Drake loves Toronto, and he wants the city’s love. In February, when he showed up to the Grammys just to criticize the awards’ historical lack of recognition of black artists, he rated the fulfillment of winning a golden gramophone far below the satisfaction of “being a hero in your hometown.”
A few days later, he rereleased his now 10-year-old mixtape, So Far Gone, which had catapulted both him and Toronto to international attention. In that decade, we’ve given the musician the keys to the city, then let him act like he owns the place. When he projected his face onto City Hall last summer, hardly anyone got mad.
Such possessiveness isn’t surprising coming from Drake, whose lyrics frequently beg whatever woman he’s currently enamoured with to never, ever look away from him. That, plus Toronto is a big part of his brand. Ever since he started from the bottom (or, at least, somewhere in the middle), Drake has thanked the city for embracing him.
In the early days, those thanks were enough. It was fun, exciting and a needed relief to see Toronto’s oft-touted multiculturalism finally take centre stage. Now that Drake is indisputably at the top, though, it’s time to consider whether our relationship is truly reciprocal, and just how much it’s fair to expect.
This week, the former Degrassi star appeared in Remember Me, Toronto, a short film in which young black men discuss the effects of gun violence on their lives. It’s a comment on last year’s raft of shootings – there were 51 gun deaths, the second-highest annual total ever – and is directed by Mustafa the Poet, a Regent Park artist who’s been a powerful truth-teller since he was a little kid.
On social media, Mustafa has been praised for convincing guys with historic rivalries to participate in the same project. He’s also been criticized for including Drake, the only one in the short not to have grown up in one of the neighbourhoods that are given the label “priority,” although in reality they’re anything but.
The poet countered that the people he wants to reach find Drake inspiring. On the rapper’s part, it’s an answer to those who have pressured him to address local gun violence since at least 2013. That July, two people, including 14-year-old Shyanne Charles, died after a shooting at a party in Kingston-Galloway, where a number of Drake’s collaborators and entourage members grew up.
This is partially fair: Drake has said himself that he’s been affected by gun violence, and beyond that, his influence is huge. But it’s also been embarrassing to see the city’s most famous black person being asked to solve Toronto’s systemic anti-blackness. In 2017, Crime Stoppers actually tweeted at Drake to help the police “#StoptheViolence” after a shooting that killed one of his friends.
His reluctance to do so, along with lyrics about not snitching, have been tsk-tsked by city officials. As if witnesses aren’t coming forward because they listen to Drake songs, instead of because the Toronto police have an abysmal relationship with black communities.
This doesn’t mean Drake couldn’t do more, or better. His desire to help people seems alternately genuine and self-aggrandizing. Last year, he gave out US$1-million in Miami while filming the video for God’s Plan, which was nice, but also an icky bit of poverty porn that turned a (presumably) low-income black mother crying with relief into wallpaper for the musician’s largesse.
Locally, his philanthropy is inseparable from his brand, and more or less centred on his role as a global ambassador for the Raptors. Last year, he and the team donated $1-million to refurbish community basketball courts, and $2-million to Canada Basketball, which helps promising athletes work toward the Olympics and professional careers.
Marring the announcement was the concurrent news that the Raptors’ home court and special uniforms were being done up in black and gold, the colours of Drake’s label, OVO. Community recreation is crucial … as long as nobody forgets about Drake.
Beyond that, a one-time gift to a safe, politically neutral cause doesn’t address the deep-rooted issues faced by the communities highlighted in Remember Me, Toronto. Again, those aren’t Drake’s doing, nor are they his problems to fix. But unlike the other men in the film, he always has an audience, and the ability to get face time with those in power.
His appearance in the short – in which he says he wants to be remembered as “selfless” – indicates an interest in helping to confront Toronto’s serious troubles. Real love demands a deeper commitment than what he’s shown so far.