By Michael Balderston
Though his teacher might not have thought very highly of it at the time, a young Bobby Lee’s penchant for getting into trouble in first grade was the start of something special. Jacob Hemphill, who was new to the area, and Lee quickly became friends. Fast forward to now, and these longtime friends from Arlington are now Grammy nominees.
Hemphill and Lee met Ryan Berty, Ken Brownell and Patrick O’Shea in middle school and became the founding members of SOJA, a reggae band with the hope of changing the world through their music; later on they would add Hellman Escorcia, Rafael Rodriguez and Trevor Young. Their fourth album, “Amid the Noise and Haste,” debuted in 2014 and is nominated for Best Reggae Album of the Year.
“I was never good at sports, but I wanted to be,” says Hemphill, the band’s singer/songwriter. “I was good at school, but I didn’t want to be. For me music was the first time I was good at something and also enjoyed doing it.”
Hemphill and the others had no formal music education when they started; they simply picked up some instruments and rehearsed every day after school. With the nation’s capital as their background, they gravitated toward reggae, a genre known for political and social messages.
“I was instantly drawn not only to the music but the message behind it,” says Hemphill. “My father raised me on folk singers and storytellers like Paul Simon, people who made songs that were bigger than music. Reggae was the ultimate example of that.”
SOJA has played in front of thousands of people all over the world, but being nominated for a Grammy was a humbling experience according to Hemphill.
“The cliche ‘I’m just honored to be nominated’ really is true,” says Hemphill. “Now, if we’re blessed enough to start receiving future nominations and attend several of these, then maybe I’ll start hoping for a win.”
SOJA recently performed at the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival and are hard at work on their next album. But no matter where these guys are or what they have going on, they always remember how everything started in Arlington.
“We travel the world, but this place will always be our home,” says Hemphill.
The Grammys are this Sunday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m. on CBS. Listen to SOJA’s song “I Believe” from “Amid the Noise and Haste” below.