Roots music through the eyes of a crew of American boys
Words and Interview by Greg Scruggs.
While the suburbs of Northern Virginia are known more as a hotbed of federal bureaucrats than reggae-slinging Rastafari, local boys SOJA (formerly known as Soldiers of Jah Army) have been cranking out rub-a-dub rhythms with a message of positive social change since 1997. They’ve gigged relentlessly in and around the nation’s capital, home to a small but vibrant reggae scene, without catching a mainstream break. Thanks to the internet, however, they’ve picked up an impressive international fan base, including a fervent following in Brazil after a fan posted a song on YouTube in 2005 and added Portuguese subtitles.
South America’s largest country is enthralled by roots reggae, with homegrown acts and foreign bands from the US, UK, and of course, Jamaica packing concerts halls in cities nationwide. SOJA played the 2011 editions of the SWU (“Starts With You”) Music and Arts Festival, which focuses on sustainability, to a surging crowd of 60,000 Brazilians. On separate occasions, SOJA has toured the country and played all its major cities, not to mention Europe and the South Pacific.
SOJA dropped their fifth full-length album, Strength to Survive, in 2012 on Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, hoping to finally catch a larger domestic audience. As frontman Jacob Hemphill wryly noted in a Washington Post interview, “I still haven’t heard myself on the radio in DC.” But the overseas audience keeps asking for more, and so on February 5, the band will release a special digital EP of “Everything Changes,” one of the singles from the new album, with proceeds benefitting Amnesty International. The EP features international remixes of the track with reggae stars from Brazil, Argentina, Germany and France dropping vocals in their native tongues.
Your collaboration with Brazilian MC Falcão from O Rappa on a new version of “Everything Changes” debuted on MTV Brasil to much fanfare back in November. How did the partnership come about?
We’re a big fan of Brazilian music. Brazil is a big place and they’ve really got their own thing going on culturally and musically, hip-hop included in that. We’ve been a fan of O Rappa for awhile; we’ve been aware of them for many years. We thought this song has universal access and the things that I was talking about in the song were applicable to anyone in the world. We wanted to release the song in Brazil and have it reach as far as possible, so that’s where the collaboration came from.
How did Falcão prepare his lyrics for the track? Did you work together with a translator?
He listened to the song and had an understanding of what the song was about, and he just kind of went with it and put in his verses.
You said that Brazil is a big place and you’re a fan of the music. You’ve played the SWU festival several years in a row and toured extensively in Brazil – did spending more time in Rio to shoot the video change your perception of the city?
I’ve spent some time in Rio. We always try to take off a little bit of time in each place so that we can develop a sense of it. We got to travel around and see some stuff.
It must be nice to play in a country where reggae has such broad, mass appeal. Has anyone tried to explain to you why roots reggae is so popular in Brazil?
It’s funny. Everywhere we go, reggae is bigger than it is where we’re from. I think Brazil is hip to the ideas we’re singing about. Ideas about changing around the world, about revolution. Our kind of reggae is about the environment, the government and the social changes that need to happen. In my experience, Brazilians are very open and receptive to the kinds of things that we are talking about. Of course the traditions in Brazil – samba and bossa nova – kind of have a reggae-like twist to them anyway. The music is alive in the traditional music and the message is alive in the traditional messages.
Growing up in the DC area, did you draw on the insider activist tradition of DC hardcore punk – Minor Threat, Dischord Records, Bad Brains?
We love Bad Brains, of course. We weren’t too into Fugazi and Minor Threat and Dischord Records and stuff like that because reggae was our thing. Bad Brains was right where we were. We used to listen to the local reggae bands like Black Sheep and Third eye. I grew up in all different kinds of environments. I grew up in Africa, a rich part of Virginia, a poor part of Virginia, and just every kind of environment you could think of. For me, reggae speaks to everybody.
What are your current plans for 2013? You’re in the studio currently as we speak…
We’re working on a new album that we’re recording now and everybody’s excited about that. A couple of big tours and some time off planned for people to spend with your families and that’s pretty much it. We’re doing well and we’re happy to be where we’re at.
Do you anticipate more collaborations in the vein of “Everything Changes,” that have a cross-cultural, multilingual flair?
“Everything Changes” has been remixed now with lyrics in Portuguese, in German featuring Gentleman, in Spanish featuring Dread Mar I, and French featuring Balik Danakil. We’ll probably keep going. Whenever we find a song that we think belongs to the world, we try to remix it in as many languages as possible. That’s something that we are known to do.
Download SOJA’s Everything Changes EP (Amnesty International Benefit) drops February 5, 2013.