The Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye mines Ethiopian roots for inspiration

Behind the press-averse, mysterious persona you see in the music videos for songs like Can't Feel My Face and The Hills is an unexpectedly tender and engaged artist.

Anupa Mistry is the only Canadian journalist to have interviewed the pop singer from Scarborough

The Weeknd, seen performing at the Austin City Limits festival earlier this month, is an enigmatic artist whose work is influenced by his Ethiopian roots. (The Associated Press)

Behind the press-averse, mysterious persona you see in the music videos for songs like Can't Feel My Face and The Hills is an unexpectedly tender and engaged artist.

Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, is taking the world by storm. He has surpassed artists like Canadian rapper Drake and American singer Taylor Swift to go to No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100 — and has been on the charts for 18 weeks in a row.

He will play two sold-out shows in Toronto this week. 

But who is the Ethiopian-Canadian artist from Scarborough in suburban Toronto?

The Weeknd rarely gives interviews. In fact, one of his first interviews was for a cover story for the New York Times Magazine, more than five years after his debut. 

He has only given one interview to a Canadian journalist, albeit one writing in an American publication. Anupa Mistry interviewed Tesfaye for Pitchfork.

When the Toronto-based freelance journalist and associate producer at the CBC's q met Tesfaye, she was taken aback.

"I was surprised at how normal he was," she said. "It was at a time his music was exploding out there, and here he was in the midst of all the fans, interviewers, and he was engaged and interested."

Mysterious artist is 'attentive and nice'

Mistry said because of the type of music he made, she thinks people might expect him to be dark and misogynistic.

"You expect him to be a very shadowy character, aloof, not talkative," she said. "But I had a completely different experience. He was present, attentive and nice."

So how is it that a normal guy from Scarborough can make No. 1 singles without giving many interviews? Mistry said that was partly differentiated from the rest of the music, and partly his unique heritage.

"I think at that time his first tape came out, there was nothing like that in contemporary R&B," she said. "It sounded different on commercial radio, it was similar to hip hop in how it borrowed from other genres. It was also insular and introspective, a style that Kanye and Drake have popularized."

She said that was part of what attracted a cult fan base, which she describes as "a group that really relate to his lifestyle that is portrayed in his music."

His new music is catchier, with some of the songs co-written by Max Martin, who helped write hits for Britney Spears, Katy Perry and the bulk of Swift's blockbuster 1989 album.

"But while the new stuff is really catchy, I am not certain everyone gets some of the more difficult things he talks about. For example, I'm not sure people get that Can't Feel My Face is about being high."

But Mistry pointed out that even with his brooding lyrics and hidden, darker messages, Tesfaye did not do a lot of local shows or hand out flyers. His rise came through his digital efforts.

'Afro-futuristic esthetic'

Even in some of his digital marketing, his Ethiopian heritage plays a large role in his music and persona.

"In the videos for his first mix tape, you'll see imagery inspired by Ethiopian history, and this Afro-futuristic esthetic," she said. "He also samples Amharic [an Ethiopian language] songs and sings these in Amharic himself when he does live performances."

Mistry said that when she spoke to him, Tesfaye mentioned he was raised listening to Ethiopian music his mother would play. The music, some of it known as Tizita, has a mournful quality, often dealing with loss of love.

"I think that may explain the lonely balladeer sense to his music," she said.

Tesfaye said in another interview with Rolling Stone magazine that he can be press averse because he did not graduate from high school, and is worried that he may come out not looking as smart as he wants to.

"This is what I mean by the unexpected tenderness he displays that I experienced," Mistry said. "But I also think avoiding media fits into his strategy of employing an air of mysteriousness."


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