Reggae’s unlikeliest continue to find worldwide popularity with new album

Words by Saxon Baird

SOJA is not your typical reggae band. They don’t hail from Kingston, London or even California and there isn’t a single Jamaican among them. Instead, the founding members — two white, dreadlocked best friends — hail from just outside Washington D.C. and grew up on a steady diet of Bob Marley and Rage Against the Machine.

Don’t let the peculiar details of the group deceive you, though: SOJA is the real deal.

With six albums under their belt and a label home with the Dave Matthews-owned ATO Records, SOJA has cultivated a dedicated global fanbase with their socially conscious lyrics, catchy sound and a ceaseless touring schedule. This has helped the band find undeniable success despite their unusual make-up. Their 2012 album Strength to Survive topped Billboard’s reggae chart in for almost two years straight. While their most recent album, Amid the Noise and Haste is threatening to do the same, topping the chart in its first week of release.

These well-earned achievements tend to preemptively strike down any skepticism that would come to a band made up of white guys with dreadlocks from the mid-Atlantic. And five minutes into conversing with frontman Jacob Hemphill it also becomes clear that his knowledge of reggae and its history is considerable — a key component on the proverbial checklist that many in reggae circles require before even granting their attention.

It’s also obvious that his music and the band’s message comes from a very genuine place: “We really try and be this microphone for people who don’t have one. From there, we just kind of move down the list of things that we think that are important to share and important to talk about and sing about.”

And that message is a very important part of the band’s mission as Hemphill explains: “For Bob Marley, the words were the most important part. The song was great but the lyrics and what he pulled out of people was his main concern. And I’ve always understood that I’ve always felt the same way.”

That message (one love, green-friendly, anti-war) coupled with Hemphill’s earnest sincerity translates to an easily acceptable message that fits perfectly with the band’s knack for blending their reggae foundations with elements of rock, folk and even hip-hop. The combination has won them worldwide popularity. With their new album Amid the Haste and Noise that success has continued and some of reggae’s elite have begun to take notice.

The lead single “Your Song” is an upbeat offering featuring Damien Marley and energetically blends SOJA’s pop-heavy, reggae with the Jamaican dancehall star’s fiery flow. The album was also produced at Inner Circle Studios by Supa Dups – a Jamaican-born production, Grammy-winning mastermind who has found a niche for producing crossover pop hits with a distinct reggae flavor from the likes of Rihanna to Bruno Mars.

According to Hemphill, the band immediately had Supa Dups in mind before entering the studio, once again citing Bob Marley has an influence. “You know the reason why a lot of people heard Bob Marley was because he teamed up with Chris Blackwell. And the goal was to take this life-changing, rebel music that was all about one love and mankind and bring it to the world. And to do that, you gotta tweak some stuff. So that’s where Supa Dups came in for us,” Hemphill explains.

How the band got to this point is a long and strange story. Founding members Hemphill and his best friend Robert “Bobby Lee” Jefferson originally met in first grade after Hemphill’s family relocated back to the States after working in Africa. As teens the two discovered reggae and used to ride mopeds to a local Rastafarian house in Washington D.C. where they would philosophize late into the night with local ex-pat Jamaicans and participate in a form of ceremonial Rasta drumming called nyabinghi. Soon after, the band was formed under the name Soldiers of Jah Army (taken from a Peter Tosh song) which they later shortened to SOJA.

Fast forward ten years later and the band has a worldwide following that includes 3.5 million Facebook likes, 200 million views on YouTube and regular sold out shows from South America to Southern California.

Bands like SOJA are starting to become more common in reggae. As an international music that continues to find traction in the most unlikely of places, from Polish sound system parties in Warsaw to Canadian reggae fusion band Magic! and their smash summer hit “Rude” — reggae continues to be a music that is not strictly confined to the island of Jamaica.

In the United States, this is has also been the case. While American reggae bands might not be scoring radio hits or topping best albums lists in Rolling Stone or on Pitchfork, its popularity is real and has resulted in many of the bands collaborating with Jamaican artists and co-headlining massive festivals like Reggae on the River and Rototom Sunsplash.

Where exactly SOJA fits into this scene, though, isn’t clear. The band formed far from the “California roots” movement and Hemphill often cites artists like Paul Simon and Sade as bigger influences than bands like Sublime or Slightly Stoopid. This often even leaves lead singer Jacob Hemphill unsure of where exactly they fit, but he has an idea.

“Things go in cycles, roots-reggae bands were big in the ’70s but then BET comes out and goes worldwide and then all of a sudden everyone wants to be a singer,” explains Hemphill, referring to the wane of reggae bands in Jamaica during the late ’70s and ’80s.

“But at the same time, many parents in United States are raising their kids on Bob Marley and the Wailers. So when they grow up, they want to start reggae bands. And they want to have nine people on stage and they want a three-piece horn section and three back up vocalists and jump around and go crazy with dreadlocks while singing about freedom and love and what the future can hold,” he theorizes.

Regardless of where SOJA fit in the global reggae scene, the band is just fine doing things their way. In fact, as Hemphill explains, they are achieving exactly what he set out to do with the band. “I’ve always wanted to bring positive and conscious music to a very wide audience. I never wanted it to be just a small thing,” reflects Hemphill.

Despite the band’s accomplishments, Hemphill still maintains lofty goals when looking toward the future: “It would be nice if this good music, this folk music, people singing about what the human spirit needs to hear, became as popular as other mainstream pop music. Instead of destructive, materialistic, tear-other-people-down type of songs I want to make music that did some good for the world. That is my ultimate goal before I am gone.”


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