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Forward Ever, Backwards Never

music Soja1D.C.-based SOJA lifts roots reggae to new heights

Reggae music has found itself a new beacon of hope, justice, and equal rights in Washington D.C.-based outfit SOJA (Soldiers of Jah Army). The group, whose humble beginnings can be traced back to high school talent shows, now sells out venues with its conscious lyrics and feel-good rhythms.

For lead singer and guitarist Jacob Hemphill, music has always been at the source of his being.

“I’ve been singing songs since I was 5 years old,” he says. “It’s just always been there, since before I could talk even.”

At the age of 6, Hemphill spent a year in Africa while his father was working at the International Monetary Fund. And the lessons he learned during that time have stuck with him.

“As a kid, I couldn’t believe how people had a shirt, a pair of pants, maybe a pair of shoes—and that was it,” he says. “I’m coming from a place where we have an excess of everything, where we throw away and buy again before we fix it. They also weren’t scared of this only white kid for miles around. We’d play all the time.”   

Soon after returning to the U.S., Hemphill met his lifelong friend, Bobby Lee, in the first grade. Lee would eventually become the bassist for SOJA, but it wasn’t until junior high that they were introduced to roots reggae music.

“I was at a family reunion and my cousin had a couple tapes of roots reggae he’d brought,” he remembers. “And something about it just straight connected with me. I had him make a couple mixes for me and I brought them to play for Bobby Lee.”

It wasn’t long before the two were writing lyrics and entering talent shows. In college, they would study for tests right up until the moment they had to go onstage at local shows.

“I was studying to be a journalist,” says Hemphill. “The Washington Post is very big in our family, and it’s always got a place at the kitchen table and in our discussion. It just came to work out that the music kept growing and we’ve been able to write songs for a living … reggae music is news.”

SOJA has gained a worldwide fanbase. Their tours consistently sell out in Latin America, the U.S., and Europe. And they’ve recently completed a live documentary of their experiences touring in Hawaii, including their first serious radio play.

“Our music is very much about the message,” says Hemphill. “We’re not writing tunes about money, and ladies, and such, even though that’s what’s selling. The world is in a lot of trouble these days, and we want to express that. People really seem to connect with it and appreciate it.”

Their latest album, Strength to Survive, places emphasis on lyrics with a simple bedrock reggae groove backing them up. Their songs implore the human race to reconsider the role that politics and corporations play in our lives, and the consequences of blindly accepting what they have to offer. Their message is one of love, tolerance, unity, and hard work.

“Our music is meant to be universal,” says Hemphill. “As artists, we get to tell it like it is. So many artists out there are told what to play and how to play it in their own sector. So, I believe that when a group comes along that tells it like they truly feel it, the people appreciate it. It will always be about that connection to us, and the message will always remain at the forefront of our music.”

SOJA plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 8 at The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20/25. For more information, call 423-1338.

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