Drake wearing an oversized leather, shearling-lined coat on a balcony overlooking a busy city street
Drake in a photobook that accompanied his 2016 album "Views" (Photo/Caitlin Cronenberg)

Drake, rap’s global superstar, is his own brand of Jewish

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Drake, the Canadian rapper and singer, is a record-breaking artist who has held the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 for most of this year. He’s had more songs in the top 10 than any other solo male artist. He’s even bypassed the Beatles’ 1964 record by holding seven songs in the top 10 simultaneously. And he is tied with the Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston and Paul McCartney for top 10 hits overall.

Oh, and he’s Jewish. Even if most of his fans don’t know it.

Leila Pifko
Leila Pifko

“They probably — hmm, I’m not sure,” mused Leila Pifko, a senior at Jewish Community High School of the Bay. “I’m honestly not sure. I feel like they might? Some people might know.”

In 2014, Rolling Stone magazine 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 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.

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

Drake, 31, is known for a fast-paced rapping style, down-tempo music, lyrics that range from swagger to deep emotion, and a mischievous sense of humor. He broke onto the music scene in 2009 with “So Far Gone,” which had a single that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart. His most recent album, “Scorpion,” is an even bigger hit — all 25 songs appear in the top 100 chart — and has spawned a viral meme.

Drake is performing three shows at the 19,500-seat Oracle Arena in Oakland, Oct. 26-27 and 29.

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. “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, his life changed when he was cast on “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a Canadian teen TV drama he was on for six years. (He later went back to graduate high school.)

He 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, “I celebrate holidays with my family.”

Still, his Jewishness is not widely known. While public musings over his ethnicity are not uncommon on internet forums, few fans apparently ask Google if he’s Jewish — it doesn’t even come up as one of the top 10 search results for the query “Is Drake…”?

 

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Some of his fans, though, are definitely in on it.

“Jewish men in particular really know Drake is Jewish — and love that,” said Alex Fraknoi, a San Francisco-based Jewish rapper.

It’s not that it’s a secret. Drake played up his Judaism in a 2014 skit on “Saturday Night Live,” doing a pretend re-enactment of his bar mitzvah in a wig and kippah, rapping “I’m black and Jewish/it’s a mitzvah” over a klezmer clarinet.

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.” In it, Drake is shown rapping and praying in a Miami synagogue in front of family friends and music friends. There’s also a post-bar mitzvah “party” that gets wild, with guests chugging Manischewitz and rapper Lil Wayne joyfully smashing a skateboard into a table.

That kind of self-referential playfulness makes Drake a hero to a certain crowd.

“I would definitely say that it definitely makes me more proud as a Jew,” said Pifko, who like Drake has Canadian roots.

But Drake identifies as black, while other Jewish rappers who have found a degree of fame are uniformly white — and there aren’t many, to begin with. The Beastie Boys, the multiplatinum rap trio of Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch and Adam Horovitz who are arguably the other most famous hip-hop Jews, topped the charts during their time, but there’s a long fall-off after that in degrees of fame. The list usually includes Matisyahu, the rapper and singer who became famous for performing in Hasidic garb (he has since shaved his beard). Asked about Drake in 2012, Matisyahu said, “He’s Jewish, but he’s not representing Judaism. He happens to be Jewish, just like Bob Dylan happens to be Jewish.”

The only other non-white Jewish rapper of note is Shyne, the son of the prime minister of Belize and a former protégé of Sean “Diddy” Combs who found Judaism while in prison and now lives an Orthodox life as Moses Levi. He has dissed Drake as “an actor from Canada.”

Jewish hip-hop has traditionally leaned heavily on parody, according to Judah Cohen, a professor of musicology and Jewish studies at Indiana University and the author of a 2009 academic article on Jewish hip-hop. Even the Beastie Boys originally posed dripping in gold chains in a satire of bling-focused gangster rap. According to Cohen, that kind of parody attracts attention by creating a pairing — Jews, or at least the socially prevalent idea of Jews, and rap — that is in itself humorous by virtue of its unlikelihood.

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.

“He might have had to code-switch into his blackness instead of away from his blackness, because of how he was raised,” speculated 17-year-old Satya Sheftel-Gomes.

Sheftel-Gomes is a high school junior in New York City and a longtime camper with San Francisco’s Be’chol Lashon, an advocacy group for Jews of color. Sheftel-Gomes is black and Jewish and doesn’t deny that it’s nice to have a famous artist out there who is like her in that way.

Drake stands in the snow, holding a dog by the leash, with a mansion in the background, next to Rolls Royce
Drake in a photobook that accompanied his 2016 album “Views” (Photo/Caitlin Cronenberg)

“It’s great for me!” she said, laughing.

For one thing, she has a great riposte for people who say they have never heard of anyone else with an identity like hers.

“I’m like, yes you have, you definitely have, because Drake is black and Jewish,” she said.

But Sheftel-Gomes thinks that Drake, whom she calls a “racially ambiguous, religiously atheist rapper who makes good music for everyone,” is less a representative of a specific identity and more someone who uses his Jewishness and his blackness as tools to increase his audience.

“He only really identifies parts of himself when it is appropriate to his popularity,” she said.

Satya Sheftel-Gomes
Satya Sheftel-Gomes

Sheftel-Gomes doesn’t judge him for that — after all, fame means appealing to a wide range of people.

“I think the reason he’s such a pop star is his ability to do that,” she said.

Cohen agreed. “It’s been interesting to see how Drake has been presenting himself,” the musicologist said.

Cohen, who sometimes discusses Drake in his classes on Jewish popular music, said successful pop artists are always concerned about maintaining their mass appeal.

“People look to celebrities to reflect who they are,” he said, “to realize an idealized version of themselves.”

But Cohen says the need for a superstar to appeal to a wide audience is, for rappers, at odds with the heightened demand to be “authentic.”

“That’s one of the big debates you’ll see in hip-hop,” he said.

That means Drake’s ability to straddle his identities, from a former bar mitzvah kid to a hard street rapper, doesn’t always work.

“ ‘Started from the bottom’…but he’s a Jewish kid from the suburbs!” said Fraknoi, referring to one of Drake’s biggest hits, in which he raps, “Say I never struggled, wasn’t hungry, yeah, I doubt it.”

Fraknoi is a 24-year-old white rapper who performs as Frak. He is San Francisco-born, went to the Brandeis School and has been rapping since he was a teen.

“I have a complicated relationship with Drake,” Fraknoi said. But “I definitely respect him musically and as a rapper.”

Fraknoi, who participates in rap battles in which authenticity is highly prized and who is open about his Jewish background, finds Drake’s eliding of identity a little “cringe-worthy.”

“And many times it’s inauthentic to his upbringing,” he said.

Drake has been lambasted in the music press for “inauthentic” moments, like the inexplicable and temporary appearance of a Jamaican accent. But Alegria (aka DJ Mixwell) thinks the way Drake doesn’t talk about his Jewish roots is interesting.

“When you say something, you’re sending a message,” Alegria said. “When you don’t say something, you’re still sending a message.”

Alegria is Jewish and Filipino and has been working bar and bat mitzvahs in the Bay Area since he was 14 (he’s now 31, the same age as Drake). He’s familiar with assumptions of what a Jew looks like.

“A lot of people see me and don’t necessarily think that I’m Jewish,” he said.

Nor does Alegria think most casual hip-hop listeners know that Drake is Jewish.

“He talks about it very rarely, I’d say,” Alegria said. “In his music he doesn’t go around exactly parading it.”

Mixwell spinning records against a bright red background
Maxwell Alegria aka DJ Mixwell

Fraknoi said the same.

“I don’t think he’s that open about it in his music,” Fraknoi said. “And he doesn’t do interviews.” (Drake is press shy and does few interviews; J. requested one but was denied.)

Fraknoi does, however, call Drake’s “HYFR” bar mitzvah video “epic.”

“I’m not going to act like I didn’t love that video,” Fraknoi said.

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.”


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Filmed in and outside Miami’s Reform Temple Israel, the video, which includes (a lot of) explicit words, shows Drake at the bimah in a kippah 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. The director of the video, however, said the shoot was respectful.

The “HYFR” video is definitely a lighthearted send-up of a bar mitzvah, but it might really present the most complete picture of Drake, the Canadian Jewish black rapper. Although the video does create humor through the “unlikely juxtaposition” of Judaism and rap that Cohen referenced, it’s true to Drake’s identity. After all, he chose to re-enact a Jewish moment where he’s “welcomed into manhood” with a crowd that includes friends of his mother, his old childhood buddies and big-name rap mentors and peers, all elements that are true to his life. Or maybe it’s just a good video.

“At the end of the day, he’s a great storyteller,” Alegria said. “Which makes him a great hip-hop artist.”

And maybe, for his Jewish fans, he 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.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.