Fighting terror with “Terruh”

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Josh Cirilo can remember the first time he was racially profiled.

In the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cirilo, a young child traveling with his family, felt singled out by airport security based on his appearance.

“My family is all hues. My mom is (Caucasian), my brother is a different complexion, my dad is even darker than me,” he says. “There I was, (like) 10 years old, when I got singled out in an airport, told to step away from my family, told to get my shoes off, taken to another room.

Josh Cirilo

“In appearance, I get that I don’t look Puerto Rican, but I am,” says Cirilo.

Later, when Cirilo first heard the rapper Lupe Fiasco’s seminal track, “American Terrorist,” a song steeped in critiques of historical American prejudice and foreign policy, something clicked.

“A lightbulb went off in my head and I thought, ‘Oh shit, that’s me.’ And I realized he was explaining how I saw the world, but in a manner I could put it in, ” says Cirilo. “That man changed my life forever.”

Growing up in the “Boogie down” Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop and rap, the jump to music seemed natural to the aspiring artist. The Rochester rapper now makes music under the moniker Terruhwrist, both a nod to that early experience, a reference to a personal idol, Lupe Fiasco, a connection to the earth with the term “terra” and to his own lyrical writing. (As Cirilo says about his music: “It’s all in the wrist.”)

His newest release, “226 A.D.,0” might be tonally brighter than other efforts (Including the recently released single “Carbon”), but it contains meditations on power, prejudice, and the modern world against the background of electronic drums and “smooth as silk” loops inspired by funk and jazz classics.

“It has a lighter mood, but still with the same literary themes I want to talk about,” Cirilo says. “I think it came out really good, but it definitely was a bit of a leap of faith.”

For example, the groove created on the track “NeverLand” is a build that starts with a simple distorted synth loop and slowly adds in a bassline and drums. The song sonically culminates by adding in guitar, piano, horns and vocals halfway through that have both melodic and aloof quality at the same time.

Lyrically, “NeverLand” touches on a wide range of topics using the magical world of Peter Pan’s Neverland to describe an unattainable and unrealistic goal. Power and influence are fleeting to Cirilo as revealed in the line: “You see the money and the fame and the talk of the town/that shit is NeverLand/and I ain’t Peter Pan.”

Yet, the song posits that people still will buy into negative cycles, such as gang violence or drug dealing, even if it will ultimately hurt them. He references both in the chorus, including a double meaning in the term “tre pound” that can refer both to drugs or a gun. “If you’re standing on the block with a tre for a pound/they got a homemade muzzle that ain’t making a sound/that shit is NeverLand/but there you go again.”

The song believes an answer could come through the power of words but warns that they can be used for both good and evil. Cirilo believes his words “Don’t need a passport/got unlimited reach” for the cause of education and unity. But at the same time, there are divisive forces as well. (“Why the news broadcast melancholy and dreary?/Making you fear me?”)

“We’re the proletariat right now. It’s 99 versus 1 at this point so what the fuck are you going to do about it? I’m trying to wake people up,” muses Cirilo. “And it’s not a matter of choosing a side, red or blue. It’s about realizing that you’re not alone in that battle you think you’re fighting.

“But at the end of the day, we’re being divided with some many different labels that even people who were once allies can’t even be allied with each other anymore,” he continues. “That’s the most hurtful part because you are trying to spread a message of equality and social justice but people don’t even know who to fight anymore.”

This type of message is right at home with Terruhwrist’s artistic influences. Cirilo cites socially conscious rappers with a message such as Talib Kwali, Mos Def, and his personal favorite, Lupe Fiasco, as intrinsic to his development as an musician.

But that desire to impart knowledge also came from an English teacher in high school who encouraged Cirilo and introduced him to dystopian and sci-fi novels such as “1984,” “Brave New World,” and “Slaughterhouse Five.” The themes of questioning authority and expanding your consciousness remain evident in Cirilo’s songs either through his words or his signature darkly ominous synths.

While that part of Terruhwrist’s music will never completely change, Cirilo is excited to expand out his sound to an even broader range in the future. While electronic beats and loops are effective for creating the dark but contemplative energy he is typically seeking, he is hoping to learn more instruments to play on songs.

“(As a kid), I didn’t really have music classes. I just learned some things on the piano at some point. I also wasn’t taking it that seriously,” he says. “It’s all about upgrading that sound so that message can keep connecting with more and more people.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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