Although the Grammy-nominated band SOJA specializes in reggae, a sound born in the Caribbean, the only island its members grew up anywhere near was the District of Columbia’s Roosevelt Island.
Hailing from Arlington, Va., the band began in high school as Soldiers of Jah Army with lead singer Jacob Hemphill, bassist Bob Jefferson (who goes by Bobby Lee) and drummer Ryan Berty, who are now mainstays on the international reggae and jam-band circuit. The friends still live in Northern Virginia.
SOJA has sold more than 200,000 albums, played "The Tonight Show" and has YouTube music videos with more than 68 million views, but the eight-piece band is perhaps better known abroad, where it has headlined in 30 countries. (The band also includes percussionist Ken Brownell, guitarist Trevor Young, keyboardist Patrick O’Shea, Hellman Escorcia on sax and Rafael Rodriguez on trumpet.)
We spoke recently with Hemphill, 36, who had been back in Arlington for seven hours after a tour in Brazil.
Do you still have a bigger following abroad than you do at home? Yeah, it’s interesting. Because reggae in other countries is a real genre. Reggae in the United States is sort of like vacation music or kids’ music or like a gimmick, sort of. But in other countries, that stuff gets played on the radio, it’s on TV, it’s a real thing.
Do you think that will ever change in the United States? I don’t know. I’ve read a lot of books on Bob Marley, and something they all say is that he struggled with the U.S. market. Not that he was doing anything wrong.
There are certainly fans here. There’s no lacking in people listening to it. But a lot of music is like that. I remember when hip-hop started and then 15 years later, Jay-Z was up for a Grammy. And he said (if that part of the ceremony) is not televised, that he’s not going. And he didn’t go. And the next year it was televised. Country was like that, folk was like that. I think reggae in the States hasn’t really gotten to that spot yet.
What got you into reggae as a child? Weirdly, for me, it was more Paul Simon than it was Bob Marley. My dad played Paul Simon only. When I was a kid, I lived in Africa with my family, and I remember thinking that "Rhythm of the Saints" and "Graceland" was kind of made for us going to Africa. I have always loved folk music, and reggae is a kind of folk music. And then my cousins at a family reunion played me Bob Marley, UB40, Steel Pulse and Inner Circle. When I heard it, I thought, this is bigger than music. This guy, Bob Marley -- I can tell he believes he’s changing the world with all this stuff that he’s saying. And it was a big deal to me. When I came home, I told my best friend, Bobby Lee, who became the bass player in SOJA, that was it. We were on it. That was just it.
How old were you then? Thirteen. I was taking guitar lessons. And me and Bob were doing talent shows, but we were doing all hip-hop. ... We did "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" one year, and we had fake guns and fake money and masks. That was not popular with the teachers. It did not go over well.
Bobby Lee was willing to try reggae? In the beginning, it was him on bongos and me on guitar and vocals. Then we started a reggae band with people that we knew around high school. And then that band stopped, and me and Bobby and the drummer, Ryan Berty, went and started a new band called Soldiers of Jah Army. I think we were 16 or 17, and that’s still the band that it is 20 years later.
Were other kids at school into it? I remember there was a band at our high school called the Decepticons, and they called it the Fakin’ Jamaicans. Band practice for us was fun. That’s what we did on a Friday night or a Saturday night. That was our thing. We’d go to my dad’s garage or to Ryan Berty’s parents’ basement. ... We called it jam practice.
Were you doing covers or were you writing stuff? I think me and Bob were both writing stuff pretty early, at 16 or 17. We did covers, though. We did Bishop O’Connell (High School)’s SuperDance one year, and we auditioned with what we thought was a Peter Tosh song. But it turns out "Johnny B. Goode" was not written by Peter Tosh. Then I remember I stood onstage and I had a Bible in my hand and I was quoting why this Catholic school was wrong.
How’d that go over? They were not excited. I actually met SOJA’s manager at that show; he was in the audience and he was 16 or 17 at that time and he said, "Hey, I’m having a party at my house, come play." And then the party got busted by the cops, and once again I pulled out a Bible. We played a thing, back when it was illegal, called the 420 Smokeout in D.C. We played it one year, and yet again, I pulled the Bible out. It’s a good tool.
Was it all part of your Rastafarian belief system? Not any more. When we were kids, we were exploring every aspect of this thing we were completely in love with. So we would go to the Nyabinghi Rasta house in D.C. That’s just who we were. Then at some point we decided, look, man, if we were going to force every single person who listens to our music to sign up for some religion, it’s probably an unfair thing to do. At the same time, we were all going off individually on our own and getting older and becoming who actually were. Religion is a cool thing. But I was reading a Buddhist quote that said: When you come up to a river you need a boat that takes you across the river. The smart people leave the boat there for the next guy. And the dummies, they keep dragging their boat around with them. And that’s what religion means to me. It was really cool when I was a kid. But then I got more interested in the questions than this book that had all the answers. I think that’s when we shifted from Soldiers of Jah Army to SOJA.
Were you easily accepted into the reggae community locally? Oh, yeah, we got lucky. We were at a reggae show, I think we were, like, 14 or 15 years old, and at the Nyabinghi house, this guy, Ras Mugabe, came up and said, Come to this thing. It was the real deal, and there (were) famous guys who played on Bob Marley records who just happened to live in D.C. Yeah, that was our whole thing, the whole culture of it. The music, in the beginning for us, was almost secondary.
Were people surprised when you started that you were all white guys? For sure. And when we started, I had a Jamaican accent going. It wasn’t really that we were trying to do that, it’s just that all the music we listened to had a Jamaican accent. That’s how we learned to play music, and how we learned how to sing. I think still even now there’s a lot of people looking at us, and they’re like, "Look at these white guys playing reggae." And I don’t blame them. It is weird.
Speaking of the D.C. hardcore punk scene, you’ve tried to throw that stuff in your sound as well, along with go-go. We’re constantly doing a lot of go-go stuff, we’re doing a lot of distortion stuff. And our drummer, Bert, is a really skilled drummer who does a lot of D.C.-type of stuff. We’re a reggae band that also does some hardcore and some go-go. It’s what you would think a DMV band would be; it’s what I think it would be.
Does it surprise people when you tell people you’re from Arlington? Yeah, we tell people we’re from Virginia, and everybody thinks like: Tennessee. But that’s what we loved to do, get on the Metro, me and Bob and Bert would go to whatever reggae show was happening. When I was a kid, it seemed like this club, and that the luckiest people in the world were part of this club. And now here we are.
How are you marking your 20th anniversary next year? We’re recording a record that sounds like our first record that we really loved, "Born in Babylon." That was the first time SOJA really had this thing going on.
You’re continuing to do socially conscious material? The latest record, "Amid the Noise and Haste," was supposed to be uplifting for sure. And it had a kind of light (feel). We were trying to speak a language that everybody could understand, so we were writing about things that are very universal, but a lot of my stuff is on the cynical -- a "we’re getting scammed"-type of deal.
You must be playing to audiences that have a lot of different political stances. It’s true. That’s something that’s never really bothered me. The thing I thought was great about Bob Marley, more than any other musician, is that everyone who hears him thinks he’s talking to them. It can be like a black guy or white guy, or a man or a women, tall or short or whatever. People who listen to Bob, they think he’s talking to them. I’ve noticed that all of my heroes have had that. Bruce Lee had that, Bob Marley had that. Michael Jordan had that. Bernie Sanders, in my opinion, he has that. And Gandhi has that. And that’s kind of why I love Jesus: A human who can relate to everyone is the best human. Because no matter what opinion you have, we’re all sharing the same human experience, and the same human condition. We’re born, we live, we die, we maybe fall in love, there’s money involved, there’s hopes and dreams and things, for everybody from every political background.