Here's a touching ode to the difficulty of NOT being an impoverished Jamaican:
SOJA (Soldiers of Jah Army) are a competent middle-class white reggae band from Washington D.C. Simply keeping their noses to the grindstone, they could have had a respectable career playing UB40 covers on cruise ships, or maybe busting out their roots repertoire at frat parties seeking a modicum of "authenticity." Instead, lead singer Jacob Hemphill seems bent on "self-expression." This is unfortunate, considering his skill at expressing himself in interviews:
HEMPHILL ON SONGWRITING: “When you listen to an artist you can either have a series of one liners, or you can tell a story with your music."
Guess which one he wants to do.
HEMPHILL ON ELEMENTS OF STYLE AND FINANCE: "We set out to tell a story, it's like poetry – dancing around an entire theme, but never putting a period on anything. It is like the two sides of a coin, but you can see them at the same time.”
Thoughtful of him to explicate the obscure meaning of that cliche.
HEMPHILL ON HIS LOVE AFFAIR WITH MUSIC: "I think music calls me for booty calls. It's kind of crazy."
Dude, that's called "masturbating to your Lee Perry records"--which is, admittedly, kind of crazy.
Granted, musicians often sound like idiots in interviews. (See Sheryl Crow.) Usually they can muster some clarity in their songs, though--that's what we pay them to do. True to form, Hemphill's "Born in Babylon" is CLEARLY the rant of a man who's been lambasted by critics, doesn't appreciate it, and sees in his bad reviews a parallel with the physical and economic enslavement of the Jamaican people. Why? Because these authoritarian critics are stifling His Voice!
Attacking critics is certainly nothing new--Eminem and Toby Keith have done so in fairly entertaining ways, Akon more passive-aggressively. (I'm conflicted about increasing nu-Idolator's hit count, but this is right on.) SOJA wisely choose the latter method, particularly during Jacob's priceless closing scat:
"If I never tried to do this at all/ I think he [the critic]'d be out of a job/ And maybe I just should've stayed in bed/ Stay out of the booth and put all these guitars in the closet."
Perish the thought! If you did that, we might never get to know your attractive self-righteous side:
"Saving this world just come with a cost..."
"I'm too busy to judge another man/ I'm tryin' to write the blueprint for all the world to understand."
Good luck with that, Jake! In the meantime, you might want to decide whether you want people to actually read that blueprint, or simply look into your eyes and divine your saving heart:
"While they were aiming at my words/ they missed the rest of me."
Well, your words provide a big target. The idea of "Born in Babylon" was born when Hemphill was shooting the breeze with his buddy, Redskins quarterback Colt Brennan, who has also faced the abject, soul-killing adversity of people telling him he'd never make it to the NFL. In what could have been a misplaced Punky Brewster episode, the two sat around one day bemoaning their lot in life. According to The Star:
"Me [Hemphill] and [Brennan] were sitting there talking one day like, `Dude, nobody wants us to f--king make it because of who we are, it's so f--king Babylon.' He said, `I came from a good family and good house, but because of who I was everybody says I can't make it; so it's like I might as well have come from nothing and pulled myself all the way up.'"
Not exactly. COMING FROM NOTHING is like coming from nothing. Overcoming discouraging words to become an NFL QB or a professional musician is admirable, but not unthinkable when your parents have had the good fortune to raise you in a middle-class suburb like Arlington, VA. I'll grant you, worrying about bands' authenticity and whether they've "paid their dues" is one of the biggest bugaboos around; a more real concern is when some yak from "a good family and a good house" makes a living in a touring band (behind Matisyahu, no less!), but still compares himself to this guy:
Choose your symbols carefully!