Band SOJA marches on
MOST Jamaican music fans have never heard of American reggae band SOJA. But the nine-member unit are quietly making a name for themselves with their latest album.
SOJA has come full circle with its fourth studio album, Strength to Survive, which has consistently topped the Billboard Reggae Album Chart which it has been on for the last 67 weeks.
Strength to Survive was released on the ATO label (part owned by rock star Dave Matthews). To date, it has sold over 50,000 copies according to sales monitor Nielsen Soundscan.
According to lead singer and guitarist Jacob Hemphill, "We worked very hard on this album and it's our favourite to date. We are very happy to see people digging it. I think relevance is the reason why people like this album so much."
He says the set was inspired by Bob Marley's 1979 album, Survival. "That's the greatest reggae album ever made," Hemphill says. "It has the best bass lines and the best lyrics ever heard on one record."
Born in Arlington, Virginia, Hemphill was in early teens when he first heard Survival. He remembers the songs reviving memories of his childhood in Africa.
"My dad was an IMF (International Monetary Fund) rep in Liberia in the late '80s. I remember when the coup first started, my family had to hide in these iron bathtubs for three days because the military was shooting at everything," he recalls. "I was seven and that was one of my first memories. We made it out on the last flight. So Africa was always a big part of our lives — it defined our family, in a way."
Shortly after returning to the United States from Africa, Hemphill met Bobby Lee (bass) in the first grade at school in Virginia. They became best friends, finding common ground through their love of hip hop, rock and reggae which they performed at school talent shows.
It was during high school that they met Ryan Berty (drums), Kenneth Brownell (percussions) and Patrick O'Shea (keyboards) and formed SOJA.
The other band members are Hellman Escorcia (saxophone), Rafael Rodriguez (trumpet) and Trevor Young (lead guitar).
Veteran Jamaican engineer Cegrica 'Soljie' Hamilton tours with the band, which has sold more than 150,000 albums, headlined a number of festivals and performed in more than 15 countries.
Without the support of a major label, the group has spent the past 18 months playing more than 360 dates. This includes tours of North and South America, as well as sharing the stage with everyone from the Dave Matthews Band to Matisyahu.
Hemphill says South America is a happy hunting ground for SOJA.
"We like to play everywhere, but South America is maybe our biggest market. Those kids are so hungry for change and revolution. The Pacific Islands and the (US) east coast is where we first started playing big shows."
SOJA is among a number of American reggae bands which have sprung up in the last decade. In recent months, these bands have dominated the Billboard Reggae Album Chart.
Commenting on the rise of groups like Rebelution, Grounation and John Brown's Body, Hemphill said:
"Things go in cycles, it's like the dream team. It also has to do with relevance. Bob Marley had this amazing way of relating to everyone all at once. He's the most popular musician in the world, even today. A lot of music these days is hard to relate to. People sing about guns and piles of money and rooms full of women and no one can relate. What I'm saying is simple. The Earth is dying, the human race is killing each other, and that's no way to live on this beautiful Earth."
SOJA is yet to record in Jamaica, something Hemphill hopes will change.
"It's always been a dream of ours. Jamaica is the birthplace of the music we love. We're just waiting for the perfect time. I've been to over 50 countries and I think we're saving Jamaica for the right time."