Interview: SOJA brings a distinctly American voice to reggae tradition

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SOJA, led by Jacob Hemphill (center), closes out the Pavilion’s concert season with its jam-heavy reggae truth. SOJA, led by Jacob Hemphill (center), closes out the Pavilion’s concert season with its jam-heavy reggae truth.

The success story of SOJA sounds improbable: An all-white reggae band from the Washington, D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia gains global acclaim. But after more than a decade of hard touring and developing a catalog of roots reggae tunes, the band (formerly known as Soldiers of Jah Army) has headlined shows in 20 different countries and shared stages with the likes of Dave Matthews Band and O.A.R.

Front man and main songwriter Jacob Hemphill grew up in a world-wise home with a father who worked for the International Monetary Fund and once moved his family to Liberia during a time of unrest. It’s an early formative memory for Hemphill, who delivers clear-eyed opinions on social justice with unifying themes in front of his band’s infectious melodies and hard-driving bass lines. The band’s latest album, Strength to Survive, came out last year on ATO Records, and it carries the torch of genre predecessors in dance-friendly, hope-filled anthems like “Everything Changes.”

Ahead of its October 19 show at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion, Hemphill took questions from C-VILLE Weekly via phone.

C-VILLE Weekly: You met SOJA bassist Bobby Lee in first grade and the other core members in middle school. How did you grow a reggae band in the D.C. suburbs? 

Jacob Hemphill: When I was growing up, we had multiple D.C.-based reggae bands —groups like Third Eye. Most people think of Bad Brains and the more hardcore stuff. Bobby Lee and I were always going to shows, and reggae was the thing we fell in love with.

Our first gigs were in the U Street Area. We would play all the Ethiopian and Jamaican bars. We also played at Rastafarian church functions. I think they all got a kick out of us and came to respect us as a good band.

As a musician who carries the torch of roots reggae, what were some of your formative influences in the genre? 

A lot of the bands that play American reggae grew up on the Sublime side of things, but when we started we really had no idea who they were. We knew Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Steel Pulse, and Culture. We were into the Jamaican bands.

We wanted to play this music because of the idea that it was bigger than music. I hear conviction when Bob Marley sings. His music is an international symbol of freedom, and you can hear it in his voice that it was always his intention to change the world.

How did politics become part of your voice as a songwriter? 

I think my songwriting comes from a mix of influences—Bob Marley as my personal choice and Paul Simon, who is my dad’s favorite. Both Bob and Paul had a way of telling a story and making everybody feel like they were a part of it.

My dad is the one, though, who taught me how to play guitar and sing. He worked for the IMF and traveled the world, so he knew a lot about everything. We would talk about issues and I would figure out where I stood and come up with lyrics.

By carrying on the tradition of roots reggae do you feel an obligation to deliver a certain message?

No, the message is just what I feel personally, but I feel an obligation to deliver a certain kind of music. We don’t want to get too far outside of the reggae thing. I’ve seen many reggae bands try to move into the pop world and it doesn’t work. I think the key to any kind of music is to realize you can evolve but you shouldn’t leave what made you fall in love with it. We’ve experimented on new songs, but we’ve realized we really are a roots reggae band. Maybe one day we’ll do other projects, but we’ll call them something different. If you buy a SOJA record, it’s going to be a reggae record.

Has your sound grown or changed as the stages have gotten bigger? 

We’ve added a lot of members over the years. A lot of bands keep the core guys together and then hire side players to fill out the sound. But we wait until we really like certain musicians and then bring them into the band. We’re up to eight members now, and I think there will eventually be 12 of us on stage when we finish growing. We love the idea of a wall of sound, but we all take turns and act as if we’re one person writing a song.

What’s the status of a follow up to Strength to Survive

I’m actually in the studio right now, and we’re almost done with the next record. We’ve been working on it every day—when we’re not on the road—for almost two years, and it’s up to 17 songs. We’re at the point now where we’re stepping back and cleaning everything up. We made it at Lion and Fox Recording Studios—the main reggae studio in D.C.—and Inner Circle’s Circle House Studios in Miami. On this upcoming record we got our first chance to work with Jamaican artists, and it’s added a new dimension that we’ve always wanted. It’s a happy time for all of us, and we’re pumped.

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