Mmemshima King James, Entertainment Reporter
Musical- and Jewish – Upbringing in Toronto
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 the legendary rock’n’ roll star Jerry Lee Lewis. An uncle, Larry Graham, played bass for Sly and the Family Stone. Drake says that his mother, Sandi Graham, also hails from a “very musical” family — his grandmother babysat Aretha Franklin. Drake comes from an eclectic and unique ethnic 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 five years old, and he was raised by his mother in Forest Hill, an affluent and predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Toronto. He attended Jewish day school, 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.
He has said that “nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” but added that “being different from everyone else just made me a lot stronger.”
‘Degrassi: The Next Generation’
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,” Drake would later explain, adding: “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 followed 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 dropped out of school to pursue his acting career, only graduating from high school in 2012. He starred on Degrassi for seven years (2001-2009), earning a Young Artist Award in 2002 for best ensemble in a TV series, among other honors. The show quickly developed a devoted cult following — “There are very few subtle Degrassi fans,” Drake has said — propelling him to celebrity status in Canada, even while he remained relatively anonymous in the United States.
From ‘Degrassi’ to Signing With Lil Wayne’s Music Label
While he was still appearing on Degrassi, Drake began attempting to cross over into the world of hip hop. He released his first mixtape, Room for Improvement, in 2006, achieving modest sales of approximately 6,000 copies. He followed that with the 2007 release of another mixtape, Comeback Season, on his own October’s Very Own imprint (later to be shortened to OVO). This 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. More significantly, the song contained a version of Brisco and Flo Rida’s “Man of the Year,” which featured Lil Wayne. Drake decided to leave Wayne’s verses and hook intact while he provided the rest of the lyrics himself. This caught the attention of Jas Prince, son of Rap-A-Lot Records founder James Prince, who decided to play Drake to Lil Wayne himself.
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, he received an unexpected call from Lil Wayne, who asked him to board a flight to Houston that night to join his Carter III tour.
After touring and recording a number of songs with Lil Wayne, Drake released his third mixtape, So Far Gone, in February 2009. It featured the infectious single “Best I Ever Had,” which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, while “Successful,” a collaboration with Wayne and Trey Songz, went gold and made Rolling Stone’s “25 Best Songs of 2009” list. Since then, Drake’s barrage of catchy, R&B-infused hip hop songs have dominated radio airwaves.
A bidding war for Drake’s signature followed and in mid-2009 he inked a record deal with Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment. The start wasn’t auspicious – he took a tumble on stage during the America’s Most Wanted Tour in July the same year, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and requiring surgery. However, it would only be onwards and upwards from then on.
‘Thank Me Later’ Goes No. 1, ‘Take Care’ Wins Grammy
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 was certified platinum. His new persona as the cocksure prince of hip-hop (“Last name ever, first name greatest,” he brags on “Forever”) seemed to clash with his middle-class Jewish upbringing and former career as a teenage soap star.