- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

As a young man in Arlington, Virginia, in the late 1990s, Soja frontman Jacob Hemphill dreamed of traveling across the Potomac to play the reggae clubs in Washington, D.C.’s historic U Street corridor.

Fast-forward to 2015, and the band’s latest album, “Amid the Noise and Haste,” is up for best reggae album at the Grammy Awards this weekend, pitted against the works of Ziggy Marley, Shaggy and Sean Paul.

Mr. Hemphill is quick to appreciate the nod from his colleagues.

“Musicians vote on who they think put out the best [category] album of that year,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times. “And if you’re not a musician who puts out recordings, you’re not allowed to vote. And when we saw that we were in, we [thought] it was just kind of crazy that everybody thought what they thought of this record. We were all very honored, to say the least.”

Reggaeville.com, in its review of “Amid the Noise and Haste,” said it “seems to harken back to the band’s intrinsic desire to do good, to ‘go placidly’ and to continuously improve on this goodness while challenging the system. The musicianship of Soja, combined with the pop stylings of producer Supa Dups, combine to organize a solid set with several songs destined for the charts and the hearts of fans both new and old.”

Rolling Stone raved that the record “will likely win friends, influence people, and make this country a better place. It’s hip!”

Northern Virginia might seem an odd place for a suburban kid to pick up reggae, but Mr. Hemphill said he first learned about the Jamaican sound from his relatives.

“It seemed like a big deal because these guys were talking about changing the world,” Mr. Hemphill said of his early exposure to reggae. “Obviously, mainly Bob Marley had this vision of how things could be.”

After graduating from high school, Mr. Hemphill and some of his friends began jamming together, forming Soja and soon hopping the Metro to U Street.

“U Street was kind of a super-different place back then,” Mr. Hemphill said. “We played State of the Union all the time. We played Republic Gardens.”

Soja’s eight members of are white, but Mr. Hemphill maintains that the music knows no color.

“Reggae is usually a few black guys playing to a bunch of white people, and we were a bunch of white guys playing for a bunch of black people,” said Mr. Hemphill, who sings lead and plays guitar. “I mean [we were] just kind of playing for everybody.”

When they were starting out, Mr. Hemphill and his bandmates would attend a Rastafarian church on Saturdays before going out to play for a multicultural crowd.

“It was really mixed back then,” Mr. Hemphill said of the District’s music scene near the turn of the millennium. “U Street and Adams Morgan were places [where] everybody is there: Ethiopia is there, and Jamaica is there, and West Africa is there, and Americans are there, and people from South America are there, and Central America is there. It was a great place to come up playing music.”

As a young man, Mr. Hemphill frequently enjoyed time at the Kennedy Center with his father. Soja has played the famous venue on several occasions.

“I’ve been going to the Kennedy Center at least once a year for, you know, 34 years,” Mr. Hemphill said. “So, like, I’m standing there on this stage that I’ve seen, you know, 100 times since I was 5 years old to now. I can’t even explain how cool it is.”

Mr. Hemphill’s father also took him to the iconic Wolf Trap. As Soja gained popularity, they too soon had a chance to play there.

“We were pulling up to Wolf Trap, and [I took a picture] that became my screen saver that says ‘Soja, Wolf Trap, Sold Out.’ We couldn’t believe it. It was our first time headlining there,” Mr. Hemphill said.

Soja will be releasing two videos soon. One, called “Shadow,” was produced with UNICEF to raise money for schools in Ethiopia. The video for “Your Song” was shot entirely on location in Brazil and features Damian Marley.

Soja also recently traveled to reggae’s holy land — Jamaica, where Mr. Hemphill said he felt like a celebrity even before leaving the terminal.

“I walked out of the airport, and the guy handling the luggage comes up and says, ‘I saw an interview of you. People are saying you’re the white Bob Marley.’ First thing anybody ever said to me [in Jamaica].

“And then this other dude comes up to me and shakes my hand and says, ‘Welcome home,’” he said with a laugh. “That was like the coolest thing ever. I didn’t expect that at all.”



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