Reggae Rise Up 2018: SOJA’s Kenny Bongos dishes on his hometown festival's growth and global reach

click to enlarge SOJA, which plays Reggae Rise Up Festival in St. Petersburg, Florida on March 18, 2018. - Hiroki Nishiokia
Hiroki Nishiokia
SOJA, which plays Reggae Rise Up Festival in St. Petersburg, Florida on March 18, 2018.

One of the more prevalent themes of the Tampa Bay music scene — especially the artsy cultural district of downtown St. Petersburg — has been its distinction as a quasi hub for reggae sounds both old and new. Hotspots like Jannus Live and the various ale and brew houses that populate the downtown cross streets have long been popular hubs for buzzing nightlife, delectable food and beverage offerings, and our favorite: a diverse palette of live music that fits the needs of such an eclectic community.

To try and sum up roots reggae’s core values in a few sentences is a futile exercise, but the genre — which emerged in the 1960s as a way to speak out against oppression and suffering around the globe — has always had a place in our neck of the woods. Toots and the Maytals toured here as recently as 2016, and Bob Marley once played Tampa’s long-shuttered Jai Alai fronton in 1979. Locally, bands like Tribal Style keep the spirit of roots reggae alive. Reggae-rooted acts — especially bands like Rebelution and SOJA, which operate in the club-packing reggae-rock scene — have been making regular stops in St. Pete and Tampa for years, always including Bay area venues in their itineraries. The visits from the national acts create an environment where local outfits like Resinated can evolve, grow a fanbase and end up on a national tour of their own.

REGGAE RISE UP 2018
KENNY BONGOS INTERVIEW | BEFORE/AFTER PARTIES

It seemed long overdue when, in 2015, Tampa Bay became home to its very own reggae festival, Reggae Rise Up (RRU), whose first lineup was headlined by Rebelution and roots legends Steel Pulse. In 2016, the single-day festival made a move from Raymond James Stadium’s parking lot in Tampa to the picturesque Vinoy Park in St. Pete. New school acts Dirty Heads, Tribal Seeds and Stick Figure headlined that year’s festivities, and in 2017 RRU made a big leap by making the festival a two-day affair where past acts (Dirty Heads, Steel Pulse) were just a slice of a lineup anchored by Slightly Stoopid and Iration. As a testament to its popularity, the event is going even bigger in 2018 with a three-day festival featuring nearly three dozen acts.

Damian Jr. Gong Marley tops the bill this year, along with artists like Nahko & Medicine for the People, Tribal Seeds, Matisyahu, J. Boog and Collie Budz. Rebelution is also returning, and SOJA — a Grammy-nominated Virginia octet — will be here, too.

SOJA is perhaps the most frequent of visitors among this year’s RRU acts. Whether it’s been as openers for big-name touring acts like Slightly Stoopid and 311, co-headlining tours with lineup-mates Rebelution or any of their numerous year-long treks, the Richmond-based outfit has always found time for Tampa Bay (in particular Jannus Live, a de facto home for mid-tier festival acts). Tampa Bay apparently rubbed off on SOJA percussionist, Kenny Brownell (aka Kenny Bongos), whose love of the outdoors, affection for soccer and romantic situation led him to make a home in the area in 2013.

“It was time for me to leave D.C. and start new. I came to Tampa Bay for a soulful and beautiful woman, the sunshine of course, arts, musical vibes and so much more,” he told CL, joking that he likes the income tax situation and Tampa’s airport. “Why else does anyone move here? Gandy bridge traffic?

“Stand-up paddleboarding was one of the first things I acquired when I moved down here,” said Brownell, who regularly launches just off of Gandy Boulevard. “The Getaway on Gandy is most definitely the best spot to drop in and soak up the vibes. Water is life as we all know in this area, and there is no place to better enjoy SUP and friends coming together than that spot.”


Brownell has also gone full ’Burger by adopting a new soccer team and an affinity for the Saturday Morning Market. He lives five minutes from Al Lang and even has a favorite Rowdies player.

“Leo Fernandes is my guy. I wore the same jersey number, 11, growing up, I am 11 years older than him and he’s Brazilian, my favorite place to tour, so all those random connections made me feel like I should particularly follow him,” he said. “I hope he has a breakout year for the team.”

Brownell seems to be behind the idea of making the Bay area his long-term hub as his band continues to experience its own breakout. He loved Jannus Live even before moving to the area, and calls it one of the best open-air venues in the country. There’ll be a big guest list when SOJA plays Reggae Rise Up at Vinoy Park, and he envisions an even bigger future for the the festival.

“Headlining at Reggae Rise Up is particularly exciting for me. I have so much love and respect for the RRU family. We all are truly blessed and I’m proud to say I’m a part of it,” Bongos said, adding that RRU has built something which tells the world that reggae music culture is alive and well in Tampa Bay. People all over the globe, “from Chile to Canada,” have recently talked to him about Reggae Rise Up.

“I’ve even put a young fan on my guest list who has traveled all the way from Patagonia to St. Pete to see us play. That’s how deep RRU is reaching, for real,” said Brownell. “Google ‘Patagonia’ if you don’t know, people. I’m not talking about the outdoor clothing company that makes dope jackets.”

Read our full Q&A, and listen to SOJA's latest album, below.

Reggae Rise Up
Fri.-Sun.March 16-18, $110 & up.
Vinoy Park, 701 Bayshore Dr NE, St Petersburg.


Hey Kenny, Thanks so much for taking time to talk with CL. We’re huge fans here, as is much of the Tampa Bay area, so wanted to ask you about the band and yourself before SOJA headlines Sunday, May 18, 2018

Thanks for reaching out and likewise. I live in St Pete and check out CL’s site often for info on things going on in the area. I’m particularly excited about RRU this year in my hometown.

First off, how have you and the guys been? I know you were touring internationally leading up to the new year. What has SOJA’s 2018 been so far?

Yes. Happy 2018! The band, crew and SOJA family are doing well. Since the new album Poetry In Motion released in late Oct. last year we have toured all over South America and then ended 2017 in SOJA’s hometown at The Anthem, Washington DC’s new venue. It was memorable to say the least and epic way to launch into 2018. Since the new year, we’ve been back down to Brasil and are currently on an east coast tor that will finish up with RRU on the 18th. After RRU we’ve been filling in the year with a lot of festivals and club dates in the US and in Europe with lots more dates to announce soon.

You’re originally from D.C (me too! Go Skins!) but are now a re current Tampa resident. What prompted you to make the move to our neck of the woods?

Yeah, I’m still a big DC sports fan in general. Several of us live in different cities now, but we all still follow DC sports despite the heartburn more the the teams give us each year. Do you know the winningest team in DC history?  DC United. 4 Championship titles. Ole ole! I came  to Tampa Bay for a soulful beautiful woman, the sunshine of course, arts, musical vibes and so much more. It was time for me to leave DC and start new. Why else does anyone move here?..No state income tax? TPA airport efficiency? Gandy bridge traffic?

On your bio on SOJA’s band page, you love soccer and paddle boarding. Do you have a favorite paddle board spot in Tampa Bay?

Absolutely. It was one of the first things I acquired when I moved down here.  Shout out my friends at Urban Kai and The Getaway on Gandy Blvd. Most definitely the best spot to drop in and soak up the vibes. Water is life as we all know in this area and there is no place better in the to enjoy SUP and friends coming together than this spot.

Have you had a chance to check out a Rowdies game?

You know it. I’m 5 mins from the stadium and my favorite Saturday Morning Market. I check out Rowdies games fairly often. Leo Fernandes is my guy. I wore the same jersey number 11 growing up, I am 11 years older then him and he’s Brazilian, my favorite place to tour, so all those random connections made me feel like I should particularly follow him. I hope he has a break out year for the team.

I’ve had the chance to catch SOJA play Jannus Live (St. Pete) several times over the years, a place the band has toured heavily. What’s it like to be headlining a festival in St. Petersburg, being close to home for you and a place you’ve toured heavily.

First off, huge shout out to Jannus Live and everyone there. You know who you are. I love that place. Way before I moved to the area when SOJA had just started playing shows there Jannus Live was on the short list of favorites. Hands down..one of the best open air city venues in in the US. We are lucky to have such a great venue in the 727. I attend other shows there frequently when we’re off tour.

As for Headlining at Reggae Rise Up, it’s particularly exciting for me. It means a big guest list, big celebration with friends, big afterparty, big memories and much more. So much love and respect to the RRU family. What they have built at beautiful Vinoy Park to represent and show the rest of the world that reggae music and culture is alive and well in Tampa Bay is amazing. We all are truly blessed and I’m proud to say I’m a part of it. People all over the world from Chile to Canada have recently mentioned to me big things about Reggae Rise Up. Ive even put a young fan on my guest list who has traveled all the way from Patagonia to St Pete to see us play. That’s how deep RRU is reaching for real. Google Patagonia if you don’t know people. I’m not talking about the outdoor clothing company that makes dope jackets.

This past October SOJA dropped Poetry In Motion, the bands eighth studio album. What has it been like touring with the new material? How do you feel the album has been received?

Touring for Poetry In Motion has been incredible so far. Down right fun stuff and back to our roots style of making and performing real intense message music that connects with fans and has a serious impact on people lives. That’s why we make music to begin with. The human connection and positive upliftment of our souls. Can seem ultra corny as I’m writing it but for real.. whats the only thing more powerful than music...Love of course. Put the two together and boom...magic happens. It’s exciting to see, magical to create, and is happiness to fulfill in our lives.

As someone who has seen the band play 10 times, I am big fan of the group’s drum line portion of each set (where everyone in the bands hops on percussion.) When did the band start this set staple and  can we expect to see it at Reggae Rise Up?

The drum line is a favorite musical part of mine for sure. We started that 5+ years ago in Brazil and throughout South America and then brought it to the US. SOJA saxophone player Hellman Escorcia is the leader and maestro of that samba drum line and it’s definitely something special. TBD if it gets unleashed at RRU. If it doesn’t for RRU, I know that we’ll bring it back at some point again in our careers.  

On behalf of all the SOJA fans, thank you so much for blessing our area with great tunes and vibes over the years. We look forward to seeing you guys close out the biggest edition of Reggae Rise Up to date. Is there anything you’d like the Tampa Bay area to know?

Thank you LJ. Everyone in SOJA is really looking forward to next Sunday. To all my loved ones in Tampa Bay...you know who you are, miss you mucho and keep shining. To everyone on the up and up as our cities grows rapidly, Gulf side and Bay side, remember to support those who are not. The struggle is real and a helping hand counts more than you know. We are all lucky to be here and breathe in the sunshine state.

Thanks CL.

Thanks so much Kenny!!!

About The Author

LJ Hilberath

Franz “LJ” Hilberath is a Clearwater-native who contributes to Creative Loafing's Music section. He previously served as an intern and is now a freelance contributor for all things music.LJ can be found in the field reviewing concerts and music festivals around the country, and also works interviews for both local...
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