Twenty years of SOJA

It was more than 20 years ago that a group of high school students spent afternoons in a basement teaching each other how to play reggae music, and eventually, be good enough to play live in their hometown near Washington, D.C.
SOJA’s singer/songwriter Jacob Hemphill leads the band, with Bobby Lee, Ryan Berty, Hellman Escorcia, Patrick O’Shea, Rafael Rodriguez, Ken Brownell and Trevor Young comprising the rest of the lineup.
Since its independently-released “Creeping In” in 1998, SOJA has gone on to release dozens of recordings, singles and DVDs and has been nominated for two Grammy awards along the way.
Today, the eight-piece band has more than 7 million online followers and over 300 million YouTube views.
The band’s last studio album was the critical darling “Poetry In Motion” from late 2017, of which Hemphill notes it was “essential for SOJA to consciously go back to the beginning and recapture that same sincere, collaborative magic sparked 20 years ago.”
With some new music on the way, and a big 2019 summer tour planned, SOJA will get ready with a show at the Fairfield Theatre Company on March 31.
Keith Loria: When you were first starting out in Virginia, what were your visions of where your career would go? Did you think you’d still be going strong more than 20 years later?
Jacob Hemphill: When we were first starting, the extent of my visions probably stopped at just getting on a stage and performing in front of people. Over time and as we’ve grown, my visions have grown too. Still, over the years, we’ve always exceeded what at the time may have seemed like particularly lofty visions. As for initially thinking if we’d still be going strong 20 years later, I’m certain I didn’t think about that. Most teenagers barely comprehend what’s happening the following year, let alone what’s going to be happening 20 years from their teenage years.
KL: So many bands break up, what has been the secret to SOJA lasting as long as it has?
JH: I believe a key factor in the strength of the group and our longevity has to do with the fact that we grew up together and were friends prior to forming a band. We’ve remained friends. To this day, even though we no longer all live in the same city, we’re all still actively involved in each other’s personal lives. We spend days off and even some vacations together. We can confide in each other. We respect each other. That doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements either of a personal or professional nature, but it’s the strength of our initial and continuing friendship that allow us to communicate and get through any obstacles that arise that other groups without the pre-existing lifelong friendships might not be able to navigate.
KL: What can those coming expect from your show?
JH: A good mix of both new and old material. We’ve recently been in the studio rehearsing together and we’ve revamped some old material that we haven’t played in years and well as put some live adjustments to newer material in anticipation of 2019 tour.
KL: What is it about performing live that you still enjoy?
JH: It’s by far the various connections, either with the audience or with other band members, that take place during a live performance. They’re hard to describe and even harder to predict but throughout any live show there’s these moments, sometimes a second or two in length, and sometimes lasting throughout an entire song or more, where a switch just flips and you get this heightened sense of energy and connectivity. Sometimes, it’s the change in sound and volume from an audience of thousands as they sing along to a song, and other times it’s making eye contact with a single person and seeing the excitement in their eyes. These same special moments happen between individual band members throughout the night. It’s usually hearing one of the guys do something unique or particularly exciting, even if it may be subtle, and looking over to catch their eye and let them know you heard it and enjoyed it. Those little acknowledgements of mutual respect or enjoyments of each other talents are so valuable to me.
KL: What’s on tap for 2019? Any new music fans can look forward to?
JH: There absolutely is some new music on tap. We happen to be in the studio right now recording some new material. It’s a little too early to be certain of any specific release dates, but we are currently working on a whole new album of material.
KL: What are you most proud of from you career?
JH: The collection of individual stories I’ve heard throughout the years about how our music or my lyrics have personally affected someone.
KL: When people one day look back at the music annals, how do you want SOJA to be remembered?
JH: Just being “remembered” is satisfactory enough for me.