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Interview: SOJA

Interview: SOJA

Interview: SOJA

By on - Photos by Sam Erickson - Comment

"Music is a leader you don't have to vote for and it speaks to the hearts of every human race"



Jacob Hemphill from SOJA aims to save humanity

U.S. reggae band SOJA blends reggae and pop with serious lyrics about a world without borders and with energy coming from wind and sun, and their sound and words have gained them a huge fan base all over the world. United Reggae got a chat with front man Jacob Hemphill about politics, their new album Strength to Survive and why oil is the greatest threat to mankind.

The other week I had a nightmare. I dreamt we were facing a new ice age. As many people I have nightmares from time to time, but I generally don’t worry about environmental issues and challenges.

So I was a bit surprised when I thought about the dream the next day, but I soon realized why I had dreamt about a freezing climate. The night before I had interviewed SOJA’s lead singer and guitarist Jacob Hemphill and for some reason his thoughts and messages of a future climate catastrophe had got through to me.

Stayed in iron bathtubs

Jacob Hemphill is a man with a political agenda and he has it in his veins. He’s the son of a former employee at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and was partly brought up in Liberia in the late 80’s and one of his first memories is when an internal conflict started in the country in 1989.

He and his family had to hide in iron bathtubs for days because the military was shooting in the streets, and since they lived on the opposite side of the street from where the government was residing in Monrovia it was a particularly dangerous area.

Even though it was a hostile situation and bullets were flying through the building, Jacob Hemphill has good memories from growing up in Liberia. He was scared when the conflict started, but at the same time he felt safe.

“I liked being close to my father. He protected me and I felt he was never going to let them hurt me,” explains Jacob Hemphill, and gives a bright recollection of his childhood in Monrovia:

“I saw a kid in shorts and sandals selling fruit in the street. He was like the happiest person I had ever seen. I had clothes and every toy in the world, but I was not that happy,” he states, and adds:

“Money can’t buy happiness. Happiness is an internal condition of the heart. The world is unequal and reggae has been saying that for decades. Music with a message is music with a purpose.”

Continue his father’s work

Jacob Hemphill is still close to his father, who retired from IMF a long time ago, and says they share thoughts on their favorite issues.

“He’s the most honest man I’ve ever met, and the smartest man I’ve ever met. He’s my political and economical advisor and I’m his environmental advisor,” he laughs, and adds:

“My life’s goal is to continue his work.”

Met in school

SOJA - Strength To SurviveJacob Hemphill’s family made it out of the country on the last flight and settled in the U.S. state of Virginia, where he soon met bass player Bobby Lee. During his upbringing he attended dinner parties with guests from all over the world and learnt that some people are very rich, and many people are very poor.

Throughout high school Jacob Hemphill and Bobby Lee met drummer Ryan Berty, percussionist Kenneth Brownell and keyboard player Patrick O’Shea, and together they formed SOJA in 1997. Since the band’s inception they’ve put out four albums, including Strength to Survive released this year.

“Obama is the lesser of two evils”

I reach Jacob Hemphill over the phone from Lisbon. The band is on a European tour to support the EU release of Strength to Survive and tonight’s concert is as usual sold out and packed with more than 3,200 screaming fans.

The tour started just a few days before the U.S. Presidential election, and since Jacob Hemphill’s lyrics and image are heavily political I take the chance to ask him about his views on U.S. politics and the battle between Mitt Romney (Rep) and Barack Obama (Dem). Needless to say this is a topic close to his heart.

“I like some things about Obama, but I don’t like some things. I voted for him though. With Mitt Romney the U.S. would have burnt more coal and burnt more oil. Obama is the lesser of two evils and he has some thoughts I like. Gay marriage I like and he’s not totally against legalizing marijuana,” he explains.

The system is broken

Two of Jacob Hemphill’s issues – gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana – were voted on at the same time as the Presidential election, and in three states the voters said yes to legalizing same sex marriages and in some states the voters also said yes to a more liberal view on marijuana. But according to Jacob Hemphill the problems in the U.S. go very deep.

“The U.S. government is broken. Before the President could make changes, but President George Bush JR, probably my worst ever President, changed the congress. Today 40 percent can veto 60 percent. Obama can propose a law, but be shut down by 40 percent. And the Democrats or Republicans will always have 40 percent. He has not done anything for four years,” he believes, and adds:

“Plus he’s a black guy. The congress doesn’t like him.”

When talking to Jacob it’s obvious he’s not satisfied with the U.S. political system and urges for a change.

“The congress could get paid 20 million dollars from Exxon [a U.S. oil and gas giant] and veto investments in solar and wind power. Military, oil, guns, drugs and gasoline can run the country by running-up every congress man,” he believes, and concludes:

“We need to end the U.S. addiction to war, oil and prescripted drugs.”


Brainwash people

To Jacob Hemphill music is politics, and he aims to educate the masses about the problems humanity is facing.

“Music is honest and it brings people together. It’s a leader you don’t have to vote for and it speaks to the hearts of every human race. It makes the world a better place. That’s what I’m interested in,” he explains.

One of Jacob Hemphill’s passions is the environment, and when this article is written the World Bank has just published a report saying that we’re on a path to a 4 degree warmer world by the end of the century, which will have huge implications for humanity.

“We’re selling a mentality. The earth is dying, the world is getting hotter and the ozone layer is getting thinner and thinner. My family can’t pass on to future generations,“ he explains, and adds:

“I try to brainwash people to see a world without borders. We need to stop competition between nations.”

In need of a new path

And his solution is ending the world’s addiction to fossil fuels, especially oil, and start looking to renewable solutions.

“Oil makes the rich world richer since the third world needs oil. The race goes on and the internal combustion engine continues. Oil is the number one enemy to the human race,” he says, and continues:

“My job is not to find solutions; it’s to present the threats we’re facing. My main goal is to fix the human race. Fix the planet. This current path will not do.”

It almost sounds like Jacob Hemphill is on a crusade, but he doesn’t always lives the way he preaches, and he admits he is something of a hypocrite since he and the band flies all over the world.

“It’s kind of ironic that transportation takes all my money,” he reveals, and adds that as some as there is a better transportation he’ll use it whatever it will cost.

Bad things in a nice package

SOJA’s latest album is called Strength to Survive and was released in January in the U.S. and in October in the rest of the world. It was produced together with mainstream pop producer John Alegia, who has previously worked with Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer and Jason Mraz.

Compared to previous SOJA albums this one is the most pop influenced yet, even though they have had the same formula from the scratch.

“An easy melody and topics that are hard to talk about. Inconvenient and true things in a nice looking package. You open it and it’s a pile of dirt,” he laughs, and continues:

“Make the topic sound easy,” he explains, and makes an example by singing to a child:

“Look both ways before you cross the streets.”

“If you shout it he’ll say ‘f**k it’.”

“It’s brainwashing with a pretty package.”

First step into the future

The new album is – as its predecessors – full of messages and cries for unity, change and hope for the world to be one family.

“John Alegia has helped a lot and he’s a very talented musician. He specializes in message and organic sound,” he explains, and quotes John Alegia:

“I get it – you try to change the world and you need someone to make it more pretty. Fly out to LA and come to the studio.”

Jacob Hemphill is honest and straight forward and declares that Strength to Survive is SOJA’s glossiest yet.

“Some fans hate it and want us to go back, but we still have the bass lines and the reggae beat. But it’s prettier now,” he states, and reveals:

“This is the way we’re going to sound for the rest of our career.”

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