Some of the other students at the school supported. Others scoffed: A former Yorktown classmate recalled that people at the school knew the band as the “Fakin ‘Jamaicans.” They were white kids playing reggae music.
Twenty-five years later, SOJA is still playing, having added bandmates from Puerto Rico and Venezuela and became a set of eight pieces. And they are far from playing in the basements of Arlington.
“Starting a reggae band was our dream and the only thing we wanted to do, and one day people started coming to shows, and we’re not sure what happened,” singer Hemphill said in Las Vegas this month. . – as SOJA won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album.
Their 2021 album, “Beauty In the Silence”, had given the band their first victory on the biggest music scene.
Meet the reggae band with global credibility formed by white boys … from Arlington
This award, however, received a mixed response. SOYA had won Jamaican artists Sean Paul, Spice, Jesse Royal, Etana and Gramps Morgan in the category, arousing the debate in the world of reggae about the victory and musical style of the band. But for those who met SOJA during her early years in the DC area, the Grammy felt like a validation.
Work had begun early. Shortly after graduating from Yorktown High in 1998, the band made an appointment at Lion and Fox Recording Studios, a DC area studio known for recording and mixing reggae artists.
Producer and engineer Jim Fox said he recognized something immediately.
“I couldn’t let them go. I mean, the music was so great and great. I made them stay two days instead of one day just because I wanted to spend more time with him,” Fox said in an interview. “It was something special. And that recording ended up being their first EP.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Washington region was a bed for reggae, the band said, offering a revolving door for Jamaican and international touring artists, as well as other Caribbean artists stationed in the zone. There was a good reggae show to watch any weekend.
SOJA became part of that scene itself, playing places on U Street like State of the Union and Kaffa House. It was in those days that they met Saray Israel, who long ago earned the title of “Food Queen of Baltimore,” for her constant presence helping to feed musicians at concerts and events.
Israel told the Washington Post that it still remembers the first time it heard SOJA playing at a venue not far from the 9:30 club and he thought, “Hey, who are these guys?”
SOYA – NoVa reggae becomes global and back again
Today, many of the stages where SOJA and other reggae artists performed before have closed their doors or transformed as DC has done. The music scene in the area, a historic haven for punk, has changed, beyond reggae, with a price and digitization thanks to a revolution in home recording technology and a cost of living that has shot up.
“The Arlington scene is very difficult for a lot of musicians because of the rents here. It’s a very expensive area,” said Don Zientara, a punk producer, musician and former owner of Inner Ear Studio, the legendary Arlington recording studio that closed for good last year.
Zientara had recorded SOYA on Inner Ear a few years ago.
“They’re a very close-knit band,” he said, “which is unique in that many bands really get along like brothers.
They also started traveling by road as a family. Getting a first van changed everything, SOJA said, and allowed him to start driving up and down the east coast doing shows. Sometimes the premises were full. Sometimes they were playing in an almost empty room.
“This was difficult, but we kept our perseverance and our efforts paid off,” SOJA told The Post in an email. “After years and years of staying there, we could finally catch planes and travel around the world.”
Fox traveled with him, recording and designing his music until he signed with ATO Records in 2011.
“All over the world,” he said, “they say they’re from Virginia.”
They’ve said it in Hawaii and Brazil, in Costa Rica and Colorado’s Red Rocks, in Guam, in the Santa Barbara Bowl, in New Caledonia, and back in Wolf Trap. As it went, the band gained an international fan base, especially in South America, creating their first album under ATO Records, “Strength to Survive”, to reach number 1 on the reggae album chart. from Billboard in 2012. Two initial Grammy nominations. , in 2015 and 2017, followed.
“Beauty In the Silence” was the breakthrough. The band’s website describes the album’s mood, which includes collaborations with artists such as UB40 and Slightly Stoopid, and reached number 2 on the Billboard reggae album, as an “emotional celebration.” “.
“We never expected to be nominated,” Hemphill said in a backstage interview following SOJA’s Grammy victory in early April.
“Hearing our name was surreal and dreamy,” the band told The Post. “We celebrated with lots of hugs, tears and text messages.”
The full list of 2022 Grammy winners
But not everyone followed. Reggae music, after all, originated in Jamaica and has deep ties to the island’s culture and Rastafari, a religion and social movement based there. Some reggae fans took to Twitter to criticize the Recording Academy for giving the award to a group led by white men over Jamaican artists.
Cegrica Hamilton, a sound engineer in Jamaica who works with the band, was one of those who defended the decision. Many in Jamaica do not know SOYA, he told The Post, but admire his work for how it has evolved and been inspired by different parts of the world, from different genres: folk, Hawaiian, even Washington go-go.
SOJA members, meanwhile, said they have always felt strongly supported by Jamaican reggae artists, including some of this year’s Grammy contestants.
“While reggae music was born in Jamaica, and everyone who knows SOJA knows how much we honor and respect it, Jamaican music and message, led by the Honorable Robert Nesta Marley, have grown so great. and so powerful that they spread around the world, “the band wrote in The Post.
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When SOJA won, Hamilton said he was overwhelmed with happiness by a group that has become a family to him.
“I couldn’t be there to celebrate with them,” he said, “but I’m still celebrating here in Jamaica.”
Fox was also celebrating. After the victory, he posted a photo of the band in the early 2000s on Facebook. “I heard it when we recorded the first demo. Look at them now. 2022 Grammy winners. You make me proud. I love you guys. Congratulations, “he said.
“They have talent,” Fox told The Post days later. “It doesn’t matter where you are from. “
They are simply, he added, from Arlington.