Drake – the rap star who performs at Bar Mitzvahs
Aubrey Drake Graham, better known as Drake, is one of the world’s most successful performers, and without doubt the most popular Jewish rapper/singer – his father, Dennis Graham, is an African-American musician from Memphis, but his mother, Sandi, is a Jewish Canadian.
He has achieved enormous success in the world of hip hop by being incredibly un-hip hop – instead of the usual tough-guy bravado he is unerringly sensitive and prone to self-doubt and, even as the 25-year-old enjoys the multi-millionaire, jet-set lifestyle, he takes great pains to make that lifestyle seem the cause for some soul-searching.
He has created a new paradigm for rap – the tormented solipsist, forever showing his emotions and scrutinizing his actions. And in so doing he has divided opinion between those who believe the former teen TV star from an affluent suburb of Toronto is the antithesis of the authentic, street-wise hip hop hood, and those – not just screaming kids but serious music fans who love his melodies, which he raps and sings – who have been won over by him.
“There were people who incorporated melody before me,” says Drake, talking backstage at the 02 in south-east London, where 18,000 people have converged to see him play the biggest concert of his career, “but I would deem myself the first person to successfully rap and sing.”
He considers the question of his persona and agrees that: “Yes, there are aspects of it that are new in the rap world. But it’s not a gimmick. I just sort of exist and people embrace it. I’m one of the few artists who gets to be himself every day. It doesn’t take me six hours to get ready and I don’t have to wake up in the morning and remember to act like this or talk like this. I just have to be me. That’s one of the favourite parts of my life – I’ve done this purely by being myself.”
But how much of his songs are we to believe? For example, on the opening track of his 2011 album Take Care, titled Over My Dead Body, he reveals that he performed at a barmitzvah to help pay for a friend’s lawyer at a court case. Did this really happen?
“Well, I have a lot of brothers, people I consider family. That line in the song isn’t false – I went and did what I had to do after one of my friends got into some legal trouble and it was very expensive and he was having trouble dealing with it.”
Drake is famously proud of his Jewish roots. In April this year, amid tremendous publicity, he even had a “re-barmitzvah”, footage of which was viewed by a million people on YouTube – “the most watched barmitzvah film clip in human history”, as one website put it. But the idea that Drake – who has sold millions of records and was recently voted second-hottest rapper in the world by MTV, ahead of Jay-Z, and Kanye West – turned up at some random barmitzvah seems a little far-fetched.
“I did!” he says, laughing. “I actually went and did a barmitzvah for a family in New York. It was very nice, and they were an incredible family to deal with. I tried to edit out as much swearing as I could, and I loved it, man – the kids loved it, the parents loved it.”
Presumably the guests were surprised to see him there? “They were pretty surprised. I came out from behind the DJ booth and started rocking… It was cool. It brought back memories – I’ve been to a lot of barmitzvahs in my life. I’ve never been to one like that, though. They shut down the whole street for this kid. They paid me a lot of money to come – they were very generous.”
Does he make a habit of this kind of thing? My son turns 13 next March… “I’d love to!” he says, and you could almost believe him. “If I’m in town, I’ll do it – it’ll be on the house.”
Such a nice Jewish boy. And yet his music is complex. His songs show a young man suffering crises of conscience, often making bad choices, wracked with guilt and regret.
He highlights his song Marvin’s Room, in which he describes his numerous sexual conquests, but not in the bragging way expected from hip hop artists. “That’s me asking: ‘Do I need to get a grip on my life?’,” he says. “I have friends who are in committed relationships and spend all their time focused on one woman and I’m behaving like that! You start questioning your own morals. I’m 25 and single. I’m not supposed to care about deeper things right now, I’m supposed to be wild. But there are nights when you sit back and wonder, ‘Damn, is this right?'”
He admits he worries about aspects of his personal life, including a very Jewish concern about how often he calls his mother.
“That’s one of the things that plagues my mind. My relationship with my family. Am I talking to my mother enough? That kind of thing. Asking myself: ‘Are you changing? Are you a different person?’ Those are my issues now. If I wasn’t famous I don’t think those would be my issues at all. They would be: how am I going to support myself? I wouldn’t be able to get any girl that I wanted. I wouldn’t be travelling the world and I wouldn’t be showered with all this affection.”
Does he ever worry that he is in danger of suffering from Paradise Syndrome, where having everything you want induces misery and despair?
“No, no, no,” he says. “It’s not to the point where, like: ‘Oh, now I have everything I want and I hate my life’. No, I’m happy.”
The dilemma, of course, is that Drake has made his name, and his fortune, by expressing the sweet sadness of moral confusion. How to continue if he stays happy?
“I’m always looking for something else,” he says, by way of reassurance, as he prepares to entertain 18,000 Londoners. “I’m always looking for what’s beyond this point. Not to sound depressing or anything, but I don’t just tell myself: ‘Oh, everything’s all good, man’. Life is good. But I’m not naive. Nothing is all good.”