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2011 allan slaight honour recipient

If power is liable to corrupt us, then there are certainly fewer stronger tests of one’s moral mettle than being put in a position of great influence—the kind of influence that can make careers with a tweet and coerce superstars to fly across the continent to play a single show. The 2011 Allan Slaight Award winner wields that kind of influence. His name is Aubrey Graham.

Everyone - Canadian or otherwise - knows that Drake is currently about as big a music star as they get. Starting in 2006 with his buzz-building mixtapes to his first #1 single, the self-released “The Best I Ever Had,” and on to his multimillion-selling official full-length debut, 2010’s Thank Me Later, this 24-year-old has quite handily charmed fans around the world with the seemingly predestined ease of an Old World conqueror.

But what to do with such influence? Anyone who listens to Drake’s lyrics knows he struggles quite candidly with the isolation, pressures and downright weirdness of his fame. His is one of the most self-critically melancholic and honest voices in pop music today.  But as Drake’s obsession with (and talent for) such soul-searching may appear to lay bare his own weaknesses, in reality it is his greatest strength. He cares, and not just about himself.

Back when Drake was just another hip-hop hopeful (not that long ago), he was the beneficiary of some very good fortune.  Sure, his songs were good, but that’s rarely ever enough.  His ascension was fuelled by the chance endorsement of one of rap’s most powerful personalities, Lil Wayne.  Lil Wayne’s blessing opened doors—and ears— that were previously closed. This power was not lost on Drake. In a relatively short time, he has used his own burgeoning influence to shine the spotlight on two things in particular: young up-and-comers and his hometown of Toronto.  

One only has to look at the rise of sultry R&B enigma The Weeknd to see the evidence. This past March, the mysterious singer (actually Scarborough native Abel Tesfaye) gave away his debut, House of Balloons, as a free download. The music was a haunting interpretation of modern R&B that was well worthy of praise—but unknown. Then Drake tweeted about the record and the resulting tidal wave of hype engulfed a continent of music fans and made this unheard-of kid from the suburbs the most-talked-about musician of the moment.

And when it comes to celebrating, Canadian hip-hop really hasn’t had a person who can throw a party the way that Drake can.  The summer of 2011 saw his second consecutive OVO Festival in Toronto. Not only is the date of the festival culturally significant (it takes place during the city’s long-running Caribbean Carnival), it has also produced the sort of surprise cameos that before now have only been experienced in marquee cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami.

In the space of two years, Drake has been able to corral Jay-Z, Eminem, Lil Wayne, and perhaps most sensationally, Stevie Wonder to fl y up just to share the stage with him in Toronto for a half hour or so. Hey, no biggie, right?

You could argue that such displays of tastemaking and having friends in high places are part and parcel of the hip-hop game—a style of music steeped in bravado. But in Drake’s hands, they’ve become something else: a heartfelt gift to the town he so dearly loves.
There are plenty of accomplishments one could list under Drake’s name to justify his winning the Allan Slaight Award: his well-loved role as Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation; his suave, accomplished effort as the youngest-ever host of the JUNO Awards; his many charitable donations and appearances (he is donating the entirety of his $10,000 honorarium for this award to Dixon Hall, a charity aimed at providing opportunities for low-income Torontonians); and his hotly anticipated new album, Take Care, which was released in October 2011. All of these things are awfully impressive for someone who has yet to complete his first quarter-century on the planet.

But the thing that makes him the most worthy of this award is his ability to turn his influence into inspiration. Canadian kids have long had icons of rock, pop and country to aspire to as they dreamed of making their talents heard. In Drake, they now have a legitimate hip-hop star—one whose rise to fame is already being clearly emulated by new acts like The Weeknd.

Drake may have once been an actor. He may yet act again. But right now, the role he’s playing is no act—it’s the real deal. And his performance is reminding Canadians that the world is indeed a stage - theirs.