This Sunday, the 65th Grammy Awards will be the biggest night in the music industry—but not for one of the biggest stars in the music industry: Abel Makonnen Tesfaye. That’s because Tesfaye, who performs under the name The Weeknd, has been snubbed in the nominations in spite of releasing the #4 top-selling album last year—a move that spawned reaction articles across the internet and prompted him to announce that he is refusing to submit his work for future Grammy Awards entirely.
But those articles haven’t covered the personal journey that Tesfaye has been on, which has given him a confidence in his work that doesn’t require acclaim from anyone. So we’re writing about it at Selfmade. Because anyone on this journey to building something that we’re on can appreciate the lessons of an artist who discovered that the key to success is persistence in spite of self-doubt, and that the thing which you think is your greatest weakness can turn out to be your greatest strength in the end.
No Choice But to Be Unique
One of the biggest ironies about the Weeknd’s snub at Grammys is that one of the reasons we know his name today is because he’s already a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and producer. But that is only after a long climb out of the obscurity and hardship that Tesfaye has been working on for years.
He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents didn’t have connections to get him ahead: they came to Toronto from Ethiopia, and were divorced by the time Tesfaye was two years old. Tesfaye’s father abandoned the family, and his mother started working multiple jobs, and going to nursing school at night. When she graduated, she began working long shifts at the hospital, which meant Abel was raised by his grandmother.
As a child, he was often made fun of for the way he spoke English—a result of his grandmother teaching him the Ethiopian language, Amharic, and his mother putting him in French Immersion classes when he entered school. Tesfaye did ultimately see his father again as an 11-year-old, but it wasn’t a happy reunion: his father had already remarried with a new wife and children. Ultimately, Tesfaye admitted, he could count the few times he’d ever met his dad. “He wasn't abusive, he wasn't an alcoholic, he wasn't an asshole. He just wasn't there."
Staying in a hopeless and miserable situation doesn’t make you loyal, it just makes you miserable.”-The Weeknd
Infamous, Anonymous, and Unconfident
An abandonment like Tesfaye experienced doesn’t happen without repercussions, and as he got older he began to get into trouble. He dropped out of high school without graduating and began living with friends—at first on a mattress in the back of a van, then eventually in a rented house in a tough part of Toronto called Parkdale that was central to the downtown nightlife. His late teens and early 20’s devolved into partying non-stop, where Tesfaye would stay awake for days on end. The drugs got harder. The friends went broke. So broke, that he and his friends had to steal from grocery stores to eat.
But what most would see as finding bottom became the inspiration for Tesfaye’s career. He started rapping and making music under the stage names Noise and Kin Kane, using his long nights of partying as inspiration. As a literally starving artist, he was willing to sell his music to whoever was willing to pay and his friends founded their own production company called XO. In 2010, Tesfaye started going by “The Weeknd” and anonymously uploading songs to YouTube.
This anonymity was less of an artistic statement, and more due to his discomfort as an artist. He compared himself to famous singers who had personal trainers and stylists, when all he saw in the mirror was a skinny kid who cringed seeing pictures of himself. The idea of being photographed or performing in front of a crowd was terrifying, so along with his name, he also hid his appearance on the cover of his first mixtape “House of Balloons”, featuring a female model instead. But in the end, this only created a sense of desirable mystery around The Weeknd. No one knew who was behind the music—whether it was a group, or a person—and while it helped Tesfaye avoid the spotlight temporarily, it soon put his music directly in it.
I was very camera shy…The whole ‘enigmatic artist’ thing, I just ran with it. No one could find pictures of me.”-The Weeknd
After releasing his first mixtape, Tesfaye shared the music with his friends on social media. But before long it was circulating throughout the larger Toronto music scene, and found its way into the hands of Drake’s agent, who brought it to his client’s attention. That was the moment that led to the night that would change Tesfaye’s life.
The Night The Weeknd Broke Out
In 2011, The Weeknd’s “House of Balloons” became so popular that people were begging to see the artist live. Even though he was nervous about going on stage, Tesfaye needed a paycheck. So he played a show in Toronto at The Mod Club, and Drake showed up to see him. Then went backstage to meet him. And once Drake heard more of The Weeknd’s music, he was eager to buy the songs. Which he could afford to do.
On the other hand, Tesfaye was just glad for any support of his music career. Ultimately, half of The Weeknd’s second mixtape was put on Drake’s 2011 album, “Take Care”. This became a stepping stone to his establishment as a solo artist in 2012, when he signed a record deal of his own with Republic Records.
The Weeknd started playing at music festivals and concerts, and things began to take off. He went on tour opening for Justin Timberlake, wrote music for The Hunger Games soundtrack, collaborated with Ariana Grande, Kanye West, Daft Punk, and even had his mentor Drake appear on some of The Weeknd’s tracks.
But no matter how much buzz he got, he always maintained the independent streak that showed up in the recent Grammy drama: he was unwilling to bow to anyone else’s ideas of fame. He refused to do interviews. The only communication he has with the public is through his Twitter. And in the end, this desire to opt out of the usual trappings of fame meant he was able to avoid many pitfalls that awaited other artists.
The only thing I rely on is good music. I have no publicity stunts, or any crazy interviews about how crazy my life is. The world didn’t have a face to put to my music until recently. That’s how I want to be remembered.”-The Weeknd
Sobriety Brings More Success
Even with all of his success, the early years of his career weren’t all positive for Tesfaye. He’s admitted that in those days he turned to drugs for inspiration any time he had writer’s block. And if he felt any stage fright or anxiety, he would drink to cover up the pain. But even in those days he knew that this habit was unsustainable. He’d seen many other young artists succumb to it, and in this area, he wanted to be atypical too. So he became sober after having a team around him that kept him honest.
Over the next several years, The Weeknd’s fame skyrocketed. He won 3 Grammy Awards, as well as multiple titles from The Billboard Music Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, Juno Awards, and American Music Awards. He was even nominated for an Academy Award as one of his original songs, “Earned It” appeared in Fifty Shades of Grey. And over the years, events have proved that he is not just a talented musician, but a savvy businessman. He multiplied his impact by becoming brand ambassador for several brands like Puma and H&M, which has brought him even more wealth. Marvel Comics created a character called “Starboy”, based on his song. He performed at the 2021 Super Bowl Half-Time Show, and his song “Blinding Lights” is the one and only song in history to stay in the top 10 charts for more than an entire year.
So when we say that The Weeknd has earned the right to ignore whether or not he’s nominated for a Grammy; or to not care who has snubbed him or not; he has. Because he’s been there, done that, and moved on. He has reached the level of success that all of us of Selfmade aspire to—to be so good that you don’t have to play by anyone’s rules but your own. And the only way to get there, is to play by your own rules from the beginning.
Be loyal to your own peace of mind.”-The Weeknd
Earlier, we mentioned how Abel studied French and Amharic as a kid. This actually came in handy later in life, because he collaborated with several French producers, including Daft Punk. After becoming famous and earning a substantial amount of money, he began giving back to his hometown of Toronto. In 2014, he donated $50,000 to the University of Toronto to start a course on Ge'ez, the classic language of Ethiopia. And in 2016, he gave the university additional donations to create an Ethiopic Studies program. He also regularly donates money to the church he attended growing up, a children’s hospital, as well as Black Lives Matter, and a Coronavirus relief fund.
From the beginning, The Weeknd stayed grounded, and never let fame get the best of him. For the first few years of his career, he let his identity remain a secret, and let his work speak for itself. Even after receiving so many fame and recognition, he still tries to avoid interviews and stay out of the spotlight. His career proves that being famous isn’t everything. Rather than seeking the limelight, his passion for his work is what made him successful. Today, he has an estimated net worth of $100 million.