We spoke with Jacob Hemphill about the political landscape of his Liberian upbringing, cultivating a spongelike quality to one’s imagination, why fear is the great motivator and how money is the religion of the West.
Nothing is without context, but the lack of an identifiable context probably results from the complete accessibility of all forms of music today.
Roots reggae music has an incredibly rich political and spiritual history. It reminds me of how many folks today who pick up an instrument do it in kind of a context-free way, and something huge is lost when you don’t understand who came before you. Yet, when I listen to Bob Marley’s Exodus or something like that, you hear a guy whose brain was like a sponge for so many musical styles before him. What are your thoughts on all of this?
Yeah, I can see that, although nothing is without context. The lack of an identifiable context probably results from the complete accessibility of all forms of music today via the Internet. Musically, some artists today are never trained or learn from a specific “genre” or school of thought as they were before all this was available to us. Today’s musicians consume so much that their musical output, while inevitably influenced by those before them (or their contemporaries), is not always as identifiably influenced. It’s all there under the surface, though. For me personally, it’s Bob’s lyrics, in addition to his music, that really show the spongelike nature of his brain. He really absorbed what was going on around him in his environment and wrote lyrics that made others feel and see through his eyes and the eyes of others around him.
From what you do as an adult, I’d like to flash all the way back to you as a child. I understand you were brought up in Liberia, a place I unfortunately know so little about. So, can you describe the landscape of this place growing up? What was going on geographically, socially and politically during this time?
I was in kindergarten when my father’s work brought us to Liberia. The country just had their first general election following a military coup four years earlier. I was obviously too young to comprehend what was really going on or how complicated things were there at the time, but I distinctly remember the experience opening my young eyes to the reality that not all kids are born into the same homes or with the same circumstances. My father believes it’s these years there that played a direct role in what I do today.
I probably have zero insight on this subject, but it would seem a lot of traditional reggae music focuses on sort of a celebratory feel — in other words, I feel like it’s meant to balance ignorance, meanness and mental slavery with something intense, vivid and colorful. That’s how the best reggae records strike my ear. What have you learned from the history of this music as your own craft has developed? What function does it perform in the world?
Reggae typically is bright sounding major key songs on a swing, but the songs that always resonated with me were the minor key songs on the downbeat instead of the upbeat. “Concrete Jungle,” specifically, is one of my favorite songs, along with a lot of the early Bob material and Peter Tosh material. We have a few upbeat songs, but typically it’s more lyrically while the music stays downbeat. “I Believe” and “Shadow” are exceptions to this from our catalogue, along with a few others, I’m sure.
If you want to know what the religion of a society is, you look for the tallest building. For us, that’s banks.
I was recently in Times Square in bitter cold, looking at horrible beer advertisements, the Disney megastore, some douchebag yelling “Do you guys wanna get druuuunk?!” Do you feel gut revulsion at unrestrained capitalism, at a corrupted world of easy superficiality?
I think that the people that are making products are making the products that people want or at least think they want. If you want to know what the religion of a society is, you look for the tallest building. For us, that’s banks. We all subscribe to the belief that accumulation is the key to happiness. And if one is good then surely two must be better, and four even better than that. But all the rich people I know are some of the unhappiest people I know. For me, my happiest days were when I was a broke kid just starting out and didn’t even know the concept of accumulating more.
Do you consider yourself a 24/7 workaholic, or are you more of a compartmentalizer? I guess I’m curious as to how the lifestyle of constant travel and tour works for you — do you prefer to go all-in for most of the year then completely take a break from all of it, or are all these different parts of your life indistinguishable? What have the consequences been of being a traveling musician, good or bad?
I’m not 24/7 in the sense that I can’t constantly be trying to work or write. The times when I’m actually trying to write are usually the least productive times for me. It’s when I take a break from it all that I feel I end up being the most productive. So while I’m not working 24/7, I also can start working at any moment. As for time on the road versus not, there’s good and bad. There’s a magic to it all. While I’m on the road I miss home, but the second I’m home, I miss the road.
Can you describe the first moment when you felt really, really fearful about something? Regardless, what’s your idea of the nature of fear? Is it something to be battled no matter what, or can it kind of be the engine of change and betterment?
Fear is an interesting word. To many, this world is about love versus hate, but for me it’s love versus fear. I think fear is a driving force behind a lot of what people do in their lives. Fear leads to being someone you don’t want to be, or being with someone you don’t want to be with. As a kid, fear drives a lot of our creative forces, but there’s really no better creative force than love, particularly when it comes to music. The best moments in life are when you truly feel love and the fear is stripped away.
Racism comes from fear. Sexism comes from fear. Wanting what other people have comes from fear. Wanting more than others have comes from fear.
It seems like every time I look at the news, there’s some nationalist uprising happening somewhere. It looks like Trumpism is kind of infecting other parts of the western world, this deep, seething racial division that should have been erased decades ago. On a global scale, why do you think we’re dealing with all these same old issues that just nauseatingly cycle back, over and over?
Same answer to question number 6. Racism comes from fear. Sexism comes from fear. Wanting what other people have comes from fear. Wanting more than others have comes from fear. It’s all rooted in fear. Believing your religion is right over another’s religion comes from fear. We started with our family unit and the belief that we wanted good for ourselves and our family but out of fear, that’s where our love stopped.
Then we expanded to our village and we loved all those in our village as family, but feared those outside it. Eventually, that expanded to loving those in our religion as family and fearing those outside of it, and so on. We put up new walls out of fear each time we expanded our family slightly. Obviously, we need to realize we’re all one family and not identify and separate each other out of fear.
Finally, I’d like you to scan the room or space you’re in and pick up the nearest book. Can you tell me what the very first passage you see is? Can you map this onto your own memories or experiences in any way?
Dark Days by Randy Blythe. I’m not going to point out the specific passage I’m reading right now, because you should just read the book for yourself and map it to your own experiences or struggles to find yourself.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: March 2, 2018
Total questions: 9
Word count: 1318
Reading time: Five minutes
accessibility, advertisement, banks, Bob Marley, boundary, capitalism, compartment, consumption, context, division, downbeat, geography, guitar, happiness, humanity, influence, instrument, internet, Jacob Hemphill, Liberia, lyrics, nausea, New York, passage, Peter Tosh, Poland, productive, Randy Blythe, religion, role, roots reggae, separation, SOJA, songwriting, struggle, The Wailers, Times Square, unhappiness, upbeat, village
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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