Most Canadians know Justin Bieber’s backstory, Drake’s past and Carly Rae Jepsen’s ascension to music fame, but not a lot of people know about The Weeknd and how he came to be one of the top music artists in the world. The musician, originally from Scarborough, Ont., has seven Grammy nominations — including Record of the Year and Album of the Year — going into the February awards ceremony. But who is he, and how did he get here?
Born Abel Makkonen Tesfaye on Feb. 16, 1990 (weirdly, his birthday will fall one day after the 2016 Grammys), the only child was raised in and around Toronto by his parents Makkonen and Samra, who immigrated to Canada from Ethiopia in the 1980s. His mother worked multiple jobs while his father was often absent, so his grandmother took care of him for most of his young life, according to The New York Times. Because of this, the first language Tesfaye learned is Amharic; he is completely fluent in Ethiopia’s national language.
While allegedly dabbling in drug dealing and engaging in relationships with many women (told in further detail to The Guardian), he dropped out of high school when he was 17 and adopted the stage name The Weeknd afterwards, since he “left one weekend and never came home.” (He had to drop the second “e” due to potential trademark issues with already-existing Canadian band The Weekend.)
In late 2010, Tesfaye uploaded three videos to YouTube anonymously under the name “The Weeknd.” The songs drew massive attention online, with the help of a blog by Toronto rapper Drake. As a result, Tesfaye got attention from big publications like The New York Times and Pitchfork.
Tesfaye’s first collection of songs, called “House of Balloons,” was released on his website in March 2011. Critics and listeners loved it, and it was shortlisted for the 2011 Polaris Prize, an amazing feat considering he was a brand-new, relatively unheard-of artist. Shortly after, in July, he embarked on his first tour, then appeared with Drake at OVO Fest. His next two album releases, in close succession, both received critical acclaim, and the trio of mixtapes came to be known as the “Balloons Trilogy.” The Weeknd also drew further attention because he refused to do interviews with the press, instead insisting to communicate only via Twitter.
The Weeknd performing at University of Toronto in 2013
In what can only be described as a meteoric rise, Tesfaye became world-famous almost overnight. His first U.S. show was in 2012 at the Coachella Festival, considered one of the biggest music festivals still running. He played alongside juggernauts like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Radiohead and The Black Keys. In September of that year, he signed with Republic Records and not long after the official release of “Trilogy,” it was certified platinum and double platinum. His song “Devil May Cry” was included on the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack, one of the most mainstream movies of 2013. In 2014, he released “Earned It,” which was featured as a single for the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack.
Tesfaye hasn’t shown any signs of stopping in 2015. In May, he released a music video for a new song “The Hills,” which eventually topped the Billboard Hot 100 for five straight weeks, even holding strong in the face of fellow Torontonian Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” Another of his huge 2015 hits, “Can’t Feel My Face,” was leaked online in June, and it eventually became his first number-one song in the U.S.. The Weeknd’s second album, “Beauty Behind the Madness,” was released at the end of August and debuted atop of Billboard, becoming his first number-one album in the U.S. “Beauty” is so far the second-most successful album launch of 2015, sitting only behind Drake’s “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late.”
In October, The Weeknd performed alongside Nicki Minaj on Saturday Night Live when Amy Schumer was hosting.
He won two American Music Awards last month (Favourite Soul/R&B Album and Favourite Soul/R&B Artist — Male), and as of Dec. 1, “Beauty Behind the Madness” became the most streamed album throughout 2015, and placed in the fifth spot on Rolling Stone‘s 50 Best Albums of 2015.
Considering Tesfaye was folding shirts at a Toronto American Apparel outlet five years ago, he’s travelled light years in his career. Canadian music fans, along with fans around the world, will have to wait and see what’s next for this enigmatic man from Scarborough.