Drake and the Strange Spectacle of Charity

The rapper’s charming “God’s Plan” video shows him donating a million dollars around Miami—and earning something for himself.

Young Money Entertainment/Cash Money Records

Dip into the strangely hypnotic film genre that documents the Publishers Clearing House delivering jumbo checks to people, and you begin to notice a pattern. When the “Prize Patrol” first knocks on a door, the sweepstakes winner might gasp and hesitantly smile at the cameras and the balloons, recognizing the familiar script they’ve suddenly been inserted into. But it’s when the money is actually presented, and the amount of the prize revealed, that the crying begins. As a viewer, you feel happy for the winner. You feel gratitude for the Clearing House. And you start wondering what that jumbo check could do for you.

Drake’s new video for “God’s Plan,” the No. 1 song in the country, bottles and elevates that Publishers Clearing House feeling. In it, the Toronto superstar distributes his million-dollar production budget to people around Miami—by telling all the shoppers in a Sabor Tropical Supermarket that everything on the shelves are free, by presenting a scholarship check to an unsuspecting student, by giving gift cards to women at a shelter, and more. The double-takes are the best parts. In one moment, Drake sidles up to a family who’s sitting on a ledge. One of the kids notices the rapper sitting next to her, and shrieks. Drake smiles and hands the family a wad of cash. Star-struck thrill melts into a more tender emotion. The family members cover their eyes, and they hug.

What is this video: goodhearted charity, pop promotional spectacle, or both? Both, making it part of a long history. The word “humanitainment” has been used to describe splashy celebrity-generosity efforts ranging from the Live 8 concert to David Beckham’s UNICEF work, and that term certainly seems to fit “God’s Plan.” It’s an act of grace, and it’s a show—one perfectly calibrated to currently popular attitudes around giving, stardom, and society.

The supremely influential and prolific Drake defines the term “love him or hate him.” Yet as the “God’s Plan” clip earned nearly 30 million plays over a few days, a common response has been to note the lack of backlash. “It seemed like an easy target,” wrote Eric Skelton at Pigeons and Planes about the video. “I was wrong. Every tweet and YouTube comment I've come across so far has been positive.” The most prominent criticism isn’t criticism at all, but rather praise that acknowledges the obvious criticism. One typical example came when Adult Swim’s Jason DeMarco tweeted, “The Drake video is good. Insanely rich ppl giving money away is good, I don’t care if it’s self-serving.”

It is good—both in the moral sense and the aesthetic sense. Director Karena Evans strikingly juxtaposes colorful and worn-down homes with the sleekness of high-end department stores and post-modern campus architecture. Steadicam gives a feeling of vérité, while overhead crowd shots—involving, we see, a cherrypicker that Drake perches in—add grandeur. Absent are clichés of yachts and strippers that have made Miami the ultimate music-video setting. In fact, Drake may be slyly addressing a seven-year-old callout by 2 Live Crew’s Uncle Luke against rappers who exploit Miami’s glam and ignore its average resident.

Those residents, now, are all over the “God’s Plan” video. To start, we hear one man talk about being the same age as Denzel Washington, not having Denzel’s money, and still looking good and feeling fine. The monologue offers a taste of Miami personality, but it also hints at a message about money, race, and dignity. From there, the video casts its sanctifying gaze on a wide range of folks, mostly of color, including both men and women, children and the elderly. Evans pays special attention to emotion: the shock and the weeping as Drake plays Santa, yes, but also the joys of dance, sing-alongs, and shopping.

Still, there’s a tension inherent in the video’s premise. Celebrity do-goodery is an American tradition; resenting stars who use public service for public relations is also a tradition. “He has bought fame and paid cash for it,” Mark Twain once quipped about Andrew Carnegie’s libraries, part of the industrialist’s transformative philanthropic career. Today, when Taylor Swift helps pay her fans’ student loans, it’s seen, by her harshest critics, as a sign of smugness.

If you’re looking for the larger underpinning of such attitudes, you can read scholars like Ilan Kapoor, author of the 2012 book Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity. Fundamentally, spectacles of giving have some element of selfish advertising motive, and they often end up making the viewer feel okay about an unfair status quo. “Celebrity humanitarianism, far from being altruistic … is most often self-serving, helping to promote institutional aggrandizement and the celebrity ‘brand,’” Kapoor writes in the book. It also “advances consumerism and corporate capitalism, and rationalizes the very global inequality it seeks to redress.”

The pathos of the “God’s Plan” video comes, explicitly, from the way inequality looms large over it. One of the women it features is Odelie Paret, a 62-year-old mother of five who, for years, has commuted four hours by bus each day to work as a housekeeper for $15 an hour at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Possibly after discovering her through a 2017 Miami Herald story about prohibitive rent prices in the city, Drake treated Paret to an Saks shopping spree, a massage at the Fontainebleau’s spa, and a steakhouse dinner. In the Herald follow-up after the release of “God’s Plan,” Paret sounds grateful for what the rapper did. But the story closes by noting that “work was on her mind when she arrived from her whirlwind night with Drake. … She’d have three hours before she would have to be up to catch the bus again.

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In Drake’s particular realm of fame—that of black celebrity, especially as tied to hip-hop—charity efforts often receive special scrutiny. The singer and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte famously said in 2012 that “one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists … [who] have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example.” Jay-Z’s first reply: “This is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is.” It was rap boilerplate. For Drake as well as Jay-Z, the journey from the bottom to the top is not merely fodder for an entertaining retelling of the American dream—it’s a political statement, meant to inspire listeners with that dream’s possibilities.

But in the years since the Belafonte dustup, we’ve seen Jay-Z and some of his peers amp up their visible social engagement, with policy activism, more conscientious lyrics, and splashier charity efforts—or, alternately, pointedly unsplashy ones. Replying to Belafonte in song, Jay-Z rapped that “purest form of giving is anonymous to anonymous,” which is a reference to the teachings of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who established an eight-level rubric by which to judge the purity of giving (anon-to-anon isn’t actually the highest level; affording someone else lifetime self-sufficiency is). Reports then leaked out about Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s supposed donating in secret to Ferguson protestors, high-school students in need, and trans folk.

Drake (a noted Torah scholar!) is more operating at the fifth- or sixth-highest level of Maimonides’s righteousness scale with his video: He’s giving without being asked, but also without anonymity. Though not thought of as much of an activist, Drake has over the years made headlines for individual mitzvahs, like when he bought a recording studio for an underserved school in Philadelphia. And his music often presents him as a generous benefactor for his family, friends, and Toronto community. In the lyrics of “God’s Plan,” Drake uses his supposed largess as a way to shore up his persecution pose: “I make sure that North Side eat. And still … It’s a lot of bad things that wishin’ on me.”

In the video, that line about people wishing bad things on Drake reads as an ironic punchline while he pushes shopping carts of wrapped toys to kids. Throughout the clip, hip-hop’s favored metaphor about the high life as a populist beacon becomes literal, visible, communal. Note that Drake gifts people not only essentials—groceries and school funds—but also expensive clothes and private concerts. This isn’t the highly-regulated EBT vision of wealth sharing. It’s the kind that celebrates how anyone might use their windfalls on wine:

Olive Oil and Vino...sounds like the party is at his house tonight.

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Drake’s hoping his public display of generosity will have a ripple effect, and not only on his own reputation. On Instagram, he called for a “God’s Plan” challenge in which regular people follow his lead with acts of kindness. Searching around, I haven’t seen a ton by way of public response—though there is this parody in which a guy hands out spam and air fresheners to people on the street. (There’s also a mini-controversy over whether Drake copied the #HelpingHands challenge launched recently by the rapper XXXtentacion.) More fan-led “God's Plan” efforts may be to come, or they may be unfolding in private.

Of course, there are different ways to fight for a lasting impact: philanthropy, rather than charity. Other celebrities have founded institutions to work full-time on social change, whether it’s Beyonce with the range of causes her BeyGood organization supports or Lady Gaga with her Born This Way Foundation’s fight against bullying. Such efforts, though, necessarily invite tough scrutiny over waste and priorities. The most fascinating example of public-service spectacle in the hip-hop world recently has come from Chance the Rapper, who has both taken political action and donated money to try and help the Chicago public school system.

Drake, as far as we see in this video, is more interested in specific, personal, and perhaps temporary interventions. He does cut checks to schools and shelters, but most of the excitement is around wads of cash, cars, and one-time shopping bonanzas. It’s a heartwarming thing, seeing people have their days suddenly improved. But the limits of such efforts are clear, and it’s telling that this is the form of giving most compatible with entertainment—whether in a rap video, a Publishers Clearing House clip, or a game show. “God’s Plan” may be, on some level, yet another celebration of one man’s success, but Drake’s art—and pop culture more broadly—insists that being self-serving can still be a form of service.