Reggae band SOJA hopes new album brings stateside renown


SOJA members, from left: Rafael Rodriguez (Trumpet), Patrick Oshea (keyboards), Bobby Lee (Bass), Ken Brownell (percussion), Jacob Hemphill (lead vocals, guitar), Ryan Berty (drums), and Hellman Escorcia (saxophone). (Sam Erickson)

When SOJA’s Jacob Hemphill checks in via Skype from band practice in sun-kissed Costa Rica, you get the sense that he’s made it. The frontman for the local reggae band doesn’t go to rehearsals — he goes to destination rehearsals.

“It’s kind of a trick,” the 31-year-old says of practice in paradise. “It keeps everybody in the mood instead of going into somebody’s basement in D.C., where it’s 30 degrees outside.”

The seven-piece band from Northern Virginia played in the balmy coastal city of Jaco two nights earlier and have since been enjoying a surf competition being held outside their hotel. The plan for the rest of the week? “Wake up and rock out,” Hemphill says.

They’re rehearsing for a New Year’s Eve gig at Baltimore’s SoundStage — along with more than 200 other performances lined up across the planet next year, including a two-night stand at the 9:30 Club on May 18 and 19. With the band’s fourth album, “Strength to Survive,” dropping on Dave Matthews’s ATO Records on Jan. 31, Hemphill hopes that 2012 will be the year SOJA begins to feel the same embrace at home that it has been enjoying overseas for years.

And that embrace has been warm and wide. After a few gigs in Brazil that started in 2005, a SOJA fan there uploaded the breezy ballad “True Love” on YouTube, adding Portuguese subtitles. Today, the clip is approaching 9 million views and SOJA plays for massive audiences across South America, including a crowd of 60,000 at a Sao Paulo music festival headlined by Kanye West last month.

“I still haven’t heard myself on the radio in D.C.,” Hemphill points out. “That’s reggae, though.”

Whether you consider it timeless or irrelevant, traditional reggae hasn’t generated much mainstream heat in America for years. But that hasn’t stopped SOJA from gigging relentlessly throughout the Washington area for more than a decade. They used to go by “Soldiers of Jah Army,” a moniker that was shortened in 2005. In addition to being too wordy, it carried a religious meaning that Hemphill says the band had outgrown.

The band’s core members — Hemphill, bassist Bob Jefferson, drummer Ryan Berty, keyboardist Patrick O’Shea and percussionist Kenneth Brownell — all hail from Northern Virginia and still live there. (Horn players Hellman Escorcia and Rafael Rodriguez joined on after crossing paths with SOJA in Puerto Rico.)

But Hemphill and Jefferson go all the way back to elementary school. By the time they reached Williamsburg Middle School, they were performing Young Black Teenagers and Wu-Tang Clan songs at talent shows. At Arlington’s Yorktown High, they formed a band under the spell of Peter Tosh, Culture, Burning Spear and Bob Marley.

In the late ’90s, they became fixtures on U Street Northwest, where now-shuttered clubs Kaffa House and State of the Union anchored Washington’s relatively robust reggae scene. They also began studying under Ras Mugabe, leader of the Nyahbinghi community, a local order of Rastafarians. Before long, a band of white kids from Northern Virginia were playing to predominantly black crowds on U Street.

“It’s always the other way around,” Hemphill says. “It’s always a room full of white people and the Jamaicans are the ones on stage. So for us, it was kind of surreal. I can’t explain how much confidence that gives you to have all these guys sitting there listening to your music and clapping and telling you to not stop.”

And while Hemphill always felt as if his band had something to prove, he basked in the support. “People always ask me, ‘Is it weird being a white reggae singer?,’ ” he says. “I always tell them that nobody ever made me feel like that.”

SOJA wasn’t the only band of outsiders influenced by Washington’s reggae community in those days. The scene also left its mark on the globally minded exotica of Washington’s Thievery Corporation and the self-described “island vibe roots rock” of Montgomery County natives O.A.R.

Hemphill sounds hungry to eclipse those two local success stories. He says the point of signing with ATO was to “make the music as big as possible,” and he compares the new album’s producer, John Alagia, to Chris Blackwell, the legendary studio honcho who helped launch Bob Marley to ubiquity.

But Hemphill remains painfully earnest about SOJA’s eco-friendly, antiwar, pro-justice worldview — messages in the music that he promises are more than just platitudes.

“It’s preachy when you see a millionaire get out of a Lamborghini and be like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna march on Wall Street,’ ” he says. “But we’re a reggae band. It’s not preachy when I say it. . . . We don’t put periods on anything. Everything is question marks.”

SOJA

Baltimore’s SoundStage, Saturday, Dec. 31.

For information, visit www.baltimoresoundstage.com.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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