Cultural appropriation is the inappropriate and uncredited use of customs, practices, and ideas of a culture by someone of a dominant culture. In hip-hop culture, the term culture vulture describes someone who culturally appropriates.
Being labeled a vulture implies the accused person does not genuinely live or interact with a culture before using it. The “vulture” label also implies the accused person unfairly profits from the use of a vulnerable culture.
In the past, the strongest “culture vulture” accusations were slapped onto White executive figures such as Mark Ecko, Lyor Cohen, and Jimmy Iovine. While artists such as Vanilla Ice and Post Malone have also been labeled vultures, it’s hard to argue any hip-hop artist has inspired a more intense debate over this issue than perennial chart-topper Drake.
With a persona and discography influenced by Afro-Caribbeans, Londoners, American Southerners, and of course Torontonians, Drake’s globetrotting has been viewed as both boundary-pushing and predatory. Where does it really fall on the spectrum of cultural engagement?
We love to force stories onto our favorite celebrities. But given how much information is out on Drake’s life before fame, it’s surprising more of it isn’t taken into consideration when discussing his racial and cultural realities.
Drake’s relationship with Memphis
As is commonly known, Drake was born Aubrey Graham and raised in Toronto, Canada, the product of Jewish-Canadian mother Sandi Graham and Black American father Dennis Graham hailing from Memphis, Tennessee. As is vaguely known, Drake spent summers in Memphis with his father Dennis according to a 2013 XXL interview done by Dennis. This part of Drake’s childhood is often downplayed, but Dennis claims it was a regular part of Drake’s life throughout childhood (from age 5 to 17).
His childhood reverence for Memphis’ Black artistic leaders is peppered throughout his discography, most notably in the Take Care cut “Under Ground Kings” and the music video for Nothing Was The same single “Worst Behavior.” Tying his background to his work, it’s clear that much of Drake’s early musical imagination was influenced by Memphis’ soul artists and fur-rocking rappers.
Drake’s relationship with Toronto
According to a Complex cover story on Drake in 2011, Drake’s Toronto upbringing is split into two periods: living in the working-class West End on Weston Road, then living in the affluent Forest Hill neighborhood as a teenager.
Weston Road is often referenced by Drake when discussing early childhood and the guiding influences that kept him from the streets, including lines in 2015’s “You and the 6” as well as the Views cut “Weston Road Flows.” Drake’s time in Forest Hill is even more essential to his discography as his Degrassi days and last days before becoming a full-time recording artist were set here. Most of his bars about his mother’s struggles, dropping out of school, and yearning to become a star are set in Forest Hill.
In Forest Hill, Drake and his mother lived in a duplex. Despite the nicer surroundings, the Grahams mostly lived off of Drake’s modest acting checks and struggled once Drake was pushed out of Degrassi. After first attending Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, he transferred to Vaughan Road Academy in the rougher Oakwood-Vaughan neighborhood.
Oakwood-Vaughan was home to many first-generation Canadian families. According to a 2016 neighborhood report, Italian, Portuguese, Black, and Filipino residents each made up at least 10 percent of the Oakwood population. The neighborhood is also known for having many Caribbean shops and restaurants since Little Jamaica extends into the neighborhood.
Specific references to Italian culture Drake recently made in his work including the Italian pronunciation of Don Corleone (cor-lee-o-nee) in Meek Mill’s “Going Bad” as well as the 2019 song “Omertá” can possibly be traced back to experiences with Italian-Canadians in Oakwood-Vaughan. Also given the number of working-class White families, it wouldn’t be shocking to learn the kids who teased Drake for being Black (“You and the 6”) were from this neighborhood.
After linking up with Lil Wayne, Drake made a more permanent move to the South. He recorded his breakout EP So Far Gone in Houston, Texas, a city where he claims he got his “swagger back” in a 2009 Complex interview. Along with forging the mentor-mentee bond with Weezy, Drake befriended Houston legend Bun B and found home in local venue Warehouse Live, a place he fondly references in Nothing Was The Same standout “Too Much.”
Houston’s influence on Drake’s expression can be seen in most of his major projects. It appears as early as the 2009 song “November 18th” and as recently as “Teenage Fever” in 2017 with the slowed Jennifer Lopez sample. The city of Houston and Drake have committed to showing mutual appreciation, with Drake creating Houston Appreciation Weekend, a diverse cultural festival that ran annually from 2014-2017. In return, Houston made June 10th Drake Day. Despite valid local criticism (e.g. “Rap Game Hillary Clinton“), HAW was widely appreciated and enjoyed.
Drake planted roots in Jamaica in 2010 when he shot the video for “Find Your Love” there, connecting with dancehall veteran Mavado who featured in the video. “Find Your Love” received criticism from Jamaica’s minister of tourism for its violent portrayal of a Jamaican hood, but the video was defended and praised by Mavado’s camp. As we now know, Drake’s decade-long relationship with Jamaican artists has seen him work with artists such as Beenie Man and new OVO-signee Popcaan. Years later in 2016, he cited dancehall legend Vybz Kartel as one of his biggest inspirations.
Also in 2010, Drake started getting familiar with Los Angeles. It’s well-documented that he’s one of the first major artists to give Kendrick Lamar a look, but YG also attested to Drake’s due diligence in a Breakfast Club interview in 2013 where he explained Drake was scouting him years before their hit collaboration “Who Do You Love?” According to YG, they met at a Roscoe’s in 2010 and Drake later came to a YG and Nipsey concert in 2012. Drake also made a cameo in YG’s 2013 video for “I’ma Real 1.”
UK Rap and Afrobeats
In the same way Jamaican culture is unavoidable in Toronto, Drake’s first interaction with British street culture was likely as a kid. But in the public eye, Drake’s first real steps into the worlds of UK rap and Afrobeats happened in 2015 with an interpolation of bars from Skepta’s track “That’s Not Me” used in his feature on Lil Wayne’s “Used To,” (“Shoutout to the Gs from the ends/We don’t love no girls from the ends”). Drake then included Skepta in his noteworthy credits on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
From there he remixed Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba” with Skepta, remixed Dave’s “Wanna Know” in 2016, dropped “One Dance” featuring Wizkid and Kyla, dropped More Life with Giggs and Skepta features, and sprinkled UK slang and references throughout his 2018 offerings including “God’s Plan” (e.g. “crashers to the party,” “turn the O2 to the O3”) and “Can’t Take A Joke” (e.g. “Skid around ends with the bros and I’m kitted to the toes”).
Also in 2018, he visited London during his Scorpion press run to do a Fire In The Booth freestyle for Funkmaster Flex-equivalent Charlie Sloth and a Behind Bars freestyle for LinkUp TV which he later placed on the soundtrack for Top Boy in 2019, a hit British tv show he had a major hand in reviving. Drake’s most recent nod to UK culture is the Drill-inspired single “War.”
After a thorough look at Drake’s upbringing and professional track record, we can affirm the following: he’s culturally fluid, familiar with many cultures as a result of his upbringing, and he forms genuine relationships with representatives of a culture before he uses elements of it in his own work. These facts address questions of Drake’s authenticity as well as his respect and acknowledgement of his influences. However, they don’t answer every question about his wandering cultural expression.
Accents and Slang
…there has never been a critical mass of backlash from Afro-Caribbean or Black British listeners saying Drake’s use of their speech patterns was inaccurate or overindulgent.
Even with Drake’s background and ties to cultural gatekeepers, one concern that remains is if his use of accents and foreign slang is excessive. Despite his demonstrated knowledge of the cultures he dips into, many are rubbed the wrong way by Drake’s use of Jamaican and London accents, as well as patois and roadman lingo in his music.
On one hand, we know many of the words and inflections found in his music are not present in his everyday speech on television or radio interviews. On the other hand, Drake is Canadian-American. If there was ever a master codeswitcher in hip-hop, it would be the Black Jewish kid who feels at home around Southerners, Jamaicans, and Europeans. Why would he ask Jimmy Fallon if he “preed” his SNL appearance or tell LeBron “man like Chubbs get aggy” in The Shop? He can easily speak in a way his majority American audience understands, so that’s what he defaults to.
Furthermore, music is a commonly accepted way of using and sharing new lingo. In the same way most American rap fans are not from LA or Atlanta but know how to comfortably use terms like “bool” and “trap,” Drake’s cultural exchange happens both within and beyond American and Canadian hip-hop. Yes, not every non-Southern rapper who talks about trapping puts on an Atlanta accent. Also, Drake using accent to add stronger cultural filters to his music is an artistic choice that comes with risks and a prerequisite of greater integrity. More often than not, he does his influences justice in his studying and execution.
While it may irritate listeners to hear a song like “Blem” or “War,” there has never been a critical mass of backlash from Afro-Caribbean or Black British listeners saying Drake’s use of their speech patterns was inaccurate or overindulgent. The fact that Drake’s loudest critics in this regard don’t belong to either demographic suggests much of the criticism is performative.
Another point in the Drake culture vulture accusations is that he reaps most of the benefit whenever he uses elements of another culture for his own work. Returning to the term culture vulture, one of its core implications is that a vulture unfairly profits from the body of culture they take from.
The argument that Drake is the biggest beneficiary of any collab is rooted in the idea that he creates an automatic power imbalance as one of the biggest artists in the world. People who use this argument often believe if an artist lends Drake a hot hook or a hot song to remix, Drake is guaranteed to benefit much more due to his status at the expense of a smaller artist losing their momentum.
In individual cases, Drake has been guilty of this. iLoveMakonnen and Mo G are great examples of artists whose careers suffered after Drake found inspiration in them. Despite these cases of sour business, Drake’s track record in collaborating with less established artists contains a number of no-strings-attached favors and genuine relationships. Many artists that Drake has been accused of leeching off of have positive documented experiences with him. This includes a very humble request to remix Fetty Wap’s “My Way,” spotlighting Big Freedia and New Orleans Bounce in his #1 hits “Nice For What” and “In My Feelings,” and gifting Blocboy JB his biggest single to date “Look Alive.”
This pattern of behavior extends into Drake’s global collaborations. Before adopting the Headie One flow for the single “War,” he gave Headie a spot on the Top Boy soundtrack with the banger “Hard To Believe.” Before his louder ventures into UK Drill, Drake credited British rappers Octavian and Drill pioneer Loski of the Harlem Spartans as influences for the album Scorpion. He also gave Dave two tracks on the Top Boy soundtrack a couple of years after being allowed to remix “Wanna Know.”
Other miscellaneous acts of acknowledgement include his frequent use of IG to quote and shout out artists including Section Boys in 2016, as well as joining or bringing younger artists on stage to lend them his platform or show support. For example, last April saw rising UK rapper and Afroswing pioneer J Hus announce his freedom from an 8-month jail stint at a Drake show in London’s O2 arena.
In dealing with dancehall and UK acts like Skepta, Giggs, Popcaan and Beenie Man, he’s working with legends of their respective cultures. It’s brazen for any critic, especially critics of uninvolved cultural backgrounds, to assume these global figures were played for clout when they themselves claim Drake’s work was not exploitative. Despite occasional, isolated disses from cultural reps such as Houston’s Sauce Walka and Grime legend Wiley, the most accomplished and respected creatives in the cultures Drake pulls from view his work as legitimate cultural exchange.
Drake’s artistic approach has always been to polish his many influences into new, appealing flavors of his own stories. Also, being at the top of the industry and searching for inspiration does not make him responsible for the success of less-established collaborators. In case I have to spell it out, this doesn’t make predatory, cutthroat behavior okay. It just means Drake’s “MIA” verse can’t guarantee Bad Bunny’s continued success, for instance.
The belief that Drake unfairly profits from smaller artists because many don’t sustain their success after working with him is based mainly on two misconceptions: first, that Drake can’t sell records or make appealing music without wave-riding, and second, that Drake owes new collaborators the world despite the fact that he’s going out of his way to study, incorporate, and credit creatives of other cultures when his status and wealth don’t require him to do so.
Drake should not be given too much credit for reviving or elevating the sounds of Houston, London, and the Caribbean. But considering the lofty status he’s had in music for about a decade, the research he does and public respect he gives to sounds and artists of other cultures is admirable. On the whole, Drake satisfies the major requirements of avoiding cultural appropriation: he credits his influences, knowledgeably uses what he takes, authentically connects with what he takes, and doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes. As a bonus, he supports the growth of the cultures he dips into through organic collaboration, acknowledgement on his platforms, and sharing his platforms.
For perspective a simple statement from Kaz of popular UK rap review YouTube channel Dan & Kaz captures the cynical takes on Drake’s cultural exchange well: “If he paid us in the UK no attention, he’d still be where he was.”