Meet Drake: The new Jew in hip-hop

Meet Aubrey “Drake” Graham, the biracial Jewish-Canadian rap artist whose star is quickly rising on the hip-hop scene.

Though fans have followed him 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. And public take note: 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 week, though his mixtapes have been widely circulating since 2006. In fact, Drake earned the unusual distinction of being nominated for 2010 Grammys without the release of an album. To his credit, he’s been traveling the right company: Rap star Lil Wayne was the first mainstream act to incorporate Drake into his touring routine and served as a kind of mentor to the fledgling artist.

But Drake’s fast rise isn’t the most interesting thing about him. In a culture of misfits and outsiders, he is the ultimate outsider – the rare black Jewish rapper. (UPDATE: In an earlier version of this article, I referred to Drake as the “first ever” black Jewish rapper, but it has since been brought to my attention – and rightly so—that Y-LOVE, the Orthodox black hip hop artist also fits this description, though Drake remains the first-ever biracial Jewish Canadian rapper.)

According to an interview with Heeb magazine:

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”).

His upbringing wasn’t as rosy as it sounds. 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.”

He told the magazine he was often called a schvartze: “But the same kids that made fun of me are super proud [of me] now. And they act as if nothing happened.” He does however, display signs of Jewish pride.

According to Heeb, he wears a diamond-studded Chai and wants to travel to Israel.

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—though there have already been reports of overspending and financial mismanagement. Even so,with his career on the ascending arc, Drake doesn’t seem to be worried about finances. He told The Times he’s more concerned about the insularity caused by fame:

Drake wonders if real intimacy is now out of reach, maybe irretrievably so. “Did I sacrifice something?” he asked, looking for the black cloud above the silver lining. “Have I not realized what it is yet because I’m enjoying this too much?”

Watch Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” video directed by Kanye West: