‘So’ Funky and Sweet

Folk-reggae group performs to benefit local family, promote new album


SOJA’s lively mash-up of folk story-telling and Jamaican funk style has stunned audiences around the world since the band’s self-titled EP dropped in 2000. They’ve maintained their ferocity through the years, now releasing what the band dubs an all-new “intoxicating mix of hot-rod reggae grooves and urgent, zeitgeist-capturing themes” with the soon-to-be-released album
“Strength to Survive.” The group performed at The Southern on the Downtown Mall this past Friday night to test and promote their upcoming release.

The appearance was about more than promoting an album, however. Lead singer and guitarist Jacob Hemphill highlighted the philanthropic nature of the group’s trip to Charlottesville. Pei Chang, head chef at Charlottesville’s Sushi TEN, recently received news that his young son, Wes, is suffering from brain cancer and will require extensive medical attention in the next few years to regain his health. A portion of ticket and food sales from the show, as well as patron donations, were donated to the family.

We interviewed Hemphill about the nature of his music and the impact that worldly success and fame has had on SOJA’s dynamic personality and music.

Arts and Entertainment: What is your musical background like? When did you start performing? What made you want to play music as a career?

Jacob Hemphill: I started playing guitar when I was 13, but I have heard music played since I was born. My dad sang, played guitar and played piano. He taught me, and when he couldn’t teach me anymore I started with lessons.

AE: SOJA was formed in Virginia, but now travels around the world to play for hundreds of thousands of people; how has such huge success changed your band and your music since you began?

JH: I think I try to think of everyone now. When we started, my writing was more focused on a few things; now it’s a big deal, and I try to treat it as such.

AE: SOJA performed at The Southern for a crowd of around 300 listeners this past weekend. Contrastingly, the band’s website boasts “101 shows played in 4 tours,” “17 countries played,” and “14 music festivals rocked” in 2013. Why choose such a small venue when your international success suggests that SOJA could easily sell-out the nTelos Wireless Pavilion and play for 4,000 people?

JH: We’re getting our new stuff ready. We’ve been working on this album for two years, and we want[ed] to get it perfect in front of people, but not 4,000 people! Plus, The Southern asked us to team up with them to raise money for baby Wes, who was recently diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of brain cancer. We want[ed] to help ease the tremendous financial burden on his family as they fight this disease.

AE: You characterize your music as folk because its purpose is to tell a story. Where do you get ideas for new stories?

JH: They just come to me. I think about something, and I say “Wow, that’s beautiful” or “Wow, that’s messed up,” and I start writing. There’s plenty going on in this world — plenty to write about.

AE: What do you think your music contributes to the world? What is your goal in creating such a potent mixture of sounds and styles?

JH: Hopefully it provides another perspective. The scope of our society is making money and consuming things. It’s the model that we have put as our base. I hope to provide an alternative to that.

Published March 26, 2014 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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