doing everything I can to support it.”