Drake Graham, Black Jewish Hip Hop Star

By Amos Barshad

June 14, 2010


Excerpted by permission from Drake: The Heeb Interview. Read the whole interview on www.heebmagazine.com.

It’s a brisk October night, and Aubrey “Drake” Graham–Canadian television actor-turned-fledgling hip-hop superstar– is being chauffeured around his native Toronto in a Bentley Continental Flying Spur. A skinny guy in cornrows named T. Rex drives while I sit in the backseat with Drake’s personal manager, Oliver. Drake rides shotgun, fielding a relentless stream of phone-calls.Drake on Vibe's Relaunch Cover

Vibe chose Drake as one of the stars to grace its relaunch cover. Note the headline, “Hip-hop’s New Religion,” and Drake’s diamond-studded Hebrew letter necklace spelling chai (life.)

Technically Graham’s been famous since he was 14. That’s when he landed the role of the popular, basketball playing Jimmy Brooks on Canada’s high-school drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. But only since last summer–and the runaway success of his single, the atypically sweet “Best I Ever Had”–has the 23-year-old begun dealing with issues like ill-fitting Bentley rims.

The rise started last winter when he posted his third mix tape, So Far Gone, for free download on his personal blog. At the time, he was unsigned and virtually unknown in America. By the modest expectations for new artist mix tapes, So Far Gone was an immediate success; Drake became a steady fixture on in the rap media, most notably on the influential NahRight.com. GoneGone‘s single “Best I Ever Had” was getting radio airplay; by the end of May, it cracked the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop top ten. By July, it was the third most popular song in America.

“Best I Ever Had” sounds just like something hip-hop-station programmers would gravitate towards: a love song with a big fat R&B hook and just a touch of raunch and bravado. It nails average-Joe details (“know you got a roommate, call me when it’s no one there”) and brims with wide-eyed earnestness (“sweat pants, hair tied, chillin’ with no make-up on / that’s when you the prettiest”). Great pop songs about love don’t need to feel authentic to be great; this one, though, does.

At his unofficial coming out party at New York’s S.O.B.s, Drake performed a much-talked-about set for a rabid crowd featuring industry cognoscenti Talib Kweli, Bun B, Ryan Leslie, Lyor Cohen and Kanye West. As Billboard’s report from the S.O.B.s show put it, “Drake . . . has the biggest buzz in hip-hop right now.”

Though the speed of his ascendance is surprising, Drake’s background is even more so. His tenure on Degrassi, a well-intentioned, helplessly goofy TV show that routinely tackles after-school-special issues with all the subtlety of Wile E. Coyote’s anvil-deployment technique, is well covered. Less widely known, though, is his religious affiliation: Drake was born to an African-American father and a Jewish mother, who divorced when he was 5. Raised by his mother in Forest Hill, a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Toronto, he attended a Jewish day school, and was even Bar Mitzvah’d. (The song of the night was Backstreet Boys’s “I Want It That Way.”) All of which is to say that, whatever else happens, Drake is already the first-ever black Jewish rap star. In person, Graham is attentive and sedate. (Polite, too –later in the night, when we switch rides to a Range Rover, he finds the remains of a cheap cigar used to roll a blunt in the car, and quickly brushes my seat clean.) This may well be him in his pre-eccentric-superstar-asshole phase, but, for now, he’s genuinely humble, if self-assured. He says cheesy things like “I have memories to last a lifetime,” but makes them sound heartfelt.

So I shouldn’t be surprised when he identifies himself, without mitigation, as a Jew, but I am–even for a typical suburban-Jew hip-hop-nerd like me, it’s hard to fathom a mainstream African-American rapper speaking publicly of observing the high holidays. To his credit, Graham is as straightforward in person as he is on record.

“I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” he says. “When kids are young it’s hard for them to understand the make-up of religion and race.” He recalls being called a schvartze, repeatedly. “But the same kids that made fun of me are super proud [of me] now. And they act as if nothing happened.” He wears a diamond-studded Chai (prominently displayed on his Vibe cover) and plans, at some point after the release and promotion of his debut, to travel to Israel. He says his mother has expressed hope he’ll marry “a nice Jewish girl.” As far as public acceptance goes today, by all accounts, religion has been a complete non-issue.

If you listen to the lyrics of “Over,” one of Drake’s latest hits, you’ll hear him sing, “I really can’t complain, everything is kosher.”

About Amos Barshad

Amos Barshad has written for Spin, SLAM, the Weekly Dig, Real Detroit Weekly, and the Arkansas Times. He's an assistant editor at New York Magazine's entertainment blog, Vulture.