Drake's 'HYFR' video embraces his Jewish roots, a break with rap's past

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Drizzy’s done it again.

When Drake first came onto the music scene, he was widely hailed for giving rise to a softer side of hip hop. Interspersed in his lyrics, amidst the typical rap bravado (“Last name ever, first name greatest”, etc) is a good dose of emotional vulnerability. His rapping is often sing-song and melodic, and he’s not afraid to admit that he still drunk-dials his ex-girlfriend in moments of weakness.

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But in his latest video “HYFR” featuring Lil’ Wayne off the Take Care album, Drake has managed to leverage another unique aspect of his personal identity and merge it with hip-hop: Judaism. The new Drake video, complete with shots of DJ Khaled and Birdman sitting attentively in synagogue during Drake’s ceremony, marks an important and positive turning point for hip-hop’s embrace of Jewish culture.

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The introductory scenes to “HYFR” show a young, pre-pubescent Drake suited up ‘90’s style and dancing at what is ostensibly his or someone else’s bar mitzvah. Opening credits explain that “On October 24, 2011 “Aubrey ‘Drake’ Graham chose to get re-bar mitzvah’d as a re-commitment to the Jewish religion” and that the video will be “displaying the events that took place.”

The video delivers on this promise with surprising integrity, featuring shots of Drizzy praying in a real synagoguen and rocking traditional Jewish bar mitzvah gear, including a prayer shawl and yamaka. Of course, things devolve into mayhem at the after-party, with Wayne smashing a skateboard and the entire bar mitzvah party showing their moves on the dance floor. But this is also true to form; as anyone who has attended an actual bar mitzvah can attest to, fun and debauchery at the after-party is pretty much par for the course.

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It’s not that Jews are necessarily new to hip-hop: the Beastie Boys, for example, hold an important place in hip-hop history, and their Judaism was never a secret (“I’m a funky a** Jew and I’m on my way”). But it was also a secondary factor in their otherness; they came up at a time when rap had long been virtually synonymous with the black American experience. Combined with the majority black demographic of hip-hop listeners in the ‘90’s, the fact that they were white made them outsiders enough.

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But with a few exceptions like the Beastie Boys, Jews are relatively new to the hip-hop spotlight. Historically, Jews have more been acknowledged for their behind-the-scenes roles; bankrolling hip hop as record execs, supporting rappers as lawyers, and of course providing the ever-crucial chains and jewelry pieces, with enough shout-outs from rappers to make “Jacob the Jeweler” a household name.
Jay-Z was one of the first to place a visual emphasis on one of the Jews that had previously been contributing to his music from behind the scenes. Acknowledging Rick Rubin, an influential record producer and the co-president of Columbia Records with a simple “You crazy for this one Rick,” he had everyone wondering who exactly it was that heavily bearded man riding around in his car for the “99 Problems” video.

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During the civil rights movement, blacks and Jews became engaged in unprecedented alliances, and a new class of multicultural Jews of color was born. Drake’s video is only the latest to capitalize on the increasingly complex identities of blacks and Jews to make light-hearted videos and crack jokes about culture. Take this video, for example, which parodies Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” and made its way around the Internet last year.

Of the “HYFR” video, Director X has acknowledged that it was fun for him to make a video that breaks some cultural taboos. In an interview with Vibe magazine he said, “It’s all a little crazy, like having Birdman and DJ Khaled sitting beside an old Jewish lady, as they watch Drake read from the Torah [Laughs].”

At the same time, he seems cognizant of the importance of entering this new territory carefully, acknowledging that they were “very respectful of the religion and all that happens there.”

Overall, it’s a positive thing that Drake feels he can express his multiculturalism through hip hop. We’ve come a long way from stereotyped depictions of Jews in rap videos and lyrics, and from lines like NWA’s “Cuz you can’t be the ‘Ni**az 4 Life’ crew / With a white Jew tellin’ you what to do.”

If the new Drizzy video is any indication, black people and Jews will have no problem coexisting in hip hop. As a black Jew myself, it seems the words of Jay-Z were never more appropriate: “L’chaim — it’s my time.”