Personal Essay

What it's like to see my childhood friend Abel become Canada's North Star

Poet and writer Adebe DeRango-Adem knew The Weeknd when he was just a local kid named Abel. As his star rose, so too did her questions about who we are — and what we owe our communities.

Can we honour our roots without being bound by them?

Poet and writer Adebe DeRango-Adem knew The Weeknd when he was just a local kid named Abel. As his star rose, so too did her questions about who we are and what we owe our communities. (The Associated Press)

I entered the intergalactic room, feeling stellar, feeling special.  

There stood The Weeknd — Canadian megastar and my old friend — basking in the echo of his own words and sounds, a myriad of women writhing to his beat. I waved my rhinestone-covered hands in the air, hoping he would see me, though I will never know.

'I remember the release party had a cosmic and sinister energy that can only be described as a "Weeknd" vibe.' (Adebe De Rango Adem)

That was November. As Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye mouthed the lyrics that night at a warehouse party in Toronto, I longed to be chained to his music. I was in fact chained already, bound by his mystique, his entourage and his bodyguards, his mystic affiliation with Drake and the fact of his Ethiopian heritage — which I myself share as a Canadian women of Ethiopian and Italian descent.

When I got the invitation to his private release party for Starboy, his newest album, I was genuinely happy for him.

It had been several years since we had laid eyes on each other, though I'm sure any eye contact between us was lost in clouds of smoke both real and imagined.

There stood The Weeknd — Canadian megastar and my old friend — basking in the echo of his own words and sounds, a myriad of women writhing to his beat.

Even as I stood a foot away from him, I felt a physical and metaphysical gap between us. I was standing now on the cusp of his fame, and though I was invited to this special private party, I wasn't really, truly on the VIP list.

Still, he had me, and the crowd, under his spell.

Shared roots

I knew Abel as a young Ethiopian kid who hung out with other kids I saw at family parties, where relatives mingled and new friends were made. We were both artists, but his path veered toward fame and music while mine sent me toward higher education and the written word.

But who is The Weeknd? An enigma wrapped up in a pop star? A nihilist foil to Drake? A darker Prince? A more gangster Michael Jackson? 

“One gets the sense that when The Weeknd sings about losing his “chains” he is referring not to the thing one wraps around the neck.” (Adebe De Rango Adem)

All I know is, from cryptic crooner to chart-topping icon, Abel has managed to succeed on his own terms, guided by a subconscious vision to uplift his genre and give a nod to his own underrepresented community.

He has ignited something in the Canadian musical imagination, and it is astounding to watch a fellow Ethiopian from Toronto make it. His rise to fame has by extension given my Ethiopian community something to brag about, and when I listen to his work, I often feel my old friend "gets me."

He weaves Ethiopian musical ballads through the album, and in so doing gives a cultural nod in my direction, a moment of recognition, which, on a larger scale, has become about giving voice to black culture, life and continued struggle against the odds.

It is not every day that a musician dreams up hip-hop/R&B that tangos with synth-pop and electro-funk, apostrophied by the stellar chords of Ethiopian tizita. His music transports me to a place both futuristic and past.

Similarly, my journey as a poet has taken me to nearby galaxies, from the importance of black lives and futurity, to the troubled waters of identity in a world where it's so easy to feel "othered."

Part of our shared story, I think, is the understanding that success takes work, and work should pay off, and the most gratifying work is creative.

The nuance of North Star

What is at stake for me in writing about The Weeknd in relationship to myself?

He has ignited something in the Canadian musical imagination. It is astounding to watch a fellow Ethiopian from Toronto make it.

As I climb the ladder of my own dreams, dividing my time between Canada and the United States, I've had to grapple with my Canadian heritage and mixed race identity. The path forward is lit by an imperfect star.

His work, like that memorable release party, has a cosmic and sinister energy. Is it a soulful tribute to the artists who preceded him, or romantic nihilism, or pure misogyny?

When I listen to his music, I ask myself: What does it mean to be a Canadian propelled into American success? And what does Abel's Ethiopian-ness or his Canadian-ness have to do with my own? 

Adebe De Rango Adem was recently singled out as a young black artist to watch by George Elliott Clarke, Parliamentary Poet Laureate. (Adebe De Rango Adem)

As someone living between between the two countries, who can admit that she seeks a certain level of recognition in the writing world, I can understand Abel's ambitions.  

Few artists have achieved the kind of success that he has. In witnessing it, I feel a sense of celebratory or congratulatory benevolence. On connected but parallel paths, we are part of a coup for complicated people.

As a woman and a writer, I choose to use language to reach generations, to open minds, engage readers in questions suited to both universals and the particular experience of being here on earth, and how we exist and love, and survive.

Likewise, for me, Starboy is an inquiry into the meaning of life, love and lust. It is the attempt for a young black man with musical gifts to launch himself figuratively into the cosmos as Canada's musical North Star.

And yet, Abel's repertoire depends precisely on a kind of anti-local Canadian identity, an identity not bound by national borders or city limits. He honours his roots without being bound by them. 

Like him, I define my identity by all its Whitmanesque contradictions. I, too, contain multitudes.

Perhaps this is part of that mystic conversation, a story that is one part unrequited love and one part shared love for my origins in Toronto, Canada, Ethiopia and the cosmos.

About the Author

Adebe DeRango-Adem

Adebe DeRango-Adem is doctoral candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania and author of two full-length poetry collections: Ex Nihilo, nominated for the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize, and Terra Incognita, which was a finalist for the 2015 Pat Lowther award. Her newest poetry collection is forthcoming from Mansfield Press. Twitter @adebe_

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.