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CATV/Courtesy Everett Collection
The four-time Grammy Award winner, 34, starred in the first seven seasons of the rebooted Canadian teen drama as Jimmy Brooks, who was paralyzed after being shot in a school shooting in the season 4 two-part episode "Time Stands Still."
James Hurst, a former writer on the show, recently recalled a subsequent conversation he had with Drake (né Aubrey Graham) about the character, in an oral history of the show published Thursday by The A.V. Club.
"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 recounted. "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,'" Hurst added.
CATV/Courtesy Everett Collection
A rep for Drake did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.
Drake's costars also recalled how using the wheelchair affected him as an actor. "I think [Aubrey] struggled, just physically with having to all of a sudden do everything confined to a chair," said Lauren Collins, who played Paige Michalchuk.
"That was really hard for him. I definitely have a few memories of him toppling the chair over and falling off of makeshift ramps that they'd constructed for him," she said, adding: "I don't want to speak for anyone, but I think [Aubrey] probably struggled with the idea that he was one of two Black characters on the show, and that he was the one who was winding up shot and in a wheelchair, which obviously is part of a much larger conversation."
According to Shane Kipple, who portrayed Jimmy's best friend Gavin "Spinner" Mason, the ever-growing conversation around able-bodied actors playing differently-abled characters was not lost on Drake at the time.
"[There's] the apprehension of having your character confined to a wheelchair, or even not really feeling like it's right to be portraying someone who is confined to a wheelchair if you're fully abled yourself," he said. "But that pertains to [Aubrey] and how he felt with that."
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Stefan Brogren, who played teacher Archie "Snake" Simpson and directed 51 episodes after making his acting debut in the 1987 spinoff Degrassi High, explained how they found a compromise to get Drake out of the wheelchair.
"There was always a conversation: 'Is there a surgery that Jimmy can have? Can we somehow get him out of this?' The idea was played with a lot," he said. "In the end, we started having him getting up on his feet and walking with crutches."
Although he's since gone on to have a successful career as a recording artist, Drake jokingly revealed in 2017 that he still gets residuals from Degrassi, posting a photo of his $8.25 check. "Degrassi money still coming in don't sleeeeeeeep..." he wrote at the time.
Drake had a reunion with his Degrassi costars in the music video for his 2018 single "I'm Upset," which was set at their onscreen alma mater.