Drake’s “HYFR”: Whose Bar Mitzvah Is It Anyway?
by Bethlehem Shoals
The text at the beginning of Drake’s video for “HYFR” — “On October 24th 2011 Aubrey ‘Drake’ Graham chose to get re-bar mitzvah’d as a re-commitment to the Jewish religion … the following is a clip displaying the event that took place” — can be taken as seriously or sardonically as you want. Drake’s much-anticipated “bar mitzvah” video, released on the first night of Passover, was originally hyped on the web as a “re-creation” of his original childhood ceremony. We get actual footage from baby Drake’s celebration at the intro, but beyond that, this is a music video staged at a bar mitzvah. If we hadn’t been told in advance that it means something to the artist, “HYFR” could pass for a “Saturday Night Live” short. Well, that and the painstaking shots of Drake up on the bimah. We can’t tell what he’s chanting; his mouth isn’t moving, the friends and family are nodding their heads to the track, and the scene cuts back and forth to Drake rapping in front of the synagogue and in an empty sanctuary.
Still, this juxtaposition of the bar mitzvah recitation with Drake’s typically sharp, technically flawless, and gripe-laden verse is hard to dismiss. Figuratively, he nails it right there on the bimah, and for a second, there’s real synergy there. Of course, Drake isn’t performing live; the anxiety that wracks any young Jewish man or woman as they take the stage before the eyes of family, friends and God isn’t comparable to lip-synching over a meticulous studio track (though I’m sure some family somewhere has tried it out of desperation). But Drake, whose music leaves plenty of room for wrestling with fear and trembling, instead revels in this cheat. He’s overcome this most basic ritual hang-up; parsha nailed, we move to the party, which goes out of its way to use the bar mitzvah scene as grounds for either parody or transformation, again depending on what level of investment you have in Drake’s video. At least here, Drake has conquered the tradition’s (and his 13-year-old self’s) nerves and uncertainty, and his party, for all the chair-lifting, gray-haired relatives, Manischewitz, and yarmulkes, is an orgiastic blow-out that reminds us that Drake, in the end, is about good living. He just reserves the right to be disillusioned, or neurotic, about it once he starts typing lyrics into his Blackberry.
It’s a mistake to say that Drake ever really “came out” as a Jew. It was reported, and Jews got excited, but at the end of the day, he was a black Jew. Not one of those crazy yelling sects (like, alas, it appears Knicks forward and Zionist Amar’e Stoudemire sympathizes with), but still, a liminal group that America has always had some trouble making sense of. Jews and blacks have a long, tangled and not altogether harmonious history of interaction — sometimes direct, sometimes merely symbolic — in this country, and the black Jew presents himself as both paradox and redundancy. An early video of Drake recounting his bar mitzvah, on the cusp of fame and not yet so well-defined in his swagger, is freakishly dull. The excitable interviewer, trying his damnedest to muster a “scoop,” attempts to Jew down with Drake as if new ground were being broken. Drake calmly, almost soporifically, recounts details that are in no way more interesting or extraordinary than those of any other bar mitzvah. It’s less a bonding moment between the Jewish viewer and Drake, and more something you just don’t feel like hearing about for the hundredth time. I guess that’s one definition of belonging.
It’s puzzling, though, that Drake’s “re-dedication” to the faith, a trope that sounds a lot like what jewelry stores might devise for marriage vow renewals, is more about a redefinition of his place in it. He’s had his bar mitzvah at the appropriate time. In the most unexceptional way possible, he was a Jewish boy who passed on into manhood. There’s simply no need to recreate, much less repeat, a ceremony from 13 years ago unless the aim is more of a reboot than a “re-dedication.” That seems to be what “HYFR” is getting at. The person Drake is now has reclaimed the ritual from, well, the ritual itself. The transformation is not of the person, but of the cultural framework surrounding him.
If Drake is signifying on his dual identity here, this time around he’s coming down hard on the stereotypically black side of things. One’s reminded of Jay-Z’s 2007 single “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is),” which included the line “Rich n**as, black bar mitzvah/Mazel tav, it’s a celebration, bitches/L’Chaim” or Watch the Throne’s “New Day”: “So at 13 we’ll have our first drink together/Black bar mitzvahs, mazel tov, mogul talk. This, like Cam’ron’s incessant talk of “kosher lawyers,” is the bar mitzvah as a generic marker of Jewish-ness — a kind of Jewish-ness about successful, powerful people putting on a big party for their seed. Oddly, around the time of “Roc Boys,” there were several articles, including this one for the Forward, suggesting that black teens could probably benefit from something resembling a bar mitzvah qua rite of passage. In Jay-Z’s case, though, the interest seems tied to a certain admiration for what Jews have been able to accomplish, especially in the entertainment industry. I would be remiss, and probably booted off the Internet, if I didn’t note that “The Wire” ends on some particularly acrid variation on this theme, where two Jewish lawyers strike a deal that forces young kingpin Marlo into upper-crust purgatory by taking him off the streets in exchange for his freedom.
“HYFR” is Drake’s black bar mitzvah, and not just because of the numerous rappers in attendance, including the Palestinian DJ Khaled, who nods solemnly in one of the few reaction shots. The question remains open whether he’s looking to replace, or supplement, his Jewish bar mitzvah. Certainly, the text at the beginning leaves this subject to interpretation. But I keep coming back to the ceremony itself. I don’t want to suggest that anything in this world is beyond appropriation, satire, or recasting. Bar mitzvahs as lavish parties for culturally-specific rich folks is one thing; Drake is referencing an experience that he knows intimately.
That said, it’s fine if Drake wants to have both kinds of bar mitzvahs. But the simulated, fragmented ceremony can’t help but serve as commentary. It has no place in the “black bar mitzvah” symbolism, and it’s very explicitly tied to Drake’s own past. We are left with two options: either he’s trying to revisit and challenge history, which could stand as much as a victory over adolescent awkwardness as Jewish-ness. Or, maybe Drake, whose Take Care was variously described as self-deprecating, ruminative, cranky, rueful, whiny, overbearing, and unsettling, has always been a more “Jewish” artist than we’ve cared to admit. (Yes, I have a tendency to talk about Jewishness like I’m anti-Semitic literature from 1923.) His very strange second bar mitzvah, wholly personal even as it tries to depict a depersonalized Drake, only further hammers home that point. Especially when you step back and pay attention to the lyrics of what’s certainly intended to be one for the clubs, parties — and maybe even bar mitzvahs.