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Miami Rapper Toro Joins the Ancestors

“We Do This” by Toro

Just a week ago, I wrote my first cover story in six months on the current urban phenomenon of rappers taking their music to strip clubs to get discovered. It's a trend that's prevalent in certain parts of the country, South Florida especially, so I was excited to share my reporting with local readers.

Only three days after the publication of the story, on October 16, a prominent Miami rapper, Derek "Toro" Johnson, was shot in the head and killed as he left a strip club where he had been doing exactly what I reported on: delivering his newest recording to strip club DJs and capturing the ear of the streets.

Toro's loss leaves not only the Miami hip-hop community mourning, but it leaves a painful emptiness in the lives of friends, family, label-mates, and, most poignantly, his 1-year-old daughter, Paige, who must now live with the brutal truth that photos, recordings, and DVDs are not the same as a flesh-and-blood father.

It's a sad story that's repeated too often — rappers dying violent deaths and being shot down before their time. Toro was 33 years old, ten years older than the age that was first reported, but he was still far too young to wind up in the casket in which I saw him last weekend.

The sheer number of people who loved Toro was apparent this past Friday night at his wake in Opa-Locka, where the rapper was born and raised. The streets surrounding the Wright Funeral Home were lined with cars as hundreds of people showed up to pay their respects. The parking lot of the funeral home was filled with folks drinking, wearing custom-made R.I.P. Toro T-shirts, and sharing their favorite stories about the slain MC whom they knew and loved. Rising rap star Ace Hood of Deerfield Beach had a van emblazoned with his face on it parked outside, as did Joe Hound. The viewing area was an imposing display of flowers from Rick Ross. Another bouquet from the Carol City Cartel was positioned near the body, showing the respect that the city's hip-hop community had for Toro.

It was said that Ross was out of town and couldn't attend, as was Flo Rida, but fellow Opa-Locka rapper Brisco was there as was Ball Greezy and the entire Iconz Music Label, with which Toro had been affiliated for the bulk of his career.

Toro was just beginning to make a name for himself as his song "Ride," featuring Ross, was getting increasing exposure on radio and online. The night that he died, Toro was out making sure select DJs had his last single, "We Do This," which might have helped expose him to an even bigger audience had he not met his demise only hours after recording it.

Iconz label head, Jay Fentz was distraught that an artist who was getting so close to leaving the streets behind would end up becoming a victim of them.

"The thing that bothers me so much is that we just finished up his new record," Fentz said via phone last week. "We had just pressed up a few copies. We were going to take it to Power 96. He was very excited about the song. We were all excited about it. We were just putting together his campaign to start working his music nationally."

His name made national news only hours later, but not the way everyone was expecting.

Fentz says Iconz is in the process of setting up a scholarship fund for Toro's daughter and hopes some of the rappers who showed up to pay their respects will continue to do so monetarily for Toro's family.

The reality of that actually taking place for years to come is unlikely, but only time will tell.

What's certain is that Toro's life ended in violence, and a promising career is finished. He lay in his casket wearing mostly red, and there were photos of him throwing gang signs flashing on a monitor inside of the funeral home.

Theories abound on why Toro was shot down. Some allege he was involved in an altercation at Club 112 in Miami earlier that evening; another theory is that he wasn't the target at all, but rather his cousin, who'd just gotten out of prison earlier that week. It's hard to say what's true at this point.

But as I pulled out of the parking lot on Friday, local rap group Unda Surveillance's newest single, "Missing You," blared from a car's speakers. The song, hastily put together as word of Toro's death spread through the rap community, is dedicated to the dead rapper and features his vocals via a recorded voicemail.

It was eerie hearing his voice as I pulled away:

"What's going on. It's ya boy Toro. Know what I'm talking about... The most underrated, most hated, but they can't take it. Dirty Dade County representing. Y'all know what it is."

That's the power of music. Once it's recorded, it's here forever. Hopefully Toro's legacy of loyalty to his hometown and his family will live on.

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Jonathan Cunningham