According to SOJA’s Facebook page, ?uestlove has canceled his performance this Saturday at 9:30 Club due to a last-minute booking on Saturday Night Live. He’ll be missed. Biz Markie will perform instead, opening for the reggae band. Still, there will be two sold-out shows, this Friday and Saturday. Rootz Underground opens SOJA’s show on Friday (5/18), and Markie sets up shop for them on Saturday (5/19).—Ed.
Jacob Hemphill is a young man with deep, worldly wisdom. He is the lead of Arlington-based reggae band SOJA. Mr. Hemphill took a moment out of his Saturday afternoon to chat with us to talk work, his influences, living in Africa, and Bob Marley.
This year is a big one for the group. They’re in the midst of touring the continental United States, Canada, and Europe, throughout the spring and summer. Also, SOJA’s new album Strength to Survive is receiving rave critic and consumer reviews. Drawing inspiration from Bob Marley’s Survival, Strength is one of their most personal albums.
Tell me how SOJA came to be?
We started playing reggae in middle school and high school, me and Bobby Lee. We did talent shows while growing up. We stuck together. People thought we were good, and here we are!
How did reggae become your music of choice?
We were always into counterculture music. But reggae was the one the spoke for the little guy. I don’t know… it’s attractive. You got all your [other genres] here, and then you have reggae, which talks about people starving, people in the dark. This guy, Bob Marley, was not just talking about what goes on in his neighborhood, but he was talking about what’s going on in the world. We love that.
Who are some musical influences that helped shape your sound?
Most of the musicians I listen to are the storyteller, singer-songwriter type. I guess, Paul Simon and Bob Marley, of course. I like [artists] that take a piece of history and put it in a song. I tend to gravitate toward that.
How about it when you lived in Africa [Monrovia, Liberia]? Any music influences from that experience?
Yeah, my dad thinks it did [influence me]. When I started listening to reggae, he felt like, “Uh huh, Africa, that’ll do it.” Not unlike Africa, I’ve lived in different kinds of neighborhoods my whole life, different colored neighborhoods. I think reggae conveys that. Roots artists always say we’re all the same person. And if we all get over our differences, individually and as separate countries, we’ll end up in different places. If we find a way to do it together with a more global vision, we will end up with a higher result. Those messages are attractive to me [and the band]. The music has a unique way of speaking to everyone.
Within your music collection, do you have any vinyl records?
I collect old reggae records and put them all over my house. I’ve got Peter Tosh’s Mystic Man, Bush Doctor, and some of his stuff after Bob Marley died. I also have Columbia Records [age] Peter Tosh. I have an old 45 of Marley’s “Ambush in the Night.” I own a few.
Tell me about the musical parallels between Marley’s Survival and SOJA’s Strength to Survive album.
When we wrote Strength to Survive, we realized that all the reggae bands that are popular right now [American reggae], they are all experimenting this way or another. We felt if we did a Roots reggae album, [we could experiment, too]. No one’s doing Roots, even though it’s traditional. We looked at the reggae albums we loved. Classic stuff. Survival has always been one of my favorites. It’s the one he wrote about Africa. He wrote it late in life, which for him was 34.
So, once again, he had the chance to be rootsy. Every Marley song has two versions: the version we’ve all heard and the Jamaican version. The Jamaican version is what the Wailers came up with by themselves. It was before the production was involved, before the guitarist. It was when they had horns, they had organs, they had male backup singers, all these very Jamaican things, and you can hear it all on the [Survival record]. So we wanted to go back to the roots, too. That’s the connection there.
Do you think accessibility to make music with internet tools makes it easier for artists to make it?
To me, I see it as there is not a major label in the world that would’ve picked up a white reggae band from Arlington, Virginia. The internet and its accessibility gave us a shot to do our thing. I love that [media] has become [easy to access]. It’s created who we are, and it lets the people speak for themselves. With camera phones and [social media] everybody is a reviewer. It’s open like that.
There were many artists out there you might not have heard of if it weren’t for YouTube. Now, you can; I like it a lot.
We’re giving away a very special edition of SOJA’s Strength to Survive album. The 12” vinyl album includes liner notes and all songs in two other formats, including a downloadable version. Mr. Hemphill talks about the universal appreciation for Bob Marley and the various versions of his songs.
You have a chance to win this exclusive set if you can identify in a line or two your favorite reggae lyric that touts standing up for your rights! Bob Marley says “But you can’t fool all the people all the time/ So now we see the light/ We gonna stand up for our right!” A winner with a North American mailing address will be selected one week from today, on Thursday, May 24th.