In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents essays on 10 significant moments in Canadian Jewish history.
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 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.”