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SOJA's Righteous Noise

Published in Relix Magazine November 12, 2014

The rush of noise swirling around the eight members of SOJA has never been louder. After more than a decade of steady climbing, the Virginia reggae crew released their guest-packed fifth album in August, then immediately flew off for a Hawaiian took a moment to catch their breath and launched a month-long tear through Europe. They’re in the middle of another year logging hundreds of shows and playing increasingly bigger venues to increasingly wider audiences. Their Facebook page has more than 3.5 million likes; they’ve sold 300,000 records. By any measure, SOJA is one of the biggest reggae groups in the world.

The band’s dreadlocked American Rasta leader, Jacob Hemphill, sits in the eye of the storm, as calm and cool as ever. And he has a long-gone, German-American poet to thank.

Perched in his Virginia home, he begins to recite from memory: “‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on tour, good terms with all persons…’” he trails off. “That’s my favorite poem ever. It makes sense to me.”

The quote opens “Desiderata,” the 1927 prose poem by Indiana lawyer-turned-writer Max Ehrmann. Though Ehrmann died in 1945 before his work largely caught the public’s ear, his open-eyed, secular. Philosophy has long crept into inspirational cards, posters and speeches. And now, with SOJA’s latest, Amid the Noise and Haste, Max Ehrmann has finally made it to reggae. (This is a guy who once said, “…I contracted a disease which I have never shaken off. The disease was idealism.”)

The story of how a gang of East Coast suburban teens began speaking their own reggae language of peace and love begins, oddly enough, with violence and rebellion. In 1989, when Hemphill was a kid living in Monrovia, Liberia, his family’s home was wedged between the presidential mansion and the beach. His father worked for the International Monetary Fund, leaving Hemphill to play with the local kids. “I remember thinking that it was weird to me that all those kids were so happy,” he says incredulously. “They had shoes, a shirt and shorts, and that was it. But they were smiling, jumping in the water. It was one of those observations you make as a kid: They didn’t have stuff, and didn’t need it to be happy.” That childhood view was simplistic, but it placed Hemphill on a lifelong path to embrace an anti-materialist lifestyle.

The supposed calm by the sea didn’t last. By December of that year, rebels under the command of a former ally attacked the U.S.- supported president Samuel Doe. The conflict brutally spun into a civil war—Doe’s torture and murder was infamously videotaped and internationally broadcast in 1990—signaling that it wastime for the seven year old to say goodbye to the African coast.

“We hid in the bathroom, where we had iron bathtubs. The bullets couldn’t go through them. We stayed in those bathtubs for like two days,” he says. “There was one flight out of the country, and we were on it.”

The sudden move wasn’t easy. “Anytime I hear waves, I still think of Africa,” he reminisces more than 20 years later. Hemphill, who was in first grade at the time, was enrolled in a D.C.-area elementary school and became fast friends with future SOJA bassist Bob “Bobby Lee” Jefferson.

The duo’s musical love affair started young, but they weren’t quite pre-teen Rastas. By middle school, they were memorizing rhymes from Wu-Tang Clan, Cypress Hill and A Tribe Called Quest. For their eighth grade talent show, they rapped along with Wu-Tang’s classic “Da Mystery of Chessboxin.’”

“We came out in all black: black jeans, black hoodies, black Timberlands and ski masks,” says Jefferson. “We thought we were hard as shit.”

But everything changed after an older cousin introduced Jefferson to Bob Marley. “After I got Legend, that was it. Fuck hip-hop after Legend,” he says.

“Reggae seemed bigger than me. Marley was the first time that music struck me as having a purpose,” says Hemphill. “So we started chronologically with Catch A Fire, then Burnin’, then Natty Dread, Live! and Kaya. Soon after, we were buying every record we could get our hands on. I had 600 reggae CDs. Bobby had about the same. We’d trade them around. Then, we learned about African reggae, then Latin reggae, then American reggae.”

The fixation soon bled from listening to playing and growing. “We would get high and make video recordings of ourselves with guitars and bongos, doing ‘Redemption Song,’” says Jefferson. “As far as the white kids, we were the only ones doing it,” he laughs of the dreadlocks that he’s worn since high school.

Meanwhile, they gobbled up as much live music as they could. (Hemphill boasts, “Ask [All Good Festival founder] Tim Walther about sneaking me into the Furthur Festival in the trunk of a Ford Festiva when I was 14 years old.”) While Jefferson, Hemphill and their growing squad of soon-to-be SOJA members—Ryan Berty, Patrick O’Shea and Ken Brownell—dug through reggae acts like Culture, Burning Spear and Israel Vibration, Marley was always the anchor of their obsession. “Marley has connected more people through music than anyone in the history of the earth,” says Hemphill. “You know what he’s talking about, and so does the dude standing next to you. And the dude on the other side of that wall—he thinks Bob Marley is talking to him, too. He is why the message is so important in the music I write. I’m trying to have the kind of effect on the world that he did.”

Those who showed up early to a date on this year’s Soulshine Tour with SOJA and Michael Franti & Spearhead caught more than an evening of music. Each show on the 30-city tour kicked off with a mass yoga practice, centering and balancing fans while, of course, preparing them for their loosest reggae dancing. Both Hemphill and Franti are avid yogis: If you check out their video for SOJA’s Amid The Noise single “I Believe,” then you’ll see them striking Virabhadrasana (Warrior II) poses on the beach.

“On tour, our teacher would say, ‘If you can make your main focus your breathing, the rest of this stuff will come easy. Just focus on your breath. Do some moves; focus on your breath. Do some more moves; remember to breathe,’” he says. “If you don’t breathe right, you fuck it all up.”

Hemphill’s attitude toward global change follows the same logic: Reshape your focus, and the to-do list of bettering the world doesn’t seem so foreboding. “You look at a lot of problems in the world and say, ‘Damn, I want to fix that.’ My country is run like a corporation; everyone just wants to make money. How can I save the environ- ment, educate uneducated people, pay nurses and teachers and police what they deserve, and keep kids from fighting in foreign wars? The list is so long you get overwhelmed and you quit,” he says. “But if you try your hardest to let love be the deciding factor in all your decisions, it starts to seem possible.”

The singer pauses. He’s preached the gospel of love before to far less agreeable audiences. “I know it sounds childish, and kinda gimmicky. It’s been said a million times,” he says. “But if love and compassion and respect were the main things we valued in life, all those problems could become much less of a fight.”

From Marley’s many paeans of peace and harmony, reggae has long been a pathway for musical positivity and change. For Hemphill, the sweet spot is blending lyrics about the general (love, unity, the quest for happiness) with the specific. On Amid The Noise, he tackles both with equal vigor.

On “Your Song,” SOJA’s collaboration with Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, Hemphill sings easily and humbly, “What a big world and I’m glad to be in it. I’ve got a purpose and I’m starting to get it….I will stand in the sunshine because I know the sun is not mine.” But on the slow, heavy-grooving “Promises And Pills,” he rallies against the soaring suicide rate in the U.S. military, which blew past the number of war casualties in 2012: “Reintegrate me; you made me a killer.”

Each of the record’s tracks is a call for the betterment of ourselves, our neighbors and our world by setting our focus on love. “It’s all we care about,” Hemphill says. “We just don’t know it.” SOJA, then, is Hemphill’s vehicle to follow Ehrmann’s guide: “Speak your truth quietly and clearly.”

In the late 90s, out of high school and hungry for a break, SOJA played to anyone who would listen. Working as a delivery boy in 2000, drummer Ryan Berty knocked on the door that would change SOJA’s future. The package was for Jim Fox, sound engineer at Lion & Fox Recording Studios and RAS Records, the label that broke Black Uhuru, Inner Circle and Junior Reid. Fox agreed to record what would be SOJA’s debut, self-titled EP, a quick, 8-track release with four songs and their matching dub versions. But more importantly, Fox introduced the young band to the entire Inner Circle universe, a network of reggae heavyweights centered around the band’s Circle House Studios.

“We just started hustling,” says Hemphill. “We were the opposite of the traditional reggae group, which is a few black guys playing for a crowd of white people. We were the white dudes playing for all these Jamaicans and Ethiopians and African-Americans.”

Peace in a Time of War, Get Wiser and Born In Babylon followed, each shaving a bit off SOJA’s rough edges in favor of a smoother, grooving sound. In 2011, former guitar tech and stage manager Trevor Young was bumped up to lead guitarist, and the band’s present line- up was solidified: Hemphill, Jefferson, Berty, Brownell, O’Shea, Hellman Escorcia and Rafael Rodriguez. SOJA released 2012’s Strength To Survive on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, and the band was primed to ascend to the reggae throne. The album hit No. 36 on the Billboard 200 and topped the Billboard Reggae Album Chart, selling over 50,000 copies. Beginning with Survive, and then with Amid The Noise, SOJA adopted the tradition of converging on a tropical paradise to get their new songs in working order before recording: first Puerto Rico, and then Costa Rica. “We’ll go somewhere on the beach. We’re brainwashing ourselves into practicing,” says Hemphill. “You look outside and the place is gorgeous, the food is awesome, I’ve got a bed right over there, so let’s rock out. We’ll stay for a week or two, come home and hit the studio.” SOJA has yet to touch ground in Jamaica. “We’re waiting for the right time,” says Jefferson. “We have this grandiose idea of what it’ll be; we don’t want to ruin it.” The trips, as well as so many international tours, are also welcome reminders for the SOJA men about the world outside their doors and serve as breaks from the insular capitalist overload of America. “America has this thing going on. Rock-and-roll music: That’s us. Hip-hop: That’s us. Hollywood: That’s us. New York City. Coca Cola. McDonald’s. Nike. That shit is us. The fucking light bulb—you guessed it—that’s us,” says Hemphill. “I’m proud of where I’m from, but when you come from North America, you can say, ‘All we need is us.’ Life just doesn’t work that way.”

Fresh from Costa Rica, SOJA laid down well over a dozen tracks at Lion & Fox Studios and Circle House Studios. A longtime Inner Circle friend, Dwayne “Supa Dups” Chin-Quee, liked what he heard—and the man has a tendency to turn what he likes into gold. Indeed, the Jamaican-born, Miami-raised Supa Dups made his name with the Black Chiney sound system in Kingston, and by 2012, had produced tracks for Christina Aguilera, Bruno Mars, Eminem and Mary J. Blige. “I feel like Uncle Roger (Lewis, of Inner Circle) had this pre- meditated; he wanted us to come and link up with Dups,” says Jefferson.

“We’d see him making coffee in the office and we’d bullshit about music. He’d ask to hear a track or two. I think it was a year-and-a- half-long conversation about reggae that led to this record,” says Hemphill. “I was always bugging him with questions at 3 a.m. I think I was the most frustrating dude he ever worked with in his life, and I take pride in that.” Those initial conversations led Supa Dups to remix the breezy “She Still Loves Me.” But with a little pushing, Dups soon signed on to produce and tweak the entirety of Amid The Noise. Dups took the raw recordings, and he says, “brought the sonics to the table.” “I made the songs knock a lot more. The drums hit harder now; the sounds are meatier. We did overdubs, added drum tracks. Whatever it took to get that knock.” The process was slow, as Dups and SOJA sent tracks back and forth between D.C. and Miami, but each song began to shine brighter. “At first, he’d hear the song and bob his head to it,” says Hemphill. “Then he’d produce it, do his thing, and he’d be smashing his head up and down. As soon as he got to the smashing part, he’d send it back to us.” The producer had never helmed a full-length album before Amid The Noise, and the two parties took their time working through the kinks. “In the final months, I think I spoke to Jacob no less than five times a day,” says Dups with a hearty laugh. “But they’re the Soldiers of Jah Army, so they are very humble and cool. That’s why I took on this job.”

Amid The Noise is simultaneously SOJA’s slickest album and their best collection of songs. The guitars are crisp and shimmering while the basslines roll and bounce. And the drums, of course, provide a heavy knock. Tracks like “Better,” “Wait” and “Signature” are pure summertime bliss, all sunshine grooves, peaceful vibes and brimming with—what else—love.

Since reggae became a global musical force in the early 1970s, its sound has felt intrinsically linked to the reggae message: You can save the world. You can rise above. You can inspire with love. But those perfect moments when the whole world seems to listen to the message are rare. There may never be another Bob Marley.

That’s a notion that SOJA accepts. Each of the genre’s disciples, as Ehrmann wrote, is “a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

The ideas that Hemphill and his band release into this noisy world may not stop wars, or save the environment. Not yet, at least. “I don’t care how small it starts,” says Hemphill. “Fifty turns into 100. You can say it’s a small idea, or maybe it’s growing. It doesn’t have to happen today. All it has to do is grow.”

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