LOS ANGELES — In a culture of misfits and outsiders, Aubrey “Drake” Graham is the ultimate outsider — a big-time black Jewish rapper.
His star is rising rapidly on the hip-hop scene.
Though fans have followed the Jewish-Canadian Drake since his days as basketball star Jimmy Brooks on the Canadian soap “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a recent spate of press has introduced the 23-year-old artist to the broader public. The New York Times declared the young, emotionally vulnerable artist “the most important and innovative new figure in hip-hop.”
Drake released his first album, “Thank Me Later,” earlier this month, though his mixtapes have been widely circulating since 2006. In fact, Drake earned the unusual distinction of being nominated for a 2010 Grammy without the release of an album.
He’s been traveling in the right company: Rap star Lil Wayne was the first mainstream act to incorporate Drake into his touring routine and served as somewhat of a mentor to the fledgling artist.
Drake was born to an African-American father and a Jewish mother who divorced when he was 5, according to an interview in Heeb magazine, and he was raised by his mother in Forest Hill, a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Toronto. He attended a Jewish day school and had a bar mitzvah, which featured the Backstreet Boys tune “I Want It That Way.”
His father was primarily absent and, according to The Times, struggled with drug addiction and spent time in prison. His mother suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which precluded her from working and forced Drake to grow up fast. In interviews he often portrays himself as a loner.
“I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” he told Heeb. “When kids are young it’s hard for them to understand the make-up of religion and race.”
Drake told the magazine that he was often called a schvartze, a derogatory term for blacks.
“But the same kids that made fun of me are super proud [of me] now,” he said. “And they act as if nothing happened.”
Drake displays signs of Jewish pride; Heeb says he wears a diamond-studded Chai. He also wants to travel to Israel, the magazine reports.
With his complex identity, Drake is using the internalized experience of his childhood to infuse hip-hop with a rare emotionality. The Times gave his album an encouraging review, calling it “moody, entrancing and emotionally articulate,” and adding that he “manages to balance vulnerability and arrogance in equal measure.”
After struggling through childhood, Drake seems to be enjoying the current payoff — the Heeb interview chronicles him driving around Manhattan in a Bentley. Already, however, there have been reports of overspending and financial mismanagement.
Even so, with his career ascending, Drake doesn’t seem to be worried about finances. He told The Times that he’s more concerned about the insularity caused by fame.
“Did I sacrifice something?” he wondered. “Have I not realized what it is yet because I’m enjoying this too much?”
(This article was adapted from jewishjournal.com/hollywoodjew/.)