Strength To Survive - Interview with Jacob Hemphill from SOJA

01/30/2012 by Justine Amadori Ketola

Strength To Survive - Interview with Jacob Hemphill from SOJA

Strength To Survive - Interview with Jacob Hemphill from SOJA

SOJA started out in Washington DC as a humble, revelatory, reggae garage band.  Combining their love of music with their curiosity for reggae and rasta culture childhood friends grew into teen-aged white Rastas participating in the local nyabinghi order and community.  Now they are signed to a unique deal with Dave Matthews' new imprint ATO Records which allows them to pursue their creative freedom and continue using their well-forged tools to meet their fans and speak to them loud and clear and in very large numbers from their humble beginnings. 

As they developed their sound, the capital of the United States known as "Chocolate City" was the filter for their brand.  Using this obelisk - the Washington monument as a symbol combined with a drum kit, this logo was a way to identify American and reggae in the same headspace, one that was cool, hip, and as a result,  rapidly became an underground sensation.  The band toured relentlessly, maintaining their bohemian style and stature, with Jacob as the ultimate hippy kid, trodding barefoot in the streets, walking the talk, using the word god with a little "G" and coming of age as the ultimate flower children, troubadours with dreadlocks, militant purists determined to make their mark in reggae. 

In this recent interview with SOJA lead singer and songwriter, Jacob Hemphill to highlight the band's release of Strength to Survive, we meander through the melting pot of the artist's passion and the band's strengths.  We receive his honest opinion of the world around him, some insight into his upbringing in Africa and his development as a songwriter.  At one point he merges a call in to the interview with his mother, Deidre West who aids to complete the picture of this complex character in reggae music.  We go through the various parts of his passion for writing music, the level of focus involved in reaching an estimated 1000 songs (recorded and unrecorded) in his catalog.  We address the significance that saving humanity has in his lyrical mission, and ultimately we go to one of his main mentors and inspiration, a folk musician as Jacob would characterize him, the great Bob Marley. How timely that the band chose to launch this opus the week before the great king Marley's birthday, February 6th.   Our conversation inspires a great discussion involving a sports analogy that  Jacob offers on the resurgence of the bands in Jamaica.  We find out that it is really a small world after all, and that there is plenty of love to go around for the music in all parts of the world!  We complete the journey with his mom still on the call, as she helps to deliver a great history lesson around the origins of the band's name, Soldiers of Jah Army

Justine Ketola: What are you working on right now?
Jacob Hemphill: We are actually rehearsing for the new tour,  We have a new guitarist with us.

Is he an additional guitar player?
He is in addition... John Alagia, Dave Matthews' guy produced the album and added all of these pretty guitars and I couldn't really play them all and sing so he was actually our guitar tech.
He's like a real good buddy of ours and wondered if we would want to play on the stage with us instead of playing with cables and he was pretty excited. 

I have been watching your trajectory and am intrigued by your past and how you grew up living during your time in Africa and the intensity there.  It seems to me that really opened your mind to becoming an artist or becoming a folk singer, a troubadour, kind of telling your story, do you feel like Africa affected you that way?
I think that was probably the first thing - you know what, I have always lived in different colored neighborhoods.  I think there has just been a lot that's affected me over  your the years to kind of look at the world as one people. And you know whether you are living in a white place or a black place or an in between place or whatever it is after a while you start to feel like…. you know the reason  people get racist is because they don't understand other people, the same reason people are afraid of things they don't understand it, once they understand then it is not really scary any more.  But for me there was never really a group that scared me, I was always more scared of humans themselves, I guess I kind of lent itself to who we eventually became.

I have the same background….living in different colored neighborhoods, I like the way you put that.
It's funny because it works for everybody that way, everyone's scared of what they don't know, people are always tell you, 'you're scared of the snake, the snake's scared of you that's how everything works so for me, I was more scared of government, than I was of somebody with a different colored skin.  I was more scared of whoever was scary.

And that you speak truth to that power that they have….The work with the World Food Programme that the band is doing, bbviously you feel a sense of urgency to give back and to help, that's part of your mission.
The last album was kind of warning, it was called Born in Babylon and it was kind of warning, that you know when you are born with one mindset, it can lead the world into kind of a bad place which it obviously has with everything and everyone not being able to afford their houses but they have three LED TV's . I mean we have become what we allowed ourselves to become which is people who think that consumption is the point of life and when people when used to kind of….I think preservation whether it was because they just didn't have enough money or that had to save things.  You used to get married because it was cold outside and you needed to not freeze during the winter, you used to marry the girl in your town, cause there was no internet, there was no telephones. You used to farm food and then eat it….. way we are now is we go to shopping districts and we buy things that are imported to that place. Most of it is stuff we don't need but it is stuff we are trained to want, and that was a lot of what "Born In Babylon" was about. It's when you are born in a place that trains you to become a 24 hour a day consumer that is what is your going to get from it. And the government loves it because it means you are buying all this crap and the economy is getting better and blah blah blah. The new album is the mentality  that we train ourselves to be what we are and the human race is itself fulfilling the prophecy but the new album is focused more on the earth and that as we do what I was talking about in "Born In Babylon" which is consume everything, we end up consuming the earth.  And if we consume the earth which why the album is called "Strength to Survive".  It is a about do we have the strength not to consume this earth.  We turn into the one thing that humans can't cure which is cancer, we figured out every disease so far except for that one.  I think it is because  it reminds us so much of us, that we can't figure out how to stop it.  That's the new album, that we are the cancer and we're consuming not only hamburgers and french fries but the entire earth with it.

You feel then that it is your mission to educate the fans about the state of the world and the message of being one world and one family, what happens during your shows?  You have this like Grateful Dead-type of following, do you make an effort between sets or after shows or at the merch booth to get these issues out in front of the fans, how is the dialog progressing?
We don't really, I am not in the business of telling people who to be. I used to tell people who God was, I told them how to wear their hair, I told them what to eat for dinner what shoes to wear….hold on that's my Mom, she's been calling me all through practice.

No problem, I understand
I am going to conference her in as it is just easier.

To Deidre:  Your son was just wowing me with his fantastic ideas about how capitalism and the new world order is shaping our world.
Deidre West: That may be beyond me.

[Jacob Hemphill Laughs]

It may be beyond me, but I am willing to give it  a try.
Jacob Hemphill:  I used to tell everyone what to do, I used to tell them who god was and  how to wear their pants and what to eat for dinner, and what hairstyle was going to get them into heaven.  And over the years I kind of realized how dumb that is and how offended I got when they told me they knew who god was for a fact and it was always something that offended me.  I always wanted to tell them that 'you are lying' and I thought about that I realized that I had become one of the people that was so set in his ways that looked around myself and I realized I really understood nothing about this earth.   So what we do is we don't force anything down people's throats, we ask a lot of questions during the songs and we give suggestions that we think are cool with hopeful solutions. There is no periods on anything no exclamation marks, its very much supposed to be an open dialog between us and the fans. And I think that is why we have so many fans because the E's that you got  that you got singing about having sex with models and about having millions of dollars, or you have them shoving this down your throat to tell you all that is good.  There is no middle ground, everybody needs a middle ground which we feel the population of the earth needs is that middle ground.
Moving into your new label deal, so exciting, with Dave Matthews and so forth, what has that been like for the band in terms of the recording process going from being a label as a band and now moving your product through different channels, bringing in more colleagues. The label told you, "Don't change anything we love you as you are,"  but I am sure that there has been some sort of label influence.
You know we had a couple meetings with a couple labels, me and Elliott (Harrington, SOJA manager) would go into these meetings and they would play us stuff, that they wanted us to work with this producer work with that person, and everything else and everything they played it sounded like it wasn't us. And then we met one of the guys from Dave Matthews' record label. He ended up doing a show in New York with a sold out show we were doing in Brooklyn, and he saw it and he was like 'I want this, this is what I want…. Dave is going to love this and this is what we want, this is where we want to be'.  And we were like, 'so where is the big conference call when we have to put you know five hip-hop songs on the album', and they were like, 'If you do that, the deal is off' and we were like, 'No'….We were on the same page with them, while we are a reggae band, all that stuff I listen to is folk music, it's Paul Simon and Bob Marley which to me is folk.  So this guy came to us with the deal,  with John Alagia. (Dave Matthews, John Mayer)  I don't know, for us, it is really easy, it is musicians that we respect, and it is corporations that we respect, these people are concerned about the earth, their concerned about the people, and about the welfare and the quality of life in this country and even the name is cool….it's called According to Our Records.

They will take a record, you know, if  Dave Matthews runs into some guy in Kenya when he is doing a show over there, or when he is on vacation and this guy does this amazing thing and he is the leader of a village of whatever…. I am making this up but Dave will make a record with that guy. He will drop 100,000 dollars on it, and know that that record will make back even a thousand dollars and he doesn't care because it's 'according to our records - it's according to what we say.' And we were like, 'That is such a cool idea, because we don't give a shit, (sorry if I curse) what anybody says, this record rocks and we're putting it out, and they were like, that is our whole mentality.  So it is a perfect fit to be with those guys.

What about the songwriting process, when you bring in this heavy lyrics like, "What if we were the ones with nothing to eat? And what if we were the ones with blood in our streets,"  is this a group effort with these lyrics or melodies, how does it all flow?
I write the melody first, most of my songs, I have a really funny writing process, and I am always worried that I am going to give away the secret, so I don't actually reveal the secrets to how I do all of this stuff, I'll tell my Mom (addresses mom) 'Mom, I'll tell you later' 

Deidre West:  OK, and I won't tell a soul

Jacob Hemphill: I have a secret way that I come up with all of this stuff, but I write everything, I write all the words, I write all the music, I write the chords, I am writer that's what I am.  I can't really sing for shit, but I can write my ass off.

You have got your own style, that is what is important, particularly in reggae, having that singing style distinguishes you.
It's like that in folk music too, that's why folk and reggae are so similar, because you know I always liked Bob Dylan or Paul Simon or Bob Marley, Bob Marley was a great singer, Paul Simon, obviously good singer, Bob Dylan couldn't sing at all, but it didn't matter because he was telling you these stories, that will last forever and stick in your mind, when Bob Dylan sings, you get an emotion,  it triggers a memory somehow. And that is what I loved about music, I didn't love the fact that it made me dance. I honestly didn't give a shit if it made me dance, honestly I would prefer if it would not make me dance. I just wanted to get some emotion out this piano and out of this guitar, and that was the whole thing that I liked.

Mom is on the phone, I would like to get the parental perspective.  Was your family supportive of your music in the early years, you were living, and working overseas with the family and then you came back and in literally within middle school you started this path, your parents must have supported you somehow and didn't think it was a phase.
Jacob Hemphill: Absolutely, my Mom used to….Mom would you prefer to tell the story about me humming in my crib or should I?

Deidre West: Sure I would be glad to, Jacob comes from music on both sides of the family, my mother and grandmother were music people and his dad has a wonderful tenor voice and so he was exposed to a lot of music, but when he was 2-3-4 years old, he had a series of songs that he put himself to sleep with, and he called them his hums, and it was like a repertoire.  Instead of sucking his thumb or anything like other kids do, he would repetitively sing some of these songs to himself.   So he was really composing music, when he was 2-3 years old and has done it ever since.  He's always been very verbal. I know when we were in Africa, the Africans loved him because they called him the 'young manly'.  Cause he had a very deep voice and he spoke so correctly all the time that they used to like to ask him questions. And he was only in kindergarten at that time, so he actually started this very, very, very early, when he was 13 and wanted to have a reggae band, I mean, why not?  So he never really had any reason not to try as far as the parents are concerned, because we both really thought that he should do what he wanted to do and that was what he wanted. So he went to school and got a degree and did all the things that were expected of him, but in the meantime, he was working with the band, all the time. 

That is really important, that you instilled it early on you can take credit.  Not everyone gets that kind of nurturing from their parents but obviously you had an old soul there, and a troubadour very young.

Jacob Hemphill:  They really didn't fight me down, I had friends whose parents would make them cut their dreadlocks off or friends who…we used to all not wear shoes, you know the cool thing with the hippy kids, and not wear shoes and I have friends who would leave their house with their shoes on and once out of the house.  I would be sitting on the porch, playing a reggae song with dreadlocks and I was allowed to do that in my house. And it is something I have always realized.  That is something I would repeat if I have kids one day. 

Deidre West:  I think that is something that you repeat too, because I know that my family was very supportive of whatever their kids wanted to do, so it's something you learn early on.

You did a collaboration with Eric Rachmany from Rebelution on their new album on the song "Meant to Be", how did that come about?  Did you decide to do it by email?
It was my favorite song on the album, and I listened to him play it  at soundcheck.  I sat up on one of the really tall speakers - I like to go somewhere kind of out of the way and sit Indian-style,  somewhere and kind of like observe things.  So I was sitting on a speaker and listen to these guys play the song and I wrote my part for it. And I said  'Can you guys play it again?' And I got down and got a microphone and sang my part.  And he (Erich Rachmany) was like, 'Did you just write that in the time it took us to play the song?  You had it memorized and ready to sing by the next time we played he song.'  and I was like, 'yeah, that is how I write'.  He's used to it now.  Like I will call him and i will be listening to their record,  and I will be like dude I got this great idea,  and then he will get a call five minutes later and it is a text message with the song, finished.  This happened yesterday, we are doing a new remix from one of their songs on that album that I already did a song on but I am doing another one. Its fun to me to work with him, because he is like me he has an intriguing voice, that doesn't sound like anyone else, you know when Eric Rachmany sings its Erich Rachmany, it doesn't sound like anyone else. And in reggae and in all folk music like we were talking about earlier, having a characteristic voice to go with your song is a huge part of it and he's got that.

Is this album recorded and mastered in DC? I know you have been a Lion and Fox dyed in the wool type band, but are there things that you did differently?  Is the production now with the label in New York or how have you done this, sent files back and forth?
It was kind of like putting a puzzle together, we already had all the drums, keyboard, bass, guitar and vocal an horn tracks we had -  SOJA had,   and that was all recorded in DC either at Lion and Fox or at my studio in my house which is where I do all of the guitars, and keyboards and all my vocals and stuff.  We had all that done, and then Alagia came along, and he came to my house one day, and he was sitting in my studio with me and I mean that guy is a millionaire, and he's got platinum records everywhere, he's got so many platinum records that he gave me his first platinum record to hang on my wall, and he told me I would have my very own very soon. 

I have Dave Matthews, "Remember Two Things" up on my wall. But it is not presented to me,it is presented to John Alagia. So he was cool, he got on the thing and me and him clicked instantly. We like all the same bands, we like all the same genres and styles, so he said I want to do it and I said, we already did. And he said, send me the tracks and I'll come up with something.  So we sent all of these tracks of mine to him at a studio called The Village in Los Angeles, and he started doing it, sending me stuff back. I am on tour, I am sending ideas back, we're making changes, and I came up with two of the songs on the tour, begged them to include them on the album, which he did, thank you John. So as he was recording that, then there was me coming into his studio in LA when I took three days off the tour to just be there and get my hands in this album, and there was a weekend at his house in Maryland, that we both kind of spent there just, doing doing doing.  Rachel Yamagata was actually there finishing her album with him but she was nice enough to let me have him for a couple days, and just hung out on the lake and drank margaritas, and finished the album, and that's how it happened and we gave it to ATO.

All the art I found when I was on tour in Spain and I met a graffiti  artist there that I thought was amazing, so he is the one who did all the artwork. The "Strength to Survive" video is a guy we met in Portugal, who does really nice animation work. I have an eye for other artists, kind of like I do for Rebelution, I saw them when they were playing for 30 people, and I knew then what they were going to be.  I kind of know when I see an artist, what they can be, so I kind of accumulated all of the artists I have met and  have been f keeping them in my back pocket,  their business cards. And they  brought them all together and made it what it is.  I think ATO was pretty shocked, they said normally the band doesn't know what art they want, they don't know how they want the packaging or they don't really care.  Or normally you need a graphics guy you need a this you need a that, you are literally gonna do everything.

That's so refreshing, you guys have been pulling this off, you are really a wonderful inspiration, I really appreciate your sentiment about how you get the fans engaged and enabled and it is not about any of this bling kind of vibes.   What do you say to the traditional reggae industry about cultivating your fans and the development of your business and ultimately your legacy, how do you dig down deep and keep going forward…How did you do this besides having that wonderful Deidre?
We are not like a typical band, me and Bobby Jefferson have been friends since 1st grade, and my Mom knows, Ryan she knows Patrick, she knows Bob very well.  Ronnie the drummer lived a block from my house and probably knows my Mom's middle name. We're not like a regular band, we are more like a family of people that just kind of chose each other and love each other. When we see other bands struggle with personal stuff and business stuff, we kind of feel  sorry because we don't do that, we agree on everything. There is no money issue, there is no who's who issue, nobody is mad that I write all the songs, it is always been the same for us, so it is the same.  It's a bunch of really kick-ass musicians who love each other very much, and one guy who writes a crazy amount of music, and can't stop.  If you ask anyone in my band, how many songs I have at my house, on my computer or on a tape or written down, or shoved in a box, they would probably say at least a thousand, and they would be right. I mean the songs are never ending, that's kind of our thing and we're not gonna change nothin'.  

Now you can give some songs to other people.
Oh I have been, I did one for Anuhea, I co-wrote the Rebelution, I did The Green, I did Fear Nuttin Band, I did Groovestain, I did a remix for 311, I wrote the entire Chris Boomer album except for one song. I am giving songs away, I want the song to live, cause I am not going to have enough time to sing all of these songs, so I throw them around. I see artists I like.

I ran into this kid at this club where we were playing at, this was a while a go, who set up a skateboard ramp at the club. They had a ramp, and these kids were skating and one of them was amazing, and then he picks up this guitar and starts playing, and he's better than me, and he was like 11 or 10 or something, and I was like' Man this dude is insane,' and his Dad was there and his dad said, 'Yeah, the doctor said he had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) they said he had too much energy, he couldn't stop talking, and he always wanted to be doing things and I told the doctor, that is exactly what I want my son to do.  I am not sure if I had ADD or if I had OCD or whatever I was an intense individual and I am still that way, and now that's what I get paid to do, so….

Deidre West:  May all your issues be small ones Jacob, or large, I am not sure which….

Jacob Hemphill:  No in between stuff, you don't want the in between stuff….

Do you have any partner Jacob? Are you married, do you have children?
I'm single…. I made a commitment to music a long time ago that would remind a lot of people of marriage vows…music's my girl.  Songs are my job, and I couldn't be happier about it, I literally cry sometimes, I am so happy about what my life is,

I talked a bit about this with Erich (Rachmany from Rebelution) that there is this resurgence of bands in Jamaica, with Rootz Underground and Raging Fyah and all these bands, and I really do think that you can take some credit for that. I think has come full circle, and that they are inspired by what you have done.
I hope so, I remember when the U.S. crushed everyone at basketball, beat everybody, cause you know, we had all the black guys, we had all the tall guys, we had all the fast guys, and basketball was in our culture. And people made a lot of money in the states to play basketball, and we figured we would never get knocked off.  The dream team with Jordan on it was just amazing, and you would watch us just destroy Italy, and then just destroy Argentina, now we're importing players from all these Eastern European countries who just sat there and learned to shoot, they shoot the ball all day. Or these guys from South America who really have been playing street ball and know how to get physical and play and their making the locals look bad. Not all the time, but some times, and the reason is there was no competition, to keep the Americans any good. They were the only game in town and that's all that mattered. If you were an American who was tall and athletic and hopefully black, you were better than anyone in the world of basketball. And I always think of reggae like that, you know. There was no competition so nobody really had to try and be bigger than Bob Marley, because Bob's the king.  Music changes and I would be lying to you if I said I didn't want to be bigger than Bob Marley. I mean, he's my hero, and he's my idol, and I have mirrored him or tried to in a lot of ways and in a lot of areas of my life. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I imitate him all the time. This new album is designed to sound like Survival, the one that he wrote when he went to Africa, and actually saw Africa and felt like an African and he wrote, my Mom actually knows the album I am talking about, I gave it to my uncle for Christmas one year, and we all sat around and listened to it.  Jacob, to Deidre:  I gave it to uncle Bud remember, the one with all of the flags of Africa on the front of it? 

So there was no competition, you know who is going to beat Bob, reggae became a niche thing.  To people outside of there, people who think reggae is this thing that they live their life by, it would be foolish to think there would not be bands all over the world, popping up, emulating through music what their lifestyle is, which is what Jamaicans originally did. The difference now is that the Jamaicans are not done, what they are doing is what all these Eastern European white people guys when they came over and started taking three pointers and winning the game. They got back to the drawing board and they figured out how to be relevant and number one again in American basketball. Jamaica is going to do the same in reggae, and the bands that are leading there, are first Rootz Underground and second Raging Fyah. And by the way those are both very good friends of ours, and we love this bands, we have nothing but respect for them and I tell you you would think that they would feel competitive against us, they don't. They love us, they know the words to our songs, they wear our tee-shirts, I mean you know, Rootz Underground, those guys are good guys,  and they wear my tee-shirts on stage. They are not doing it because all of the white kids in the audience are going to like them, they are wearing it because they know the lyrics to the songs.

They are students of the music, just like us.
Just like us, it is not too different, you know what, they probably don't give a crap that they are from Jamaica, they are from the universe, they know what they are here to do and they are here to do it. There's no competition in reggae, it is a mission and it is not a competition, we are all in it for the same team. We all want the same thing. So whenever I hear competition in reggae, it is always from an artist I didn't like anyway. 

What do you tell people about the origins of your name? (Soldiers of Jah Army)
I am honest about it. We named ourselves Soldiers of Jah Army when we were kids, we heard it through a Peter Tosh song, "Recruiting Soldiers"  that he put out after Bob Marley was killed, all the reggae artists got dropped by all the record labels. Peter Tosh got dropped by Columbia and picked up by the Rolling Stones, because the Rolling Stones loved reggae and Bob and Peter so much, they picked them out and put out two records. One was "Bush Doctor" and one was "Mystic Man" and they told him to 'be as militant as you want' on these things. Which nobody ever told Peter Tosh that before, Columbia was probably not happy when he was talking about black supremacy and stuff like that. But the Rolling Stones, they're hip, they're cool, they are like, 'Dude, do whatever you want.' So he put out these really militant albums and we were really militant at the time, and we were going to a Nyabinghi house and hanging out with all Jamaicans, all these elders, famous guys from the Jamaican community, Ethiopian cats, I mean reading scripture for four hours a day.

Deidre West:  In the worst part of DC, all these 13-year olds on mopeds, with dreadlocks

Jacob Hemphill: In the Kalorama

What's the Kalorama?
The way the DC streets go, as you get further away from the center, meaning more into I guess a neighborhood that is possibly questionable for some people, if you don't look the part to be there. It starts with K and then it is one syllable, so it is King and then it is two syllables, so Kalorama is four syllables in to K which means you are way the fuck out. We were militant, and we heard this Peter Tosh song and he said, "I'm recruiting soldiers for Jah army, your time is now. And we were like, holy shit, that's us. And we changed it to SOJA because we didn't want to tell people who god was, really. And we were like well, SOJA still sounds like us, we're a band of people that travel around the world trying to change it with our words and our actions, which soldiers claim to do at least. So that's kind of what we are. 

Peter Tosh was a really important freedom fighter.
Peter Tosh was a big deal to us, I probably know every single thing there is to know about Peter Tosh. I have done some shows with his (Peter's) son Andrew, interesting cat and good performer. I saw him last time in Spain, we played at the same club, same night.

I look forward to the future, and will hold it in my mind's eye that we will see this band and this concept continue to grow. It has been really great reasoning with you, I hope to see the band perform soon.

It's really great to meet you, I do so many bad interviews, I could tell this was going to be a good one, that was why I merged my Mom into the call. 

Thank you Deidre, I love the personal background, it is really essential.