How SOJA Topped the Reggae Chart and Played 360 Gigs in 18 Months
How SOJA Topped the Reggae Chart and Played 360 Gigs in 18 Months

Referencing Bob Marley's 1979 album "Survival" (Island Records), his most overtly political release, Washington D.C. based band SOJA's "Strength to Survive" (ATO Records) has topped the Reggae Album chart for four out of the five weeks since its January 31 release. SOJA's debut release for ATO, the New York based independent co-founded by rocker Dave Matthews, and their fourth album overall, "Strength to Survive" has sold over 12,000 copies to date according to Nielsen Soundscan.

Recorded at D.C.'s Lion and Fox studio and produced John Alagia (known for his work with Matthews and John Mayer) "Strength To Survive's" roots reggae, infused with strains of rock, folk and dub, provides a complementary framework for lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Jacob Hemphill's sinewy vocals and poignantly drawn lyrics of social resistance, environmental consciousness and personal reflection.

Hemphill, 31, cites Marley's "Survival" as "the greatest reggae album ever made." Calling for the continent's unification ("Africa Unite") while celebrating the (then impending) freedom of "Zimbabwe," "Survival" summoned Hemphill's early childhood memories of living in the western African nation of Liberia where his father was an International Monetary Fund Representative.

"Survival is about the survival of the African race; on "Strength to Survive" I am talking about survival of the earth, that we cannot survive unless we work as a team," Hemphill explained in a recent interview at Manhattan's City Stage where SOJA (an acronym for the band's original name Soldiers of Jah Army) taped a segment of the Chevy Sonic Live online concert series. "That was Bob's first album recorded on a 36-channel board; his music was becoming more complex using a horn section and male harmonies," Hemphill continued. "We wanted to do a really rootsy reggae record so "Survival" was our guide."

Dubbed the Reggae Road Warriors, SOJA has performed 360 shows in the past 18 months spanning several countries. They are currently in the midst of the 10-week US leg of their "Strength to Survive" tour, performing in 1,000-2,000 capacity venues. The tour commenced on January 21 in Hawaii, where the band has its largest US fan base. The album's first single, the loping one-drop "Not Done Yet" is in rotation on Hawaii's KDNN (Island 98.5) FM, the sole station in the Clear Channel cluster designated as an Island-Reggae-Hawaiian format, and on Hawaii's alternative-rock formatted KUCD (Star 101.9), which is a first for the band. "For our broader radio campaign, an AAA radio remix of "Not Done Yet" will be serviced to more influential taste makers and a hip hop remix will be serviced to the urban and hip hop community," explains Paul Dryden, ATO's Product Manager.

Additionally, SOJA enjoys tremendous popularity in South America, especially in Brazil, the result of persistent do-it-yourself marketing. The band's manager Elliot Harrington of Red Light Management, along with SOJA's keyboard player Patrick O'Shea and percussionist Ken Brownell compiled a list of radio deejays, journalists and promoters in South America, sent each a press kit then followed up with each contact. "Rafael Costa of Surforreggae.com/br was the first to take an interest in the band; with his partner Israel Mizrach of Intershows, they brought us to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay for the first time in 2005," recalls Harrington. Rob Markus of the William Morris Agency handles SOJA's bookings in Central and South America, assisting in their breakthrough in new markets including Chile, Costa Rica and Panama.

Social media has also played an essential role in expanding SOJA's renown. "We have used it to grow the fan base, posting ticket giveaways and other items that are geo-targeted for a specific area, making sure fans are aware of the concerts. SOJA has over 800,000 fans on social media and average 1,000 "likes" per day on Facebook, many of which are from South America," adds Harrington.

SOJA's seeds were planted when Hemphill met bassist Bobby Lee Jefferson in elementary school in Arlington, Virginia. The duo bonded through their mutual love of hip-hop, rock and reggae, performing together at middle school talent shows. SOJA was formed in 1997 during the pair's high school years when they met Ryan Berty (drums), Brownell and O'Shea. They performed extensively throughout the greater D.C. area, and were heartily encouraged by D.C.'s Jamaican and Caribbean communities, which provided the (then) fledgling reggae outfit with a profound sense of confidence. The lineup now includes saxophonist Hellman Escorcia and trumpeter Rafael Rodriguez whom SOJA met while on tour in Puerto Rico, another successful territory for the band.

Tonight (March 12), SOJA will perform on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." They are also booked for the Wakarusa and Bonnaroo Festivals in June and the All Good Festival in July, events dominated by jam bands, folk and alternative rock acts; opening dates on Dave Matthews' summer tour are also confirmed. Irrespective of the success that comes their way Hemphill avows SOJA will remain true to creating the brand of roots rock reggae that has made "Strength to Survive" their most enjoyable recording experience to date. "We aren't using reggae to catapult to a better selling genre, we won't become some indie rockers," Hemphill declares. "We like doing reggae with kick-ass messages. It's what we listen to, it's what we believe in."