Drake Has His Own Brand of Jewishness

The Canadian rapper, who told Rolling Stone that he's 'proud to be Jewish' is a slippery enigma who changes roles and even accents from song to song, all the while keeping his place on top of the charts

Rapper Drake reacts on court during the skills competition at the NBA basketball All-Star weekend in Toronto, February 13, 2016
Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP

Drake has held the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for most of this year. The Canadian rapper and singer during his career has set or matched records owned by the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston and Paul McCartney.

In 2014, Rolling Stone called Drake “the biggest Jewish rapper since the Beastie Boys.” Now he’s just one of the biggest rappers of all.

For pop culture watchers, he’s a slippery enigma who changes roles and even accents from song to song, all the while keeping his place on top of the charts. And for Jews, he’s an anomaly, dominating a genre that isn’t exactly known as a Jewish milieu.

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“It’s still not ‘cool’ to be a Jewish hip-hop artist,” Bay Area DJ Maxwell Alegria said.

Drake, 31, is known for his down-tempo music, at times sensitive lyrics and a mischievous sense of humor. His most recent album, “Scorpion,” is an even bigger hit — all 25 songs appear in the top 100 chart.By any measure, Drake is an unusual Jewish celebrity.

He was born Aubrey Drake Graham and grew up in Toronto. His father was African-American, a professional drummer from Tennessee, but Drake was raised primarily by his white Jewish mother, a grade-school teacher. According to earlier interviews, he went to a public high school that was largely Jewish but felt he didn’t fit in and was the target of racist remarks, including “shvartze.”

FILE Photo: Drake performs onstage in Toronto, October 8, 2018.
Arthur Mola/AP

“I didn’t have the worst time, but I did have a hard time. I was always the last kid to get the invite to the party,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014.

At 15, however, his life changed when he was cast on “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a Canadian teen TV drama he was on for six years. (He would return to graduate from high school.)

Drake also told the magazine that he’s “proud to be Jewish.” He occasionally posts Instagram photos of Passover and Hanukkah gatherings, and told Rolling Stone that “I celebrate holidays with my family.”

Bar mitzvahs seem to be a theme for Drake. Not only did he have a bar mitzvah himself, but in 2017 he threw a bar mitzvah-themed birthday party. In 2012, he released a music video for his song “HYFR” that purported to be a “re-bar mitzvah” that showed Drake rapping and praying in a Miami synagogue in front of family friends and music friends.

But Drake identifies as black, while the few other Jewish rappers who have found a degree of fame are uniformly white. The Beastie Boys, the multiplatinum trio of Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch and Adam Horovitz, arguably is the other most famous, topping the charts at the height of their popularity. But there’s a major drop after that. The list usually includes Matisyahu, who gained fame for performing in Hasidic garb (he has since shaved his beard).

But Drake is not parodying the hip-hop ethos -- he is embracing it. His success as a rapper and R&B singer, genres rooted in African-American culture, is as a black artist. He’s a Jew of color, but it’s not his primary public image. That brings up some tricky navigating of identity.

The 2012 “HYFR” video could be called Drake’s most Jewish statement to date, although it was controversial.

“I’m proud — a proud young Jewish boy,” Drake said in a “making of” video for “HYFR.” “When I had a bar mitzvah back in the day, my mom didn’t really have that much money. I told myself that if I ever got rich, I would throw myself a re-bar mitzvah. That’s the concept of the video.”

Filmed in and outside Miami’s Reform Temple Israel, the video, which includes plenty of explicit words, shows Drake at the bimah in a kippa with a rabbi reading the Torah and kissing the fringe of his tallit. The party that follows (not filmed in the sanctuary itself) becomes hilariously raucous. There’s a pan shot of iconic Jewish food, and Drake is lifted into the air in a chair while chanting the (also explicit) chorus lyrics. Candles are lit and a cake is shown, and later smashed, in front of a large Star of David.

The synagogue leadership at first defended the decision to let Drake film there, but later tempered their position,telling JTA that the lyrics of the song — which has nothing to do with Judaism but includes stories of Drake’s sexual conquests — was not consistent with the temple’s values. Perhaps for his Jewish fans Drake doesn’t have to embrace his roots any more than he already does, or talk publicly about his Jewishness to prove himself. Maybe what he’s done is enough to be inspiring.

“I’ll bet the answer is ‘yes’ to that,” Fraknoi said. “He doesn’t even have to do anything. He [just] has to be Jewish and famous.”