Actor, rapper. Drake, the world’s only black Jewish Canadian rap star, was born Aubrey Drake Graham on October 24, 1986, in Toronto, Canada. Drake grew up with music in his blood. His father, Dennis Graham, was a drummer for legendary rock star Jerry Lee Lewis, and Drake says that his mother, Sandi Graham, also hails from a “very musical” family. Drake comes from an eclectic and unique racial and religious background. His father is an African-American Catholic and his mother is a white Canadian Jew. Speaking about his personal identity, Drake says, “At the end of the day, I consider myself a black man because I’m more immersed in black culture than any other. Being Jewish is kind of a cool twist. It makes me unique.”
Drake’s parents divorced when he was 5 years old, and he was raised by his mother in Forest Hill, an affluent and predominantly Jewish Toronto neighborhood. He had a Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and observed the Jewish High Holy Days with his mother. “My mom has always made Hanukkah fun,” Drake recalls. “When I was younger, she gave cool gifts and she’d make latkes.” Despite his Jewish upbringing, Drake says he felt isolated at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, his virtually all-white high school. Drake remembers, “Nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish.” However, he also adds, “being different from everyone else just made me a lot stronger.”
It was one of Drake’s classmates at Forest Hill who gave him his start in the entertainment industry. “There was a kid in my class whose father was an agent. His dad would say, ‘If there’s anyone in the class that makes you laugh, have them audition for me.’ After the audition he became my agent.” Shortly afterward, in 2001, Drake landed a role on the Canadian teen drama series Degrassi: The Next Generation. The show follows the dramatic lives of a group of teenagers at Degrassi High School, and Drake played the part of Jimmy Brooks, sometimes dubbed “Wheelchair Jimmy,” a basketball star who becomes permanently wheelchair bound when he is shot by a classmate. Drake starred on the show for seven years starting in 2001, earning a 2002 Young Artist Award for Best Ensemble in a TV Series. Degrassi developed a devoted cult following—”There are very few subtle Degrassi fans,” Drake says—propelling Drake to celebrity status in Canada, even while he remained relatively anonymous in the United States.
While still staring on Degrassi, Drake began attempting his transition into the world of hip-hop. He released his first mixtape, Room for Improvement, in 2006, achieving modest sales around approximately 6,000 copies. He followed that with the 2007 release of another mixtape, Comeback Season. Comeback Season included Drake’s first hit single and music video, “Replacement Girl,” which was featured as the New Joint of the Day on BET’s popular hip-hop TV show 106 & Park.
In 2008, the producers of Degrassi overhauled the cast, eliminating Drake’s character. Without his steady source of income, and not yet making significant money as a rapper, Drake was on the verge of looking for a day job. “I was coming to terms with the fact that … I might have to work at a restaurant or something just to keep things going,” he remembers. But early in 2008, Drake received an unexpected call from rap star Lil Wayne, who asked Drake to board a flight to Houston that night to join his tour.
Since that phone call, Drake has enjoyed a rapid ascent to the top of the music world. After touring and recording with Lil Wayne, Drake released his third mixtape, So Far Gone, in February 2009. It featured the infectiously catchy single “Best I Ever Had,” which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. Since then, Drake’s barrage of catchy, R&B-infused hip-hop songs have dominated radio airwaves. His most popular singles to date include “Every Girl,” “Forever” and “Money to Blow.”
By mid-2009, Drake had inked a record deal with Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment. On June 15, 2010, Drake released his first full studio album, Thank Me Later, which debuted at No. 1 on both American and Canadian album charts and has since been certified platinum.
Drake’s new persona as the cocksure prince of hip-hop (“First name ever, last name greatest,” he brags on one track) seems to clash with his middle-class Jewish upbringing and former career as a teenage soap-opera star. Nevertheless, Drake attempts to fuse these seemingly incongruous stages of his life into one persona. On the December 2009 cover of Vibe magazine, Drake sports a diamond-crusted Chai, a hip-hop style shout out to his Jewish roots. And in his song “The Presentation,” he raps, “Who’s Drake? Where’s Wheelchair Jimmy at?” As his rap career moves forward, Drake hopes that his unconventional rise to hip-hop fame will continue to prove an asset, not a hindrance. “This whole thing is unusual at this point,” he says, “so we’re just rolling with the fairytale vibe.”