February 18, 2010
Jamaican reggae music is one of the best-known genres of music around the world, uniting people of all countries, all races, and all religions with a sound that is dedicated to searching for the answers to life, to conflict, to humanity, to the world, to love. There are few artists in this music genre today that are creating the epitome of this artistic insight, professing subjects that are so often glazed over by mainstream music. Hailing from Washington D.C. – reggae band SOJA is on the forefront of this revolution, telling the roots story, but from the other side: America. SOJA embodies musicians unlike any other band in any genre of music, to date. The members: Jacob, Bobby, Ken, Ryan, and Patrick have been a team since childhood with lifelong musical goals, which they are still pursing today.
Lead singers Jacob Hemphill (vocals, guitar) and Bob Jefferson (bass) met in first grade in Virginia, shortly after Jacob had returned from living in Africa with his family. The two instantly became best friends, and in middle school found a common love for hip hop and rock music. Throughout middle and high school, they met Patrick O’Shea (keyboards), Ryan Berty (drums), and Ken Brownell (percussion) – who would later form SOJA. During this period, reggae music was becoming an addiction for the budding musicians. Lead singer Jacob shares, “We loved rock and hip hop, but there was something missing in the message. Even with our favorite artists, you would get one song that hit home and touched you, then three that were about nothing. With our favorite artists in the reggae genre, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, they were singing about something beautiful that truly mattered in every song. We never really got over it.”
SOJA’s first album was recorded independently with renowned sound engineer Jim Fox. Jacob notes, “Jim told us that he would work with us and so we could afford to make our first record, and when we ran out of money he started making up ‘discounts.’ It was awesome. I asked him why a while back, and he said ‘I didn’t want to see a good thing stop.’ What was even crazier was at the time he wasn’t working with bands that were from the US, just Jamaican artists. Big ones like Black Uhuru, Israel Vibration, Culture, Don Carlos, and Inner Circle. Jim worked with us independently and recorded, mixed, and mastered the whole thing. That is how it all started.” SOJA’s first album, “Soldiers of Jah Army EP” was released at the beginning of 2000.
In 2002, SOJA released their first full-length album, “Peace in a Time of War.” Though the band was young, the album had hits. “True Love,” “Rasta Courage,” and “Peace in a Time of War” were the first songs to bring the band strong attention nationally and internationally and cement them in the reggae world. Tours became larger, their fan base expanded rapidly and they grew up smart in the independent music industry. In 2006, the band released “Get Wiser,” their second full-length album. The album was a break through for the band, as they explored the duality in their music, combining beautiful, longing melodies with hard drum and bass, and layered with intricate lyrics. SOJA created their musical style with a new complexity and depth that they would carry with them to their future albums. Jacob shares, “When you listen to an artist you can either have a series of one liners, or you can tell a story with your music. We set out to tell a story, it’s like poetry – dancing around an entire theme, but never putting a period on anything. It is like the two sides of a coin, but you can see them at the same time.” “Get Wiser” debuted in the Top 10 Reggae Albums on iTunes and has remained in the top 100 since its release. Singles off the album including “Open My Eyes, “You Don’t Know Me,” and “Can’t Tell Me” remain in heavy rotation on college radio across the United States, and have also received major radio play internationally in places such as France, Brazil, Argentina, Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, Costa Rica, Mexico, Venezuela, Guam, and Tahiti. The success of “Get Wiser” took the band on three years of intense touring nationally, and internationally. In 2008 SOJA released their EP “Stars and Stripes.” They blended new sounds and new rhythms with their existing reggae sound, growing into what SOJA was becoming. The EP contained three new songs plus remixes and new versions of popular songs. In early 2009 the band released the documentary DVD “SOJA Live in Hawaii: A Marc Carlini Film,” showcasing the power and energy of their 2008 Hawaiian tour which included four islands, five cameras, four shows, and everything in between.
Now, SOJA has unleashed their third full-length album “Born in Babylon” - the culmination of all past efforts on their label DMV Records. Released on August 25, 2009 exclusively on iTunes, “Born in Babylon” debuted at #1 on the iTunes reggae charts and remains in the top 10 today. In addition, the album reached #3 on the Billboard Reggae Charts, #11 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums, and #31 on all of Billboard. “Born in Babylon” focuses on telling the same roots story that reggae artists have been singing about for decades, but their way, from the flip perspective of kids who grew up not in poverty, but in a government saturated community in Arlington, Virginia, across Mason-Dixon Line from the White House. SOJA shares about their new album, “This is the album we’ve been wanting to make for ten years. At first we were hard-core old school, then we got new school and inventive. This is what we’ve learned from all that. ‘Born in Babylon’ is hard roots drum and bass, big wide guitar and vocal melodies, and two and three sided lyrics, with two and three sided messages.”
For the rest of 2009 and moving into 2010 – SOJA plans on touring the United States extensively while promoting “Born in Babylon” with mainstay horn players Hellman Escorcia (saxophone) and Rafael Rodriguez (trumpet). Currently, SOJA averages 150 shows a year and the group has toured every major city in the US and internationally throughout Canada, Puerto Rico (avg 2500), Brazil (avg 4000), Argentina, Uruguay, New Caledonia (16,000 in attendance) Palau, Saipan, Guam (avg 3500), Hawaii (avg 2,000 on each island), Sweden, Switzerland, France, Portugal (avg 2000) and Holland. The band has also shared the stage with notable artists such as Citizen Cope, Matisyahu, Ben Harper, Slightly Stoopid, Damian Marley, Govt Mule, Umphrees McGee, and Steel Pulse to name a few.
In addition to their new music and touring, the band remains committed to creating real music, music that cant be ignored. Jacob pauses, “Bob Marley’s fans all feel like when he is singing a song, it’s to them. You could be from anywhere, any situation, rich, poor – it doesn’t matter; the song is directed at them. He speaks to you, the love songs too. That is what we are after. Not one side of the story, the whole thing, both sides of the coin. Just listen to ‘Born in Babylon.’”