Regarded as one of the biggest names and staples within the reggae community, the critically acclaimed & 2x GRAMMY-nominated 8-piece ensemble known as SOJA recently dropped their sixth full-length album, Poetry in Motion, via ATO Records. The Washington D.C. based group is in the midst of celebrating its 20th anniversary while its become clear that SOJA has grown into an international brand, further branding themselves as a driving force to a movement as we say goodbye to the days when they were just considered an artist or band.
SOJA hardly needs an introduction, but for those who are relatively unfamiliar, the band was formed in 1997 as high school friends in DC (right up the street in Arlington, VA to be more geographically specific for us northern VA folk). The band shaped their sound and craft by playing alongside each-other in a basement and were captivated with roots reggae music. Fast-forward 20 years later and the band has accumulated 7 million online followers in addition to over 300 million YouTube views. Most recently, the band wrapped up recording sessions for Poetry in Motion at Dave Matthews Band’s Haunted Hollow Studios near Charlottesville, VA and will close-out 2017 performing at Slightly Stoopid’s Closer to the Sun in Mexico before their album release party December 29 at the brand-new The Anthem in Washington DC with support from Twiddle and Footwerk.
We had the opportunity to connect with lead vocalist and guitarist Jacob Hemphill for an in-depth discussion on the recent release of their new record, The GRAMMY’s, as well as memorable tour runs when reflecting on 20 years as a band.
Interview: Jacob Hemphill of SOJA
The Pier: Congratulations on 20 years! When you started the band back in ’97 did you ever think it would become what its morphed into 20 years later with this movement and brand? What can you tell us about those early years starting the group and what you recall being your aspirations?
Hemphill: Yeah, all we were really doing was playing music for fun. There were really no American reggae bands. It was Jamaican bands that we were watching; we didn’t know anything about Sublime, we didn’t know about anything that was going on in Cali. We just loved going to reggae shows. I mean, we went to them all the time and we decided we wanted to start a band. We had a couple of them and we ended up on SOJA. Over time, reggae became very popular. We don’t play, necessarily, strictly reggae. I’m not really sure how you’d describe our stuff. But as far as the brand goes, we always really, really wanted to do something that couldn’t be so easily defined. That goes back a long ways, that isn’t just a recent thing – we’ve always sort of been like that. So I guess that was achieved and that’s kind of been our deal from the beginning.
Any advice you’d give yourself if you could go back to 1997 as you’re forming the group?
Nah, I mean I think that what we did is kind of follow the stuff that we really like. Any time a young band asks me for advice, I tell them to do what they like and what they believe in, because if you fail at that shit, then it’s a learning process. You’ve failed at something that you believed in, and you learn something. But if you do shit just to be popular and just to follow the current trend and you fail, then you’ve learned nothing. And you’ve got nothing out of it. That’s my advice that I give people is just try to be yourself.
It’s fitting that the GRAMMY nominations just dropped. Have you had a chance to look over the nominees — any predictions on who you think will take home the Grammy?
Damian will win, guaranteed.
Any other albums you feel were equally deserving of a nomination this year?
I don’t really know, by year, what stuff’s going on, but Damian’s record is awesome. J Boog’s record is awesome, Morgan Heritage’s record is awesome. I haven’t heard the other two very much – but any one of these records would be deserving. I mean that’s kind of how it is with the GRAMMY’s, man. Every year, it doesn’t really matter who wins, it matters that these bands are getting recognition and people are telling them that their music is worth something. That’s good, because for years we felt like the reggae nominations were pretty mis-representative of what was actually going on. They’re starting to feel like they’re doing an accurate job of showing the scene a little bit.
What’s interesting is that SOJA was the first group from this unique Reggae-Rock community to get GRAMMY recognition when you guys were nominated in 2015 with Amid The Noise & Haste and since then, more groups from this genre are getting more recognition with nominations to Rebelution & repeatedly to J Boog. What can you tell us about that first GRAMMY experience? Do you remember first receiving the news that SOJA would be 1 of 5 albums nominated – what went through your mind?
The first one was crazy! I was onstage in Rio doing a soundcheck, and I flipped out! The first one was like “oh my god, I want to tell every single person in my family.” That word GRAMMY, that means [a lot]. When you tell people you play reggae and you’re American, they’re sort of like, “Oh that’s cool.” And then you tell them it’s a living, and you make a living, they’re like, “Oh that’s cool.” But if you tell them, “hey we’re on The Tonight Show” or “hey, we’re nominated for a GRAMMY.” They’re like, “Oh shit! You’re an actual musician!” Different titles mean different things for different people. I think the more this genre gets into stuff like that the better it is for everybody – the fans, the artists, the genre and everything.
Let’s talk about Poetry in Motion — Musically it feels warm and soothing at times, but lyrically it also reflects the chaos and craziness going on in the world today, a consistent theme with SOJA being socially and politically conscious. Do you feel an obligation to use your platform to be a voice for social and political injustice and if so, how do you feel Poetry in Motion is representative of that?
I always try to use the microphone like a responsibility. I made a decision a long time ago not to do drug songs, or hookup songs or any of that stuff. I feel like I have a really rare opportunity here. People listen to me – especially kids and teenagers, they listen to the shit that I write. So for me, part of making a record is making a great record and part of it is leaving something here that can be of use. Hopefully it’s helpful to other people who are going through whatever part of life they’re going through. That’s always been important to me.
Absolutely. If you were allowed one song to play to the President, which SOJA song are you performing and why?
I wouldn’t even play something political. I sort of feel bad for him. It’s very easy for everyone on the left to be like, “Fuck the right.” And everyone on the right to be like “Fuck the left.” The truth is, the media has polarized this whole place. Our main problem is that we don’t talk to each other. Your Instagram tells you what you want to hear, and it tells him what he wants to hear. What we have is a serious problem where this country is two pieces. Abe Lincoln said a house divided cannot stand – our forefathers would look at this and say, “This is garbage.” It doesn’t matter who the president is, what matters is can this country come together? I think it’s very easy to say, “Fuck Donald Trump.” I mean the guy is a racist, sexist idiot. Even the people that voted for him, they know he’s a piece of shit. It’s not really that as our problem. I mean we’ve had piece of shit presidents before, we’ve had geniuses like Obama – he was a genius, but he couldn’t get shit done. The problem isn’t the presidency, it’s the people. The president’s just a reflection of us. If we were some awesome society that was just crushing it, we’d have some awesome president who looked just like us. But no, we get this guy. Why? Because he looks just like us. He’s an idiot, and he can’t get shit done – just like us.
Fair enough! Back to music — Amid the Noise and Haste featured a good amount of guest features and collaborations, while this record kept everything in house. I believe you had mentioned that was intentional to take things back to the earlier approach of the likes of Born in Babylon back in ’09 — when did SOJA have that collective mindset going into the creation of Poetry in Motion?
We go through phases. With Amid the Noise and Haste, we were using a bunch of producers, a bunch of different singers and musicians. I was listening to Born in Babylon, and this is still my favorite record we ever did. What was so cool about it was that we wrote it, arranged it, produced it and recorded it in the same room. So that’s what we did with Poetry in Motion. We just tried to do everything together, which we did. It took a while, it took a lot of flights, but we got it all done together and that was kind of the vibe we were on this time. I’ll get back in to working with producers down the road and doing songs with my homies down the road, but for now, this is just kinda the vibe that we’re on.
A couple of the tracks that stood out for us were “Everything to Me” and the relaxing nature of the outro track “I Found You” which has lyrics from other songs with “Open My Eyes,” “I Don’t Wanna Wait” – can you talk about the theme for those tracks and how they came together?
“Everything To Me” is about my dad — he passed away a couple years ago. He was one of my best friends in the world, so it was very hard and I always would try to write these songs about him. If you’re a songwriter and you write, I guess it depends what kind of songwriter you are. But for me, I write as therapy and I just gotta get this shit out. Its bouncing around in my head, in my heart and in my soul and I gotta write this shit, sing it and put it on a record – that’s how I put stuff to bed. I kept trying to do that about losing my dad, but every time it ended up negative and just felt wrong. Like yeah, I’m sad that he’s gone – but he’s not sad, he’s in a way cooler spot and everything is as it should be. It felt weird, like why am I writing this really negative, “lets cry” song? And then I thought about it one day, and this guy was everything to me! So then I just started talking about everything that was amazing that I could think of, and it all sort of came together.
“I Found You” is basically about how sometimes, you get extremely lost in life and you don’t really understand. I can always look at the guys in SOJA when I lose someone, and know that my destiny is sort of playing out as it should. And that’s why at the end I quote “Open My Eyes,” “Rest of My Life,” “True Love,” and “I Don’t Wanna Wait.” Those are some of the songs that have kind of put us all over the world. I owe everything to those songs, and to these people, and to the fans. It was my way of saying thanks to everybody for this beautiful experience. Its been awesome, and its not even over! I’m lucky – that’s kind of what that song is saying. I’m a lucky guy.
SOJA is now without a doubt considered a headlining international act across most festivals and tours. Looking back 20 years, is there a specific run that stands out to you?
One of the best tours we ever did was with Rebelution. I think we got more reaction from the fans, even though it was a small club tour, we got more reaction from the fans than any tour we’ve ever done. Just people saying like “That was the greatest show I’ve ever seen.” One of the good ones that we did was the last festival tour of Europe. It was crazy to see us going on after these people who are on the radio. And then all the South American tours are obviously crazy, the first couple of Hawaii tours when we realized that we were a real band. Same with Puerto Rico, they really showed us that we were a group that people listen to. There have just been a ton of tours that have all been special in one way or another. Some that I’m not listing for personal reasons, some where people I really care about were going through something. And so there’s all these things that go into it, and you sort of remember it all.
The Pier: Peace in a Time of War is one of my favorite albums of all-time and helped shape my love for reggae music. Can you touch briefly on the writing process for that record?
Nice! Peace in a Time of War we were writing pretty much out of high school. Then we did those two songs “True Love” and “Rasta Courage.” Some guy in Brazil made a snippet video with like pictures of him and like beaches that he’s been to, and that video has over 100 million views. And that was kind of where we started to be like: “Wait a minute, people listen to this stuff, like really listen to this stuff. But that was the first record, and we were still ‘Soldiers of Jah Army’ at that point when that came out.
And then the next one was Get Wiser, and that one had “You Don’t Know Me” on it, which kind of everyone sort of flipped out about – me and Bobby Lee on the same song. And then the next album, Born in Babylon, had “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” “You and Me” and “Here I Am.” That’s how we started our whole trajectory was reaching out to people through the lyrics of the song, not just the way it sounds and the music, but like talking to people.
What I love is the cover and color scheme for the record as well, who designed that and how did that come to be the visual representation for the record?
It was our buddy – it was our buddy’s friend who was an artist and we told him that we wanted something that felt like fire and earth-shaking. And he put a bunch of paint on a canvas and it was way too thick. And he just let it all dry, and it cracked all over the place. I think he heated it to make it destroy itself, and that was the art. It’s just a shit-ton of paint that got destroyed.
We saw that it was announced that SOJA will be headlining Reggae Rise Up Florida 2018 in addition to Summerjam in July. It seems just 10 years ago, there weren’t this many festivals housing reggae music, now it seems SOJA is one of the most sought-after headliner. Do you ever just miss playing the small, packed, or even half-empty bars?
Yeah, I mean we still do – that’s still a favorite set up. So we still do, but my favorite thing, people always say: “I love the intimate audience,” and you hear that from every band that has gotten some kind of success. They’ll say: “We love coming back and playing these little shows.” But for me, its not that way — I like energy and when there are 20,000 people throwing energy at you, that’s the best scenario for a show. I like huge audiences, and a shit-ton of lights, and big sound and a long set that we worked really hard preparing for these people. The big show. That’s my show. I think our band is sort of dialed for big stuff, that’s what we thrive on when we go out there. I remember we played a festival in Poland, I think there was 80,000 people there, and they shut down the streets of this town. The whole town was a festival. I remember going out there and thinking: “This is what we were born to do!” Our main thing is to get as many people in the room as possible and throwing the biggest show that we can.
One last question! What do you hope fans and listeners takeaway when they fire up Poetry In MOtion?
Well, that’s kind of up to them, you know? I know what it means to me, but I just hope everybody finds their own place in it. That’s what I did with Poetry in Motion, it really started to speak to me and I would see that there is recurring things that have been in the music for a very long time and on Poetry in Motion they sort of come to a head – maybe not closed, but they sort of start to wrap themselves up as if we might be moving to something different soon. So I know that’s what it is for me, but it is what it is for everybody. That’s the beauty of this stuff, is that its for you. I use it for what I use it for, and it says this inside Poetry in Motion – this is for the fans. We truly are making music that we want the fans to enjoy, and we want them to take it in their own way. If we can do that, then its always mission accomplished.
We cannot thank Jacob Hemphill enough for taking the time! If for some reason you haven’t listened to Poetry in Motion yet, you can stream it on Spotify or own it via iTunes by clicking HERE!
Watch: SOJA – “Fire In The Sky”
ATO Records Website
Interview by: Brian Glaser
Photos by: David Norris
Listen: SOJA – “I Found You”
Listen: SOJA – “Everything To Me”