Reggae Grammy winners SOJA started playing in Arlington’s basements

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Three students at Yorktown High School in Arlington fell in love with reggae in the 1990s. Claiming to get their hands on every reggae tape in the record store, they were inspired by the messages and captivated by the sounds of Bob Marly.

The three friends—Jacob Hemphill, Bobby Lee and Ryan Berty—decided to form their own band and named he SOJA, for Jah Army Soldiers, and it was the kind of thing you’d expect from 90s teenagers: practicing in their parents’ garages and basements, recording themselves on a digital audio cassette or minidisc. They listened, critiqued their own sound and replayed.

Some of the other students at the school were supportive. Others scoffed: A former classmate from Yorktown recalled that people around the school knew the band as the “Fakin’ Jamaicans.” It was the white kids playing reggae music.

Twenty-five years later, SOJA is still playing, having added bandmates from Puerto Rico and Venezuela and grew into an eight-piece ensemble. And they are far from playing in the basements of Arlington.

“Starting a reggae band was kind of our dream and the only thing we wanted to do, and then one day people started coming to the shows, and we don’t really know what happened,” said the singer Hemphill in Las Vegas this month. – while SOJA won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album.

Their 2021 album, “Beauty In the Silence,” had given the band their first win on music’s biggest stage.

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This award, however, received a mixed response. SOJA had beaten Jamaican artists Sean Paul, Spice, Jesse Royal, Etana and Gramps Morgan in the category, sparking debate in the reggae world about the group’s victory and musical style. But, for those who knew SOJA during her early years in the DC area, the Grammy felt like validation.

Work had started early. Shortly after graduating from Yorktown High in 1998, the band made a date at Lion and Fox Recording Studios, a DC-area based studio known for recording and mixing reggae artists.

Producer and engineer Jim Fox said he immediately recognized something.

“I couldn’t let them go. I mean, the music was so awesome and awesome. I made them stay two days instead of just one just because I wanted to spend more time with it,” Fox said in an interview. “It was something special. And this recording ended up being their first EP.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, the Washington area was a hotbed for reggae, the group said, providing a revolving door of touring Jamaican and international artists, as well as other Caribbean artists on the job. In the region. There was a good reggae show to see every weekend.

SOJA has become a part of that scene itself, playing venues on U Street like State of the Union and Kaffa House. It was around this time that they met Saray Israel – who has long earned the title “Food Queen of Baltimore”, for her constant presence helping to feed musicians at concerts and events.

Israel told the Post that she still remembers the first time she heard SOJA play, in a hall near the 9:30 Club, and I thought, “Wow, who are these guys?”

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Today, many places where SOJA and other reggae artists once stuck have closed down or been transformed like DC did. The area’s music scene, a historic haven for punk, has changed beyond simple reggae – priced and digitized by a revolution in home recording technology and a skyrocketing cost of living.

“The Arlington scene is very difficult for a lot of musicians because of the rents here. It’s a very expensive area,” Don said. Zientara, punk producer, musician and former owner of Inner Ear Studio, the legendary Arlington recording studio that closed for good last year.

Zientara had recorded SOJA at Inner Ear a few years ago.

“They’re just a really together band,” he said, “which is unique for a lot of bands to really get along like brothers.”

They also started road tripping as a family. Getting a first van changed everything, SOJA said, allowing her to start traveling the East Coast playing shows. Sometimes the halls were packed. Sometimes they played in an almost empty room.

“It was tough, but we persevered and our hard work paid off,” SOJA told The Post in an email. “After years and years of perseverance, we would eventually get on planes and travel all over the world.”

Fox traveled with him, recording and designing his music until he signed with ATO Records in 2011. “All over the world,” he said, “they say they’re from Virginia.”

They’ve said it in Hawaii and Brazil, Costa Rica and the Red Rocks of Colorado, Guam, the Santa Barbara Bowl, New Caledonia and, back home, Wolf Trap. As time went on, the band amassed an international fan base – particularly in South America – creating their debut album under ATO Records, “Strength to Survive”, to peak at No. 1 on the reggae album chart of Billboard in 2012. Two first Grammy nominations, in 2015 and 2017, followed.

“Beauty In the Silence” was the breakthrough. The band’s website describes the vibe of the album, which includes collaborations with artists like UB40 and Slightly Stoopid and reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Reggae Album, as a “moving celebration.”

“We didn’t even expect to be nominated,” Hemphill said in a backstage interview after SOJA’s Grammy win in early April.

“Hearing our name was surreal and dreamlike,” the band told the Post. “We celebrated with lots of hugs, tears and texts.”

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Not everyone followed. Reggae music, after all, originated in Jamaica and has deep ties to the island’s culture and Rastafari, a religion and social movement based there. Some reggae fans have taken to Twitter to criticize the Recording Academy for awarding the prize to a white male-led band rather than Jamaican artists.

Cegrica Hamilton, a sound engineer in Jamaica who works with the band, was among those who defended the decision. Many in Jamaica are unfamiliar with SOJA, he told The Post, but he admires his work for how it has evolved and drawn inspiration from different parts of the world, different genres: folk, Hawaiian, even Washington go-go.

Members of SOJA, for their part, said they have always felt deeply supported by Jamaican reggae artists, including some of this year’s Grammy Award contenders.

“While Reggae music was born in Jamaica, and anyone who knows SOJA knows how much we honor and respect that, the music and message of Jamaica, with the Honorable Robert Nesta Marley at the helm, has become SO big and SO powerful they have spread all over the world,” the band wrote to The Post.

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When SOJA won, Hamilton said he was overwhelmed with happiness for a group that has become like family to him.

“I couldn’t be there to celebrate with them,” he said, “but I still celebrate here in Jamaica.”

Fox was also celebrating. After the win, he posted a photo of the band from the early 2000s on Facebook. “I felt it when we recorded the first demo. Watch them now. 2022 Grammy winners. You make me proud. I love you guys. Congratulations,” he captioned.

“They’re talented,” Fox told the Post a few days later. It doesn’t matter where you come from.

They happen to be, he added, from Arlington.


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