Drake allegedly almost left the show, Degrassi: The Next Generation, after learning that his character, Jimmy, would be confined to a wheelchair, according to his castmates and several of the writers on the show who spoke with The A.V. Club for a new interview on the show’s 20th anniversary.
Before Drake was an international superstar or a Certified Lover Boy, he was Aubrey Graham, an ensemble member on the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. This fact has been brought up as a mark against him, since the prevailing belief at the time he started his rap career was that rappers should come from hardscrabble beginnings and work their way up from nothing (this was never accurate, but try telling that to the folks who still hate Drake over it to this day).
Apparently, Drake foresaw some of this attitude even as he appeared on the show, resisting a development for his character Jimmy that came to define the role — as well as saddle Drake with one of his most enduring, demeaning nicknames, “Wheelchair Jimmy.” In a two-part season-four episode about the effects of bullying as well as touching on a new violent trend in then-current events, a character named Rick, fed up with mistreatment from his classmates, brings a gun to school and shoots Jimmy in the back as he runs away. Jimmy spends the next several seasons in a wheelchair. Drake, however, was initially adamant that his character not be paralyzed — mainly because of how he thought his rapper friends and fans might interpret the move.
In a new oral history of Degrassi for AVClub, the show’s writer James Hurst explains how the show’s staff learned of Drake’s apprehension… as well as how he convinced the burgeoning star to accept the change:
There was a letter from a law firm in Toronto, and it was from Aubrey. It was an odd letter that said, “Aubrey Graham will not return to Degrassi season six as Jimmy Brooks unless his injury is healed, and he’s out of the wheelchair.” I said, “Get him down here.” He came in and was like, “What letter? I don’t know about that.” And I said, “All right, I understand. But how do you feel about the wheelchair?” He’s like, “All my friends in the rap game say I’m soft because I’m in a wheelchair.” And I said, “Well, tell your friends in the rap game that you got shot. How much harder can you get? You got shot, and you’re in a wheelchair.” He was like, “Yeah, yeah.” He was so nice and apologetic about everything. He instantly backed down. I was very passionate about it, and I said, “Aubrey, there’s some kid somewhere in a wheelchair, who’s completely ignored, who’s never on television, never gets represented.” I need you to represent this person. You’re the coolest kid on the show, and you can say there’s nothing wrong with being in a wheelchair.”
Drake apparently got over it, and over the “Wheelchair Jimmy” appellation, eventually incorporating it as a self-deprecating sobriquet. And while he never quite shook off the “soft” designation, he learned to flip every derogatory assessment of himself from fans into a positive, becoming a one-man meme machine whose goofy sense of humor serves him in good stead to this day. Just check out his video for “Way 2 Sexy.”
You can read the full Degrassi oral history over on AV Club.
Everything worked out for Drake in the end.