Culture, Identity

Is Drake the Moses Mendelssohn of Hip-Hop?

I want the money, Money and the cars, Cars and the clothes, The hoes, I suppose." Everyone and your fossilizing bubbe could tell you that Drake, the raucously popular pop-rapper, is “half-Jewish.” Born to a African-American father and Jewish mother in 1986, Drake grew up in a wealthy Jewish neighborhood in Toronto, attended a Jewish Day School and celebrated his Bar Mitzve. Now he’s at the pinnacle of hip-hop stardom, and his lyrical glosses on Jewishness are blaring. Take for example:

By the way I’m Jewish and turnin 22
Gets depressing wen u see yo favorite rappers goin thru it
Tryna re-invent themselves showin no improvement
Gettin crushed by this lite skin youngen on sum new shit
40 just record it and we’ll drop this here

I mean, he did grow up in the predominantly wealthy Jewish Forest Hill neighborhood in Toronto, and now he is umbilically linked with Lil-Wayne, who is currently serving a sentence at Rikers Island for weapons possession. That would confuse me dearly, too.
…And so you might expect a load of hip-hop wise-men analyzing Drake’s pilgrimage from a privileged, multi-racial Jewish child in Canada to a hip-hop entertainer reaping the fruits of America’s urban, black pop-star landscape.
But, surprisingly, Drake himself seems to be the only one not tip-toeing around the issue. In an interview with Heeb, Drake reflects on growing up in the Canadian Jewish mix:

I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” he says. “When kids are young it’s hard for them to understand the make-up of religion and race.” He recalls being called a schvartze, repeatedly. “But the same kids that made fun of me are super proud [of me] now. And they act as if nothing happened.” He wears a diamond-studded Chai (prominently displayed on his Vibe cover) and plans, at some point after the release and promotion of his debut, to travel to Israel. He says his mother has expressed hope he’ll marry “a nice Jewish girl.” As far as public acceptance goes today, by all accounts, religion has been a complete non-issue.

Yet, Thomas Chatterton Williams at The Root dismisses the whole issue:

In a recent profile in Heeb magazine — Drake is Jewish on his mother’s side — Drake himself identifies astutely, if unwittingly, one of the main weaknesses of the album: ” ‘The internet has f**ked the game up so bad, that if I don’t [sell a lot of records], I’m curious to sit back and watch whoever does … I honestly can say, the steps we’ve taken, the way that how passionate we are about this … ‘ He trails off..

So I’ll make a claim The Root dismisses: Drake’s Jewishness is central to understanding his rise, his fame, his appeal and his success. Is he the Moses Mendelssohn of Hip-Hop? Is he translating contemporary Jewishness into a marketable hip-hop vernacular and suggesting a conversation about race and Jewish culture? Or does he just want to celebrate human brotherhood? Will his children convert to Christianity?
Only G-d knows.

14 thoughts on “Is Drake the Moses Mendelssohn of Hip-Hop?

  1. Um, EVERY single article I’ve read about him mentions that he’s Jewish.

  2. When I was younger a teacher showed the class a large white bristle board with a small black dot on it.
    She asked the class what was ‘this a picture of’.
    Of course the class replied, ‘its a picture of a black dot.’
    ‘No’, she said, ‘this is a picture of a large white space.’
    Modern Jews are like that class, unwilling to say that the Jews are an overwhelmingly Caucasian people, simply because of the presence of an extremely small percentage of non-Caucasians.

  3. Dave Boxthorn,
    What does being Caucasian have to do with being Jewish? I think you missed the point, brother.

  4. I hate it when people bring of Mendelssohn’s children converting to christianity to discount his ideas. One of the Baal HaTanya’s kids converted to Chrisitianity too. BFD. doesn’t discount their theology/philosophy. And you know what, no matter how Jewish you raise your kids, there is always the off chance that yes, they will abandon it all and convert to another religion. If the only reason you marry a Jewish person is cause you want to make sure you only have Jewish kids, might as well cancel your JDate subscription now, cause there’s nothing saying your kid won’t turn into the next Yousef al-Khattab. Just sayin.

  5. Shmuel,
    You don’t think that the historical rate of conversion among less ritually observant Jews is higher. I agree with you about the off chance that any Jew could become a meshumad, but I don’t think anyone doubts that Moses Mendelssohn’s program for Jewish reform led to a kind of falseness in later generations.

  6. bp writes:
    I don’t think anyone doubts that Moses Mendelssohn’s program for Jewish reform led to a kind of falseness in later generations.
    What does that mean?

  7. Is it good or bad that his Jewish Day School didn’t teach him to spell better? Look at all the errors in his writing! I mean I get the rap style and all, but isn’t that just in the pronunciation? At least he spell shit correctly. I don’t know if I could go with an alternative there.
    “wen u see yo favorite rappers goin thru it”
    “Tryna re-invent themselves showin no improvement”
    “Gettin crushed by this lite skin youngen on sum new shit”

  8. Here’s a question that the interviews mostly seem to miss- is the album any good? I’ve heard it and don’t understand the commotion.
    “if I don’t [sell a lot of records], I’m curious to sit back and watch whoever does … I honestly can say, the steps we’ve taken, the way that how passionate we are about this”
    Maybe that’s all there is? Passion, hype and little more?

  9. bp, your paradigm of less vs. more observant is artifice. It’s a framework concocted by a contemporary Orthodoxy, and subsequently believed in by many Jews of all stripes. There is only different observance, not less or more. A Lubavitcher who does every thing listed in the Shulchan Aruch HaRav is not any more observant than the Reform kid who holds hands with their non-Jewish girlfriend/boyfriend during Havdalah.
    To apply the same artificial “less vs. more observant” framework to Mendelssohn is at best anachronistic.

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