Metro Morning

The Weeknd welcomed back by Toronto's Ethiopian community in homecoming concert

The Weeknd is a big deal in pop music, but to this city's Ethiopian community, he's much more than that.

Abel Tesfaye a source of pride for Ethio-Canadians

The Weeknd, performing at the MTV Video Music Awards earlier this year, was born in Scarborough but has roots in Ethiopia. (The Associated Press)

He's a big deal in pop music, after becoming the first artist in history this year to simultaneously hold the top three spots on the Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart.

But to this city's Ethiopian community, he's much more than that.

Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, was born and raised in Scarborough and dropped out of Birchmount Collegiate just seven years ago to become a musician. On Thursday, he plays the second of two nearly sold-out homecoming shows at the ACC.

In concert, many in Toronto hold out for a special part of the show, when he nods to his heritage.

"When he sings in Amharic, it's his way of saying hello to us — acknowledging that we do exist, acknowledging the Ethiopian diaspora," says Samuel Getachew, a journalist and activist who's been lobbying to get a stretch of the eastern Danforth renamed Little Ethiopia. 

"It matters so much because we never hear Amharic in pop culture."

Getachew said he is "so moved" when he hears The Weeknd's music.

And lately, if he's near a radio or the Internet, he's heard a lot from Tesfaye.

His last album, Beauty Behind the Madness, became his first number one release on the Billboard 200.

But Ethiopians see more than a young pop star.

"He's influenced by Ethiopian singers like Aster Aweke. She's like our Aretha Franklin. We all grew up listening to her," said Getachew.

Getachew recalled being at an Ethiopian restaurant on the Danforth called Rendez Vous recently. The television in the restaurant was playing, and CBC's The National was on. Then, a feature on The Weeknd's pop chart success flashed across the screen, unbeknownst to anyone in the restaurant. Getachew said everyone in the restaurant stood up and clapped.

"That was an amazing moment. We were all clapping and so proud," he said.

He said having Tesfaye in the public consciousness has improved awareness of Ethiopian Canadians.

"Sometimes I'll go to big events — on Bay Street, for example, or something unrelated to the Ethiopian community. And all of a sudden, there's a point of connection. A random guy will come up to me and start talking about The Weeknd to me," said Getachew.

"They say, 'hey cool, I know The Weeknd. He's Ethiopian too.' It's a bridge."

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