In a city rife with corruption, greed, money, and power, there is very little positivity in Washington, DC. This town is ground zero for much of the negativity in the world. This is a modern day Babylon we hear the Rastas chant down. No, it’s not Rome teetering on the edge of it’s downfall, but it’s getting ever close. Politrixters, lawyers, and power brokers abound, selling the people down the road to the highest bidder.
But every once in a while a rose grows from concrete. Certain people take this misery and turn it into great art.
Jah soldiers in the heart of Babylon.
For many years SOJA (Soldiers of Jah Army) tour the D.C. area as just another run-of-the-mill club reggae act playing small clubs in the Virginia-Maryland-DC area. Having met in high school in nearby Arlington, Virginia, they play small clubs and the occasional local festival with other struggling local acts like Baltimore, Maryland’s uber-talented Jah Works. That’s until the late 1990s when they make a decision that will change the course of their career and legitimize them as a serious reggae roots fusion collective.
They decide to record their debut album Soldiers of Jah Army independently with DC-area sound engineer Jim Fox of Lion and Fox Recording Studios in 2000. This is not just any Jim Fox, but THE Jim Fox who, along with producer Doctor Dread, is responsible for the sound of so many solid roots albums by Israel Vibration and works from Don Carlos, Black Uhuru, Brigadier Jerry, Culture, and Peter Broggs – just to name a few. Jim Fox also works with SOJA, Groundation, and Rebelution-the ‘mighty three’ of North American roots reggae. This relationship between SOJA and Lion and Fox has served the band well in the years since.
It is around 2005 that SOJA makes the transition from local faves to global roots fusion warriors. Fast forward to today. SOJA is co-headlining a tour with British reggae legends Steel Pulse, who got their start opening for Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1977.
This fact is not lost on lead singer Jacob Hemphill, who credits the undisputed King of Reggae with being his primary influence. SOJA’s most recent album Strength To Survive was recently released to rave reviews, allowing the crew to continue building on their international dominance as North America’s premier roots reggae collective.
It wasn’t so long ago that Hemphill met bass player Bob Jefferson at an Arlington, Virginia high school. Hemphill and Jefferson form SOJA after enlisting schoolmates Eric Rogers (keyboards, harmony vocals, later replaced by Patrick O’Shea in 2003), Ryan Berty (drums), and Ken Brownell (percussion). The release of Soldiers of Jah Army in 2000 is a hit on the Atlantic coastal scene, especially in Washington, DC where there is a rather sizable Rasta population. They follow with Peace In A Time Of War in 2002, a more mature album with overt political themes.
In 2006, the band releases Get Wiser, their second full-length album. It debuts in the Top 10 Reggae Albums on iTunes and has remained in the top 100 since its release. The album release party was held on January 6, 2006 at The State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia, where the band is introduced by legendary Jamaican broadcaster and Bob Marley biographer Dermot Hussey. The show consists of two separate sets, with the opening set being older songs, and the second set being Get Wiser in its entirety. The show is recorded and released as a DVD, known as the Get Wiser Live DVD, on November 21, 2007. Strength To Survive is released on January 31, 2012.
While SOJA have always been a favorite among D.C.’s thriving reggae music scene, it is their association with Lion and Fox, steady radio play on Sirius/XM’s The Joint, and a grassroots campaign through the use of the world wide web that propel the collective to international notoriety. This transformation from local act to global force happens almost overnight as they ride the wave of a new, emerging interest in modern roots reggae sparked by the critical and commercial success of artists like Damian and Stephen Marley, Midnite, and Matisyahu, and collectives like Groundation and Rebelution.
Charismatic lead singer Hemphill, who spent his formative years growing up in the African countries of Nairobi and Nigeria, credits SOJA’s seemingly meteoric rise to the internet.
“Without the internet, we wouldn’t be anywhere,” says Hemphill.
The band is always working on new material when not on tour, which isn’t very often. “When you’re home, you have to focus on music,” he said.
Their North American tour in support of Strength To Survive, which began earlier this year, concludes September 4, 2012 at the Sleep Country Amphitheater in Ridgefield, Washington. In the meantime, they are traveling back home to play two sold out shows at the legendary 930 Club in Washington, DC on May 18th and 19th 2012.
Soldiers of Jah Army back home in Babylon once again.