It’s the Mondays that test us; the good times of Friday and Saturday in the rear-view mirror, the top of the week can seem like the bottom of the pits. To some, this is an allusion to the regular grind of life where we work five days a week in order to celebrate a rough stretch with drinks and good music. In reality though, the Monday I’m referring to is the season of barrenness and distress that comes for all of us in this paradoxical journey called life. Try as we might in the age of social media to present a brave facade of happiness and perfect lives, at our core all of us—at one point or another—go through the fire and a crucible. The one thing that all of humanity has in common is pain; hardship is a universal equalizer, from prince to pauper and all in between, we go through tribulations that try our souls.
Let me share with you the story of Abel Tesfaye before the Weeknd. Before the embrace of fame and the glamor of Billboards, Abel was once a struggling artist who went through his share of misfortune and sorrows. Abel was born in Canada but traces his roots back to Ethiopia—his ancestry has been and remains a strong influence in his life. Abel was raised by a strong mother who worked endlessly in order to provide for her son. His father’s absence was filled in by the presence of his grandmother, the blessing of life is thus, where there was a void, two women covered Abel with love and nurtured his talents. Abel credits his mother for his success and praises his grandmother for instilling in him the essence of Ethiopian culture and teaching him how to speak Amharic.
But no amount of love and nurture in life can shield us from the slings and arrows of life and the repercussions of our fateful decisions. Abel’s life story is no different than the rest of us, we all push the boundary in order to find our identity and we test the limit to find our purpose in life. It was in this quest that Abel went through his inferno, painful lessons of loyalty and abandonment learned through the education of life’s jabs. It seems that those who go through the most adversity are the ones who turn to art to create beauty right in the midst of toil and grief. The inspiration for most artists is the blues induced by solitude, sorrow, and a throbbing heart. Ennui has given birth to our greatest thinkers and visionaries; the blessing and burden of talent is such—prodigies are breast fed by distress.
The distresses that Abel faced is made evident through his music. This is what I find refreshing about the Weeknd, he is brave enough to confront his demons and melancholy through his music instead of only blabbering about materialism and sexual conquests. Abel sings about his culture, croons about heartbreak, harmonizes about betrayal, and above all he cantillates about love. This is the music that I remember, a music that touches our souls. You see, singers are singing our despair and hopes into existence and giving us the comfort of a melodious shoulder. What is lost in the era of instant gratification and endless titillation, Abel dares to be different and steps into the breach to sing depth into an ether inundated by shallow music.
As a fellow Ethiopian, I have to admit my bias in advance; I am awed by Abel given the embrace that he has of his heritage even as he stretches forward to discover his own niche. When he talks about his admiration and of giants of Ethiopian music like Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmoud Ahmed, Aster Aweke and cites these legendary Ethiopian musicians as an influence in his life, it touches my heart because I see in Abel what I want to see for all Ethiopian children and really for children globally. To at once dare to be different yet remain true to our roots—Abel does precisely this by never forgetting the soil that gave birth to his dreams.
Too often we take for granted the blessings we have and lose our connection to our past; we are too busy chasing modernity and success to realize the fortunes we already have. But those who know adversity well and who have been through the kiln learn to appreciate the nuances of life and hold fast to the source of love. Growing up in Toronto without a father, trying to fit in and finding instead the kiss of rejection, chasing success while being stuck in the rut of stasis; these are the pangs that at once gnawed at Abel’s heart but in time gave him the wherewithal to push through trying times that would have broken many. Abel’s story is one of fortitude and defiance; knocked down endlessly, he kept getting up with tenacity and a belief in his talent. This is why this article is titled Before the Weeknd, as talented as Abel is with his voice, it is his grit and wherewithal that I am in awe of the most. To fall but to rise, to bend but refuse to break, these are the silent staccatos that are at the root of the Weeknd’s music.
The hardships were many, at an age that should be filled with debauchery and senseless pursuits of happiness instead found Abel mired in homelessness. In order to chase away the doldrums of listlessness, he did what many do to dull the malaise by turning to booze, drugs, and sexual conquests. But all who have tried this path learn the hard way that instant gratification is ephemeral; the good times always end; true meaning and purpose are never found at the bottom of bottles or in the panties of nameless women. Through it all, through the uncertainty and purple hazed clouds, Abel refused to give up on his gift and continued grinding even as life was grinding away at his spirits. Perseverance the mark of all great men, Abel became great because he doggedly pursued his passions instead of letting his circumstances and contretemps define him. Defiance in the face of calamity is the truest essence of audacity—there is a calm breeze waiting if we only survive the turbulence.
Not only did Abel survive the storm, he thrived once the world found out about his talent. Once disregarded and overlooked, and met on countless occasions by the guffaws of friends and scofflaws alike, Abel rose above the doubt and aspersions to become a star in the music industry. Many will give credit to Drake for “discovering” the Weeknd, but it was the trials and tribulations that Abel went through before the Weeknd that are at the root of his success. I am writing this article as much for others who reside in the darkness of despair as I am to praise the brilliance of Abel. That is the reason I keep referring to the Weeknd by his real name in this article; to remind all of us that the story of Abel is the story of any one of us. Life’s gut punch can reduce any of us to rubble and can envelop all in the shroud of equal parts despair and despondence. Let Abel be a guiding light and remember his story when you are going through your own moments of trepidation, the fire that comes at our doorsteps and leaves us marooned in desperation can one day be the source of our strength and success.
Abel is the Weeknd now, but what we don’t see are the Mondays of loneliness, the Tuesdays of once doubt, the Wednesdays of anxiety, the Thursdays of sorrow that once bracketed his existence. But these moments don’t define us, in fact these difficulties of life will one day be the very source of our testimony as weekdays in time turn to weekends of blessings. The weekdays of struggle were the prerequisite steps that in time served as the pathway to the mind-numbing success and smashing achievements of the Weeknd. But Abel could not help it, determination and moxie run deep in his veins for his roots flow back to a people who once defiantly stood up to a colonial power and sent them packing backwards from Adwa.
It’s the darned thing really, we truly become our names in one way or another. It’s all about perspective; when the infernos of life come at us, we can emerge on the other end either bitter or resilient. The injury of life informs us and makes us either become our names or become the opposite of our names. Go ahead and think about what your name means and see if that name has not in one way or another shaped you, my last name means “my love” for example, it is my love that sustained me through my own bout with homelessness and torment. My love made me rise above my circumstances.
Life is poetic in this way, Tesfaye means “my hope”; it was Abel’s hope that refused to let him give up on the hopes of his mother in him. Hope is what is needed the most when the most trying times of our lives arrive. Hope pushes us forward from burdens to blessings. Poetics really, when one has been raised by love, kept by heritage, and blessed with a God given talent, no amount of Mondays can thwart the arrival of the Weeknd. #MyHopeB4TheWeeknd
Stars are born through scars::
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Check out the Weeknd’s music below and right below his video, check out the song of Yegna, an all girl’s Ethiopian group that is singing about the possibilities of hope and faith to Ethiopian girls based on the story of Taitu (the jegna (hero) of Adwa). The song features Aster Aweke, an Ethiopian singer who is cited by Abel as one of his subconscious inspirations. Do you see how all these things are interconnected, we are the sum of past love that fed us and future hopes that push us forward. This is the story of Abel.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.