It looks more and more likely that the future of roots reggae lies in the United States. After Groundation and Matisyahu, Soldiers Of Jah Army or SOJA, a five piece band from Washington D.C., are introducing their own personal blend of reggae and rock infused with the spiritual message of Rastafari. On their first European tour they fortunately also halted at VK in Brussels, where we met up with lead vocalist Jacob Hemphill just before the concert:
Jacob, this being your first European tour, what are you guys expecting?
Jacob Hemphill: "Well, being Americans, we kind of came here afraid that the old clichés might be true, but we already discovered they weren't. Of course we realise that with Bush we have the worst president in the world and that will get us some slack, but you have to know though that we're a pretty political band and freedom of speech is very essential for us. We're not really anti-Republican as such, but we're definitely anti-Bush."
How did five guys from Washington D.C. get involved in reggae? As far as I know, it's not really the most popular form of music in the States.
Jacob Hemphill: "Mostly because reggae carries a message; the Rastafari message in the music is very important to us. The message even transcends reggae music because we fuse our music with rock."
And what about dancehall, any influences of that in your music?
Jacob Hemphill: "We play some dancehall style tunes but with a conscious message and as I said, there are also rock and hip hop influences in our music. What we really try to do is to bring some old truths out there but wrap them in a new style of music and also try to overcome the typical red-gold-green reggae clichés with our own opinions."
What about the Soldiers Of Jah Army name? I know an Israel Vibration song by that name; did that have any influence on how or why you named the band?
Jacob Hemphill: "There's actually an older song by Peter Tosh with the same title. I believe it was on his 'Mystic Man' album ('Recruiting Soldiers', red.). The name is also meant to be very inclusive. We really want to include our audience in what we do and form an army of Rasta youths and elders."
How do you, being a white youth from Washington D.C., view the whole Rastafarian philosophy?
Jacob Hemphill: "I want to answer that with a quote of the speech of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie that was also used by Bob Marley in his song 'War': "We find it necessary and we know we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil." It's mainly about the good over evil part; as a human being you have to choose which side you are going to be on. His Majesty also said that we are born naked (For it is true that Our Lord the Creator sends us into the world as equals, but it is also true that when one is born one is neither rich nor poor. One is naked. It is later on that one becomes rich or poor, red.), meaning that you have to decide for yourself who you are. Finally the Bible states that the meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5 Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, red.), so it was very clear to me that we were fighting on the side of righteousness."
A big part of the whole Rastafari message is the repatriation to Africa. What does that mean to you?
Jacob Hemphill: "That is very dual really. On one hand you have the black descendants of the slaves who are scattered across the world today. If they feel the need to repatriate to Africa we will support them in that. One the other hand we are all Africans though because that is where al human life started out, but as Marcus Garvey said it, Africa is for the Africans. However, I feel we have to help our brothers over there manifest their destiny."
Let's return to your music for a moment. Especially over here in Europe, a lot of comparisons with that other popular reggae band from the U.S., Groundation, will be made. How do you feel about that?
Jacob Hemphill: "We don't really play the same style of music as Groundation and they are also from another part of the country; we're from the east coast and they're from the west coast (California, red.). We don't really hang out together but we know them and we even have their sound engineer with us on this tour. Reggae is all about a mission, not a competition. It's a big movement with lots of different people in it."
On this tour you will be playing in countries like Belgium and Holland where the laws on the use of marihuana are much more lenient. How is that in the States?
Jacob Hemphill: "In California it's quite freed up now, but in Virginia, where we live, you can still get up to ten years in jail for growing one plant of marihuana, so it's pretty scary. Even though we're cool about it, we feel weed is not for everyone; for some people it might provide them with some great feeling of meditation or a heightened awareness, but other people lose their motivation or get depressed after using it. We're not promoting it, but we also feel it should not be up to the law to decide for us either."
I've noticed that you guys publish and distribute your music on your own Innerloop label. Was that a conscious choice?
Jacob Hemphill: "Well, most labels are looking for artists to develop and we're already developed as a band. Of course distribution-wise it's far easier to work with a bigger label, but we like to keep control over our creative ideas and make up our own schedules. We're also trying to push some bands we are interested in and create a kind of musical family that way. Right now we're linked with a couple of bands that are also from Washington D.C.; there's Fear Nuttin' Band, who play a mix of reggae and metal, Groove Stain who fuse reggae with punk and Vital, a reggae-hip hop combo. I have to admit though that if we would be offered a big record deal, I wouldn't be sure what we would do yet."