The biggest new face in hip hop is a black Jew.
Drake was born to an African-American father and a Jewish mother, who divorced when he was five. 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…
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.
IN March the young hip-hop star Drake was in town for a harried few days, polishing up the final details on his debut album, “Thank Me Later,” and filming the video for the first single, “Over,” before heading out on his first proper headlining tour. On his last night, his team was holed up at the studio in the basement of the Sunset Marquis hotel, accessible only by special elevator.
Earlier in the day Jay-Z had sent him an encouraging e-mail message that paraphrased one of his own lyrics: “Things are going good/But good can turn to better.” Taking a break to eat before settling in for an all-night session at the studio, Drake checked his phone and laughed. He was texting with someone he was pretty certain was Halle Berry; LeBron James, a close friend, thought he’d be a great match for Ms. Berry’s cousin, and Ms. Berry seemed to be feeling him out.
For most of his teenage years Drake, tall, broad and handsome, was still known as Aubrey Graham (Drake is his middle name) and played the basketball star Jimmy Brooks on the popular Canadian teenage drama “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” In the last 18 months, though, he’s become the most important and innovative new figure in hip-hop, and an unlikely one at that. Biracial Jewish-Canadian former child actors don’t have a track record of success in the American rap industry.
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Buy his album here: Thank Me Later.