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Rap star Drake, left, is one of Toronto’s best-known exports to American pop culture. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Rap star Drake, left, is one of Toronto’s best-known exports to American pop culture. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Started from the bottom, now Drake’s on top (and he’s bringing Toronto into the spotlight) Add to ...

A gold-chained rapper whose videos feature a positive Blitzkrieg of F-bombs, Drake makes an unlikely ambassador for Toronto the Good. Yet there he was on Monday, singing its praises from the rooftops.

“I’m extremely passionate about two things: my city and my family,” he told the media at the Air Canada Centre as he accepted a commission to represent the Toronto Raptors. “I travel the world performing, and everywhere I go, I preach the gospel that is Toronto. I love this city with all my heart.”

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A skeptic would call this the scripted enthusiasm of someone who is being paid handsomely to promote the home squad. Drake, 26, will become a “global ambassador” for the troubled basketball team, helping it relaunch and rebrand itself. But Drake’s devotion to his hometown seems real.

Born Aubrey Drake Graham to an African-American father and Jewish-Canadian mother, he grew up in the Weston Road and Forest Hill neighbourhoods, played minor hockey and went to Jewish day school. Now that he is a huge international star – the New York Times calls him rap’s “stylistic standard-bearer and its most reliable and versatile hit-maker” – he peppers his songs and videos with references to this city.

His recent Started From the Bottom video kicks off with a kid playing soccer on a green field marked Toronto Parks, Forestry & Recreation. Later, Drake goofs around in what looks like a Shoppers Drug Mart and looks out on a glittering Toronto skyline from a private jet.

According to Toronto Life magazine, which did an item on Drake’s “hometown obsession,” the rapper has been shown with a CN Tower tattoo on his bicep and the numbers 416, for the local area code, on his flank. He wore an old Blue Jays jacket in one video and was photographed during a radio interview wearing a University of Toronto sweatshirt.

At Monday’s news conference, where he appeared in a shimmery blue suit, he dropped yet another local reference. Looking down the row of executives and officials, he said he was going to have to go to Harry Rosen “to get some more neutral suits, because the vibrant blues aren’t gonna cut it.”

Whether Drake can help revive the Raptors is an open question, but his boyish boosterism can’t hurt his hometown. Asked what he likes about Toronto, he said that “everywhere I go, I realize how culturally diverse it is here, the melting pot it is.”

Now that he is repping the Raps, he promised to spread the word about Toronto as it prepares to host the 2016 National Basketball Association all-star game. “There is an untapped nightlife – restaurants, culture. There’s so much to soak in. … Our goal in 2016 is to showcase that.”

As a stable, booming, multiethnic metropolis, Toronto has an amazing story to tell but, internationally – even south of the border – it is a story that does not get much press. Tourism in Toronto, hurt by SARS, then a higher dollar, then the new U.S. passport requirement, is rebounding, but still nowhere near where it should be.

If Drake can help others feel the Toronto buzz, great. “I want people to be proud and patriotic about being from here and supporting this team,” he said. “If there is one thing I am confident in, it is the energy this city has to give.”

After all, he said, poking Mayor Rob Ford, who sat on a stool next to him, “This is the greatest city in the world. I am sure this man right here would agree.”

 

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