Review: SOJA show strikes symphonic gold

Lead singer and guitarist for SOJA, Jacob Hemphill, performs at the Fox Theatre Tuesday night. (CU Independent/Molly Maher)
Lead singer and guitarist for SOJA, Jacob Hemphill, performs at the Fox Theatre Tuesday night. (CU Independent/Molly Maher)

Soldiers of Jah Army, commonly known as SOJA, is a reggae band out of Washington D.C. famous for their powerful live performances.

The band has been together for 12 years, and in that time has grown from a local phenomenon to having huge followings internationally. SOJA’s latest album, “Born in Babylon,” was released Aug. 25.

SOJA consists of Kenneth Brownell (percussion), Bobby Lee (bass/vocals) and Jacob Hemphill (guitar/vocals), Patrick O’Shea (keys), and Ryan Berty (drums).

SOJA creates intricate music but maintains a level of improvisation on stage, making their live shows so powerful. The band has been together for the last twelve years.

“We’re like brothers so that helps, because we knew each other for 13 years before that [12 years] anyways,” Lee said. “We all grew up together and it just carries over into the band.”

The name Soldiers of Jah Army suggests the band might have religious roots, but this is a common misconception.

“Its not religious in the sense that you know we follow only one belief; we try to find truth from every religion, so you can’t really say its religious music,” Lee said.

The band’s name was inspired by a common phrase the band members would say when they were younger.

SOJA gets the crowd dancing Tuesday night. (CU Independent/Molly Maher
SOJA gets the crowd dancing Tuesday night. (CU Independent/Molly Maher

“We wore a lot of camouflage and people always asked us why,” Lee said. “We were young, we would be like, ‘We’re soldiers of jah army, that’s whassup!’ and then we were coming up with a name for the band and it just fit.”

SOJA may be considered a reggae band, but their unique message combines elements of faith, politics, and love.  Hemphill explained the reason reggae was so important to them was the message it had to offer.

“It’s different from other types of music; it’s world-changing, life-changing, people-changing,” Hemphill said. “We want it to be something more than just music, to have an effect on the world.”

The politically-charged lyrics of songs like “Peace in a Time of War” and “Rasta Courage” can be traced back to growing up in Washington D.C. Being from the nation’s capital made politics a huge part of SOJA’s music.

“It’s time-specific to what’s going on in the world and being conscious,” Hemphill said. “It’s what I see is going on now plus a bunch of love songs.”

At the SOJA concert, fans poured into the theatre and filled up the dance floor. The excitement in the crowd was palpable as everyone waited for the headliner to take stage.

Kristy Miller, a sophomore open-option major, said she has seen SOJA live over 20 different times all over the country, giving credence to the impressiveness of the band’s live show.

“SOJA’s live show is absolutely amazing; you have to experience it to know what I’m talking about,” Miller said.

The SOJA audience. (CU Independent/Maria DiManna)
The SOJA audience. (CU Independent/Maria DiManna)

The lights went down low as SOJA took the stage. Shouts of “What up, D.C!” and “Light it up!” could be heard from the crowd.

As soon as the band started playing the audience was in a trance. The organic texture of the music was evidence of the band’s synergy after playing together for 12 years.

Hemphill’s soulful vocals carried the lyrics as the bass and drums moved the crowd. A saxophone and trumpet helped flesh out the music, adding another level of intricacy to the sound.

The crowd was chanting the words to every song played. Along with songs off of “Born in Babylon,” SOJA played classics such as “Can’t Tell Me,” “You Don’t Know Me” and “True Love.”

Despite the large crowd, the show was intimate as the band steered from their set list to improvise in between songs. SOJA took some song requests from fans, a rare occurrence for live shows.

Brownell said he hopes the audience leaves SOJA’s shows with a new attitude about something they’ve been contemplating recently and having had a good time.

“A lot of times when you have a moment at a show it comes from when people find inspiration in songs that help them realize how to make their lives better and to not take for granted what’s already in their life,” Brownell said.

Even by SOJA’s standards, this show was powerful.

“That was the best show I’ve seem them play so far out of all the ones I’ve been to!” Miller said.

Tune in to SOJA’s music here.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Maria DiManna at

  1. I remember when they used to practice in our basement and one of their first shows outside a music store in Falls Church, VA. I think some of them were only 16 at the time. They have come a loooong way from those days! Good stuff! -Mom-

  2. Jake was in my brothers preschool class, and Bobby was in my first grade class, and Ryan was in my boyscout troop, I remember when they were the moped mafia in arlington, and i hope they keep enjoying this success

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