Drake Put Toronto on the Map. A University Put Him in the Syllabus

It’s the start of the winter term at Ryerson University in Toronto, and most students are preparing for another semester of courses like mechanical engineering, economics, and English literature. But 30 budding scholars will study a perhaps less traditional subject: the ins and outs of hip-hop megastar Drake.

Song analysis, the state of the Canadian music industry, and critical discussions of race, class, marketing, and globalization are just a few of the themes that will be covered in the course which has started on Wednesday and is titled “Deconstructing Drake and the Weeknd”.

Dalton Higgins, the lecturer teaching the course, told me that while Drake was a Toronto-born and raised cultural titan, black artists were more widely absent from the Canadian music industry, a topic his course would explore. (The Weeknd is another Toronto-born black pop artist.)

“Now is the time to have Canadian rap, R&B and pop icons recognized and academically canonized,” said Higgins, who also works as a publicist and has written a biography of Drake.

In Toronto’s pantheon of global celebrities, a handful of names come to mind, such as Keanu Reeves, Margaret Atwood and Dan Levy. Then there’s Drake, a local hero and one-named figure like Cher or Madonna who has become so synonymous with Toronto that his presence is imprinted across the city.

It is perhaps fitting that Drake joins the ranks of other music stars whose cultural significance has been analyzed in academia; Madonna, the material girl, took classes at Harvard and UCLA, among others. The Drake Course, part of the Professional Music Program, has a long waiting list.

Councilor Michael Thompson, representing Toronto’s nightlife economy, told me that dropping the Drake name while trying to generate investment for the city was a surefire way to inspire applause, l interest and buzz.

Aubrey Drake Graham was born in Toronto to a white Jewish mother and a black father with family roots in Memphis. His parents divorced when he was very young. He was raised by his mother in Toronto’s affluent Forest Hill neighborhood and said he was often the only black student at school.

An avid performer, he quickly found his footing in theater, and in eighth grade he found an agent who helped him land a role in ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation,’ a reboot of a popular Canadian TV series. . His break from music came when New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne invited Drake on a tour in 2008.

Full disclosure: I’m a Drake fan, train to his music, and love his sartorial swagger. As a first-generation Canadian, I identify with parts of his challenge of self against the world, but I’m most drawn to his flair for upbeat music.

Students studying Drake need only travel to downtown Toronto for a crash course in the artist.

Traveling along the Gardiner Freeway — the elevated freeway under which Drake filmed parts of the “What’s Next” music video, released in March — is a building emblazoned with his clothing brand’s golden owl logo. This is the OVO Athletic Centre, a basketball training site that is home to the Toronto Raptors, which Drake represents as the team’s global ambassador. (OVO stands for October’s Very Own, after his birth month.)

Drake fans arriving downtown can then stop by Ripley’s Aquarium and admire the barracudas and jellyfish while soaking up the spot where Drake wooed Rihanna during their recurring romance. The nearby CN Tower is also a staple of his music videos and the cover of “Views,” his 2016 album, steeped in dancehall, Afrobeat and grime beats.

Exiting the Gardiner, future Drake seekers will eventually land on Yonge Street and pass the site of a failed Drake-affiliated restaurant, Pick 6ix, which served sushi and burgers. Sometimes stylized as “6ix,” Six is ​​a nickname he popularized for Toronto, an allusion to the city’s 416 and 647 area codes and its six boroughs, which were merged into a single city in 1998.

Students bypassing the famous Toronto potholes that Drake talks about will arrive at Dundas Square, Toronto’s equivalent of Times Square. There, the aggressive glow of billboards that frequently promote Drake will light their way to Ryerson University, which now features the rapper on its curriculum.

Like many people there, Mr Higgins referred to Ryerson as University X. The institution is in the process of changing its name following protests against the man whose name it bears, Egerton Ryerson, who played a key role in shaping the residential school system in Canada.

Such is Drake’s mark on Toronto that a 2020 “Saturday Night Live” skit, starring Issa Rae, featured a reporter trying to find an elusive Drake in the city.

“You know where I’m at, I put the Six on the map,” Drake raps on his track “Talk Up,” one of countless Toronto references in his music. Although Toronto has relied on the glittering Drake brand, the city can’t take credit for its stardom as homegrown talent, Higgins said.

“Toronto didn’t create Drake, at all,” Mr. Higgins told me, adding that the same goes for The Weeknd and some of the city’s other successful hip-hop artists. They, he observed, began their career in the United States, signing contracts with American record labels and with the support of the American music industry and its fans. It was only then that their popularity and stardom finally returned to Toronto.

Vjosa Isai joined The New York Times in June as Canada News Assistant. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.

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