‘The most in­flu­en­tial Cana­dian Jew alive’

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - MICHAEL FRAIMAN SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN

With three Grammy awards, an es­ti­mated net worth of $100 mil­lion and more than 30-mil­lion fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram, Face­book and Twit­ter, there’s a solid case to call Drake – the hip-hop star who grew up as Au­drey Gra­ham in Toronto’s For­est Hill neigh­bour­hood – the most in­flu­en­tial Cana­dian Jew alive.

So it’s sig­nif­i­cant that he decided to make a mu­sic video for the song HYFR that de­picts him hav­ing a bar mitz­vah – al­beit a glo­ri­fied, in­ten­si­fied bar mitz­vah full of hip-hop stars. Filmed mostly at Mi­ami’s posh Tem­ple Is­rael syn­a­gogue, the video de­picts the fan­tas­ti­cal bar mitz­vah Drake wishes he had: there’s chal­lah on the table, meno­rahs on the wall, frum men in the crowd – but also an end­less sup­ply of booze, pot smoke fill­ing the room, manic laugh­ter and grind­ing dancers of all races and ages, with cameos by rap­pers Lil Wayne, DJ Khaled, Trey Songz, Mack Maine, E-40 and Noah “40” She­bib. The video even opens with real-life footage of a young Drake, all dressed up for a bar mitz­vah in Toronto, stand­ing with his mom and danc­ing to 1990s pop hits.

This was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for pop-culture Ju­daism, whether the Jewish com­mu­nity likes it or not. The video wasn’t just iconic – it was huge. Since de­but­ing in April 2012, it’s amassed more than 46-mil­lion views on Youtube, spent 20 weeks on the Bill­board Hot 100 and won awards for Best Hip-hop Video at the MTV Video Mu­sic Awards and Video of the Year at the Junos. It made Ju­daism seem that much cooler, and gave vis­i­bil­ity to black Jews around the world.

Of course, Drake isn’t the first Jewish rap­per – MC Serch and the Beastie Boys were huge in hip-hop’s golden years – but while they never hid their Ju­daism, they also didn’t rep it out­right in any way that came close to the video for HYFR. (Matisyahu’s an ex­cep­tion, but he’s a less fa­mous al­ter­na­tive reg­gae-rock artist, with only a few mem­o­rable ra­dio hits.)

The other, big­ger dif­fer­ence be­tween Drake and his fel­low Jewish rap­pers is that the oth­ers are, for lack of a bet­ter phrase, more ob­vi­ously Jewish than Drake is. Asher Roth is the Jewish stoner we all knew in col­lege; the Beastie Boys brought a nasally New York flair to the genre; Lil Dicky is neu­rotic about ex-boyfriends and spend­ing money; and Hoodie Allen’s name is Hoodie Allen. But Drake is dif­fer­ent, frankly, be­cause Drake is a black hip-hop star. He didn’t bring Ju­daism to hip-hop; he proved hip-hop could also be Jewish.

Then there’s the fact that he’s Cana­dian. I don’t think you could call his na­tion­al­ity in­ci­den­tal to his fame: he rose to be Toronto’s star at ex­actly the cul­tural mo­ment when Toronto started act­ing and feel­ing like global city, when in­ter­na­tional mag­a­zines started shout­ing out how cool Queen West is and movies filmed in the city stopped pre­tend­ing to be set in New York (cheers, Scott Pil­grim). He hails not just from a city that prides it­self on mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, but from a coun­try where be­ing anti-im­mi­grant is (for now, any­way) po­lit­i­cal sui­cide. It’s ex­actly the kind of mul­ti­cul­tural back­ground that lib­eral Cana­di­ans gush over, and he’s chal­leng­ing main­stream culture to be more ac­cept­ing of that.

But here’s the weird thing about HYFR be­ing the catalyst for this: the song has lit­er­ally noth­ing to do with Ju­daism. It’s a bom­bas­tic re­flec­tion on the price of fame, mostly de­tail­ing, in typ­i­cal Drake fash­ion, how it af­fects his love life. But un­like some of his other tracks that slip in sly ref­er­ences to his re­li­gion (“Whole lot of sixes, but I’m still like / Hal­lelu­jah, Hal­lelu­jah, Hal­lelu­jah / Six-point star, Lion of the Ju­dah,” he rhymes in Still Here”) there’s not even so much as a men­tion of God in the song’s lyrics. So why does this mu­sic video ex­ist? Af­ter writ­ing a cover story on the cul­tural impact of Drake’s Ju­daism for The CJN back in March, I don’t think the question is why he did it – it’s why not?

If Drake has proven one thing with his in­flu­ence, it’s that he de­ter­mines what’s cool. There doesn’t need to be a prece­dent or rea­son. The man in­vented the phrase “YOLO”; now it’s a cliche. He started call­ing Toronto “The 6ix” and we ate it up, not to­tally un­der­stand­ing why. (Some­thing to do the pre-amal­ga­ma­tion bor­oughs? Who cares?)

So when it comes to iden­tity pol­i­tics, Drake sets his own agenda. Rather than wait for an ex­cuse to cel­e­brate Ju­daism in pop culture, he cre­ated his own.

HYFR stands for “Hell Yeah, F--king Right,” which is a phrase he and Lil Wayne ap­par­ently say to re­porters and fans who ask them ridicu­lous ques­tions. (From the song: “Do you love this s--t? Are you high right now? Do you ever get ner­vous? Are you sin­gle?”)

Rather than ac­tu­ally answer the ques­tions, they flip­pantly agree with ev­ery­thing. “Sure, yeah, what­ever – who cares? Why does it mat­ter? It is what it is.”

So I feel like I know the answer Drake would give to a question posed by some over-in­tel­lec­tu­al­iz­ing neb­bish critic like my­self. The video was con­found­ing, pop­u­lar, awe­some and Jewish.

“But why?” I’d ask. “What’s the rel­e­vance of this video? Why choose this song? Were you try­ing to say some­thing about your Ju­daism by mak­ing HYFR a bar mitz­vah?”

And he’d be like, “Hell yeah, f--king right.”

Drake sets his own agenda.

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