Hip Hop, Storytelling, and the Art of Memory: An Interview with Jrusalam

On a hot and sweaty early summer evening we met up for our interview in Durham. Actively involved with hip hop and CypherUnivercity—a growing North Carolina-based movement rooted in free expression, improvisation, and freestyle rap—Jrusalam and I met up to talk about music, storytelling techniques, heritage, and more.

Recently, he put out his second album, the middle in a trilogy of amulets, called Arcoeli. (Ark-oh-E-lie.) It’s a personal album, but it’s not self-centered. It’s reflective of a familial journey and personal quest as much as it is a recounting of cultural legends and myths. Ideologically involved but not identifying strictly with an ideology, Arcoeli makes a critique of the daily monotony of capitalism while nodding to the beauty of each ‘mundane’ moment where even in our pockets there’s a touch of something divine. Each aspect moves like a thread in a pattern, weaving in with dream imagery and musing on the nature of inspiration.

Jru’s new album, by the way, is available now on all major streaming platforms on a device near you.

“I’m catching Zzs so I could capture my dreams they say Carpe Diem like a day is a thing to be seized, the bee keeper of a honey comb that’s under the brain, just a worker 9–5 I’m like the son of a Queen”

Jru at the cypher

Andrew: Where do you see ritual, and mythology, fitting into our world today? How can we fill and occupy that space?

Jrusalam: That’s why I really enjoy the cypher because it’s like a ritual. The performing, the music, it’s all ritualistic. What I learned to respect about the dominant forces, authority, is that it’s all ritual. It’s all process. If you go through the process, you get to where you want to be. That’s the idea. So if you’re on the right side of the law then you follow their rituals, and people on the wrong side of the law don’t and they hold different, well, rituals.

From my point of view, I don’t subscribe to anything. I just look at all the different groups of people and learn etiquette, dealing with different groups. The ritual is something you do on time and it has a timing to it. I see people do that with the lunar cycle, new moon, full moon, or with the solstices, equinox, and then you have holidays. We grow up with rituals like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, you know, all different forms. I think that’s really prevalent and it’s important to recognize how we’re programmed and then, to create your own programming. Create your own ritual that’s original to you. To find what works for you. Every ritual has its own intention or purpose.

Andrew: How did you get started in hip hop?

Jru: Hip Hop? From my cousins. My cousins were older than me, so they were cool to me, and so going to see my cousins was like the best thing in the world. From an early age, every time I’d go see them they’d be listening to Wu-Tang, Tupac, Biggie… Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were my favorite — there was something about it, the way Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were they just captured my ears at that age. That was my original source you know it was my cousins that made this so cool to me.

“Shadow, Rainbow, and Reflection” by Jru

By the time I was ten years old I was always looking for it. I was saying “Hey you know about rap music?!” And some kids were like “Hell nah. I like country. I like rock n’ roll.” But then, I stopped going to private school and went to public school, switched up, and now I’m around all types of kids not just a whole bunch of white kids. I started learning more, going to summer camp, and that’s when I started writing rhymes. At summer camp one time, this kid named Eric, we were writing a song together. And he was listening to way more music than I knew about. He put me onto a lot of stuff and was a hip-hop head early on.

It’s funny because we ran into each other at military school in Virginia. That’s who I wrote my first lyrics with, was Eric, which is crazy because my cousin’s name is Eric. These two Erics had this influence on me in hip-hop.

So I kept writing rhymes from there and just started doing it automatically, on my own time, not really with a purpose. By the time I was eleven I saw Bow Wow and was like “Fuck that shit. I can do something way better.” So I started writing rhymes and thinking “I can be a rapper.” Before, I just wanted to be a superhero. Then I was wondering “How am I going to get some superpowers?”

Jru rapping in cypher
Jru rapping in cypher
Jru in the tunnel at the cypher (Source)

After that, I wasn’t just writing on little post-it notes and random pieces of paper. I thought “I need a rhyme book!” So I bought a rhyme book and filled that shit up.

Bought another rhyme book, filled that shit up. I just kept filling up books back to back to back and started keeping a stack of rhyme books. And writing nonstop, everyday, challenging myself with different modes.

First, when I was writing it sounded like Mobb Deep, going into high school. And then that’s when Eminem and 50-Cent became hot and all that. I started learning more about writing more lyrically… acquiring knowledge of technique, writing multi-syllabic punch lines. That’s what I was geared towards, the rap battle-type punch lines and having jokes for your opponents. That was my main focus.

Then, I don’t know, I had a shift where I started wanting to write poetry. I was in love, had a girlfriend, and was writing mad poetry about love. But then I was like “Ahh I can’t just do this forever, I’ve gotta write rhymes.” Around seventeen, I decided I was going to combine the poetry with the rhymes… It’s going to have technique, but it’s not all about the bars and killing my opponent off or whatever stupid shit. It wasn’t all about the immature shit I was on back then, it was about the growth. So I couldn’t be “Base” anymore (because originally my name was Base) and I asked my step-dad how do you say “Base” in Arabic?

And he said “Al Qaeda.” And I was like ah hell I don’t know if I can name myself that. I wanted to write my name in Arabic, because I was a graffiti artist and was writing graffiti everywhere. I was [originally] going to write Base in Arabic but then, I thought I don’t know if I want to write Al Qaeda this might bring attention, you know.

Andrew: How did you come to Jrusalam as your name?

Jru: I asked myself “What do I name myself?” and I was like my name’s Jru—Andrew. Who am I? What do I want? I want peace! So I wanted peace, and Salam is Peace. So, Jru-Salam. When it clicked like that I thought oh shit that’s dope. It’s like the city Jerusalem but Jrusalam.

Andrew: Peace City.

Jru: Yeah. Jrusalam. I’m like a city of people. Different people populate my dreams and I’ll be different people in my dreams myself. So it’s just a whole population deep in my soul—it’s a lot of people.

To me, what I believe, is I’m physically a male. Mentally, consciously, I think, I’m a male. But in my soul, the soul has a potential of all different forms. With the spirit, that doesn’t have any gender or sex in the first place. No race, nothing. It’s just spirit. Everybody has the same spirit, it’s the life force. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have the spirit, you know what I’m saying?

For me, the name Jrusalam it’s kind of like the city but it’s not. I was around then seventeen and have been running with it since. It’s kind of like the idea of the macrocosm in the microcosm. The name is like a city but I’m a person as a city of people. It’s the larger thing contained in something small in a unit.

Jru’s album cover in 360° 😄, courtesy of Beaumonde

Andrew: What are some of the themes or structures in your music? We’ve touched on some of the themes already when talking about heritage and even in your name that you carry with you a city. But, what forms or structures, or techniques, are you using in your music?

Jru: There are all different approaches. You could write something without the beat, and it just be a thought. So you’re just capturing what you’re thinking.

When you write to the beat, what you say is geared towards the beat and you choose words and sounds that complement the beat. I like to just listen to the beat and what it moves me to say that’s what I start with. Then I just build on that, and I find a cadence that I talk to and so I blend what I’m saying with the cadence. There’ve been a lot of different techniques that I’ve learned. Like, most of the aesthetic techniques of rhyming and shit like that, I let that fall to the background and let it kind of seep into what I’m saying and what I’m illustrating—and the overall message. There are a lot of different dimensions of what goes into that stream of what you choose to apply and say this is a song.

To me, what I feel is that you don’t have to try to be different if you just embrace who you are. There aren’t a whole lot of people who are going to be the exact same as you. You’ve got a lot that sets you apart. If you embrace what makes you unique, it speaks for itself. That’s the most important thing, is capturing the authentic you. That’s how I feel. Capturing me. How I really feel.

Andrew: Yeah. You have to work through it too. Fall into a groove. Nothing ever really comes straight off the bat or right when you begin.

Jru: Yeah. It’s different moods, too. This some smooth shit, this some fly shit. This some funky shit. This some wild shit. This some hype ass shit that Imma say right here! Different moves that I have. You know what I’m saying? It’s like writing down dreams. In this sense, it’s in a musical dimension. When you turn the music on, all the sudden everybody starts groovin’. It just changes the whole vibration of the room, and people are acting differently now that the music’s on. Their bodies are moving differently than they would normally if they were at work. You’re not supposed to be dancing on the job all the time… They’re not playing music like that at work. At least not where I’m working! Can’t be dancing while making cabinets.

Music does something to your brain, to your body. I feel like, when I look at it and compare it to what’s popular music, what’s classic, what’s something that’s timeless that people listen to all the time?, and when I listen to that and compare it to my music I’m like damn, my stuff’s personal.

I feel like the way to be successful is to be real simple, and repetitive, and just jingle. Just something real simple that people are going to pick up. I don’t know. I like writing music that has a story to it, and has life. It captures me. It’s my record.

Andrew: As it should be, too.

Jru: It’s like Gilgamesh. He couldn’t figure out how to become immortal, failed the test, and said all I can do is write my story. So he wrote his story down and was like “If I don’t tell it somebody else is going to tell my story all fucked up. So I’m going to tell it.”

His story got forgotten for the longest time, and then rediscovered and now it’s taught in college and wherever else. Everybody knows about Gilgamesh at least to some degree if you went to school.

If you look into the history of writing you’ll find Gilgamesh. It’s one of the first stories.

Gilgamesh, historical king of Uruk (Image source)

At the end of the story, he says that he wrote this on the wall… and said something like “This is the only way I’m going to be immortalized.”

So, hip hop is a way to express yourself. To actualize yourself. Some people make a business out of it, make good money off of it. I guess because I’m more of a personal artist it’s not in that same degree for me.

That’s how I feel with this album. Arcoeli.

It’s real personal to me. This past year was all types of crazy but if you connect my first album with this album to my next album, it all kind of happened in the same story and timeline. All three of these albums form the same story of the past couple of years. They represent a moment in time.

Arcoeli represents everything that happened since my last album, Melothesian. Some of the songs on here, like “Pockets,” I probably wrote five different songs to that same beat. But, I was using that beat in the promotion for Melothesian. That’s how old it is.

Arcoeli Cover Art, courtesy of Jrusalam.com

Andrew: It came back around.

Jru: Yeah. I came up with a finalized form for it, and thought I’ve gotta make this song—”Pockets”—cell phone, keys, and wallet. It just felt right to me.

A lot of the songs on Arcoeli tell a story of a moment in time, really. Some of the songs have an eerie feeling to them. That’s because that’s just how I felt.

From Melothesian, to Arcoeli, to my next album, they’re three different amulets. Three different charms. Each one is a whole different thing. Melothesian I made at Imurj with Paul and invested good money into it, had good execution. This one, Arcoeli, it reflected the time that was honestly kind of a mess. It’s kind of dark, but beautiful. It had revelation. Especially because this was the time period when I found my mom’s family. That was something I was looking for my whole adult life, really.

Watch Jrusalam’s latest video “Paperboy” out now🔥🔥

Andrew: What are your channels of influence as a musician? They could be anything from the music itself, which is the most direct influence if you’re influencing the direction of the message of your music, but also that can be the platform around it that upholds it… social media, your website, your digital identity that people come to associate with you.

Jru: With this album, I just felt like it was something that just came to me. It was a period of time where I was able to sit down for days at a time and just write. And be alone. Completely. In a pocket dimension, I’m somewhere else. Receiving transmissions like my brain feels like a radio. *Makes radio noises*

Vrupp! Music’s playing. And I’m like Oh I’ve got to write this down! Then tapped into this real creative space. Songs I put on this album are a selection from that time period. Shit I’m thinking about, how I’m feeling, you know?, little snippets of my inner life and my outer life, how I see the world, how I deal with people. That’s really at the bottom and, is the essence of it is my experience of life.

Also, I’m painting a picture—a story—which is my own story that is also setting up a direction. Really one thing I think about is death. I look at my brother, he was 24. He didn’t have a chance to leave anything behind. He just had his car and a couple things, like clothes.

But a work of art? If I die tomorrow my work of art is still going to be available. For anybody that looks back, once they get to know me, they’re going to be able to go visit my art. My art is going to take you to a place. How I’m feeling in this time period, in this time period, this is the city I was living in here… Really like, the Melothesian, my last album, that was all Raleigh.

Melothesian album cover, courtesy of Jrusalam.com

Andrew: It was. And you can tell, through the music.

Jru: And Arcoeli is all Durham. The next one’s Los Angeles. They’re all different places, different cities, and different feelings.

But really, each album is a vehicle for the album cover, for the cover art. Each album represents a different amulet. An amulet is not just some shit you can make.

Like a real magician, not like a trick magician. An amulet is something you have to make at the right time, with the right ingredients, and the right astral alignment—sun, moon, have to be in the proper place and the planets gotta be in the right signs and houses. Then, you can make this amulet, this astral image with different symbols and words on it, cyphers. Combined with all these elements, boom, you consecrate the amulet. Now this has astral potency.

In the same fashion, I think of making an album in the same way. Really I’m bringing together all these influences, all these different channels, different things for a certain timing that to me I relate to the stars. Stars are what I use to enhance my memory. That’s what I chose as my memory device. Because of its usefulness. That changed me. There’s something about it. I would hope someone else has the same idea to look for it.

Really I was looking for the art of memory. But then, my mentor showed me something about using the hand as a tool for memory. And it clicked with me like “Oh, that’s a mnemonic!” A hand mnemonic. So, then started researching hand mnemonics and started finding this goes back a long time, people were doing this for all different reasons since the beginning of time. Using their fingers as counting boards and computers. Imagine all the different advanced levels of complexity that ancient people had sat there and figured out with their hands. You know what I mean?

Andrew: Yeah.

Jru: It sets up this whole virtual board. Shep [co-founder of Beaumonde] and I had worked out a whole chess board using points on our hands to visualize the chess board. Just trying to do it in your mind is a little difficult, but when you have something you can reference as close and as nearby as your own hand, that has all these divisions already laid out on it….

So I had this idea. I said, this really must have come from the Egyptians. I suspect somewhere this will lead back to the Egyptians. And then sure enough, I go from source to source to source and it led to this one book that said there’s this theory that the Egyptians divided time into 12 because we have 12 knucklebones on our hand. And the day into 24 hours because we have 24 knucklebones total. Well, 28 total. We have 24 here on the four fingers, then including the thumbs you have 28.

The idea is that they recognized we have 28 knucklebones and there are 28 days of the moon. They saw the correspondence between the fingers and the reckoning of time, and that’s why they divided time in a way that we’ve been using ever since. The cycle of time. The small cycles and great cycles.

I translated this to the more western idea of astrology, or, to the stars so I could accomplish what I was trying to do from the get-go which was to develop a memory wheel… of the stars. This would help organize and make my memory stronger. The art of memory makes your memory strong, but a hand mnemonic is many different points of memory. With mnemonics, you’re linking things together with some visual, a word, something like that. Visuals and words. Information.

With this, you’re also combining it with the place of a point that you can feel. So you also have tactile memory, a touch memory combined with the visual and the word.

Andrew: It’s more of your senses working together and not being isolated.

Jru: It strengthens the memory even more. I started learning different ways to use the whole body as a memory device, too.

Andrew: Like, different muscles and points on bones?

Jru: Yeah. Some people even have a way of counting all the way around the body.

Original artwork by Jru

Andrew: In terms of the marketing aspect of music, how can the gap be bridged between artist and consumer?, so that the artist’s intentions can really shine through. Of course, that distance may not be a bad thing — between artist and consumer/perceiver. This question kind of relates to media as well, how artists engage with their work after it’s finished.

So, if you post something on Facebook, like your album, part of the album is existing through you posting or talking about it. Putting it on your story or wherever. It can be through social media, digital in general… Like the 360° photo you did with Shep and Beaumonde, that’s a form of your art. Obviously, it’s separate from your album as a concept which is really its own inner thing. But then also there’s the world around what you create.

Jru: I like having it available like that. So when I talk to people and when I bring it up, I’ll be like Yeah check out my website I’ve got my album on my website, it’s the best way to find it. And that’s something I really don’t do a lot because I’m not that type of person where I’ll just be like “Go to my website.” It’s not me.

I see that as, that’s the trick. Really, pointing to the product often. For me, because I’m not a salesman and am not selling myself, I’m not doing this for money or return. There’s another purpose for it. It’s a long-term purpose. Like an investment in the future. So it’ll be something that’s always going to be there. I’ll always have this work of art. And I can take it down if I felt like it. Start on something brand new.

“It’s like a bee goes from flower to flower, makes honey. The artist goes from inspiration to inspiration and makes honey.”

Andrew: It informs the people ahead of you of what was here. Art, therefore, has to be accurate to where you are in your time period. Your place. And that fits perfectly with us talking a lot about… place. Whether that’s in relation to the stars or the time of the day, our hands, or just place in our family and how we relate to them. Our art is part of us.

It’s a big debate in literary criticism, with regards to knowledge of ‘literary people’ and artists generally, and that’s how much we think about the art in relation to the person. If in their personal life xyz is happening, sometimes knowing that will actually make their art clearer, and make more sense. Some writers are more auto-biographical, too, and musicians. So it’s like them leaving their stamp. But not in an ego way, like look what I did look at this legacy I built. It’s a signature.

Jru: I have this idea that it’s like building a place. It’s a place that if somebody gets it they can meet me there. You’ll see me…. at this place! It’s like a pocket dimension.

Shadow, Rainbow, and Reflection
(Sandman, Iris, and Merrow)

Andrew: What do you see as the responsibility of artists today? Do you see there being a particular responsibility for artists, for musicians?

Jru: I mean, if that’s what you choose for yourself. If you are fortunate, then you do have a responsibility.

Anybody that is really serious about it, they feel some responsibility. I personally feel that I have a responsibility to pursue this dream that I’ve had since I was a kid. You know, see it through.

It’s like a bee goes from flower to flower, makes honey. The artist goes from inspiration to inspiration and makes honey. Song writing is something I really enjoy doing. Just like that, I can also develop other interests, and dreams. The art is what you make it. It can be something you feel a responsibility towards, and a lot of artists aren’t responsible but they’re still artists.

For more from Jrusalam, and to stream his new album, check out his: Facebook|Instagram|Website

(This interview was edited lightly for length and clarity.)

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Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.