Abel Makkonen Tesfaye (born February 16, 1990), known professionally as The Weeknd, is a Canadian singer, songwriter, and record producer. He began his recording career in 2010, anonymously uploading several songs to YouTube. A year later, The Weeknd released the mixtapes House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, and quickly earned a following and critical recognition from several mainstream publications due to his dark style of R&B and the mystique surrounding his identity.
In 2012, The Weeknd signed with Republic Records, and re-released the mixtapes as part of the compilation album Trilogy (2012). His debut studio album, Kiss Land, was released in 2013. He followed the album with Beauty Behind the Madness (2015), which was among the best-selling albums of 2015. Containing the Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills”, Beauty Behind the Madness won Best Urban Contemporary Album and was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2016 Grammy Awards. The Weeknd’s third album Starboy (2016) was a similar commercial success and included the number-one single of the same name, while it also won Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2018 Grammy Awards. His fourth album, After Hours (2020), featured the number-one singles “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights”.
The Weeknd has won three Grammy Awards, two American Music Awards, nine Billboard Music Awards, nine Juno Awards, and has been nominated for an Academy Award. He holds several chart records, being the first artist to simultaneously hold the top three positions on the Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart with “Can’t Feel My Face”, “Earned It”, and “The Hills”. One of the most successful Canadian recording artists, The Weeknd was awarded the Allan Slaight Award by Canada’s Walk of Fame for “making a positive impact in the fields of music, film, literature, visual or performing arts, sports, innovation or philanthropy”.
Abel Makkonen Tesfaye was born on February 16, 1990 in Toronto, Ontario, and was raised in Scarborough. He is the only child of Makkonen and Samra Tesfaye, who were Ethiopian immigrants to Canada in the late 1980s.
Tesfaye was raised by his grandmother and mother after his parents split up. While living with his grandmother Tesfaye learned Amharic, which he also spoke with his mother, and attended Ethiopian Orthodox church services. When asked about his father in an interview, Tesfaye stated: “I saw him vaguely when I was six, and then again when I was 11 or 12, and he had a new family and kids. I don’t even know where he lived — I’d see him for, like, a night. I’m sure he’s a great guy. I never judged him. He wasn’t abusive, he wasn’t an alcoholic, he wasn’t an asshole. He just wasn’t there.”
Tesfaye describes his teenage years as the film “Kids without the AIDS”. Tesfaye states he began smoking marijuana at age 11, and later moved on to harder drugs. Tesfaye claims he often shoplifted to supplement his use of ecstasy, oxycodone, xanax, cocaine, psilocybin, and ketamine.
Tesfaye attended West Hill Collegiate Institute and Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, from which he did not graduate, leaving altogether in 2007, after which he also left home. Tesfaye moved to the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto. Tesfaye has credited his stage name as being inspired by his high school dropout status, claiming “after [he] left one weekend and never came home”, though producer Jeremy Rose claims the name was his idea. The spelling was modified in order to avoid trademark issues with the Canadian band The Weekend.
Tesfaye met Jeremy Rose in 2010, a producer who had an idea for a dark R&B musical project. After initially trying to pitch the idea to musician Curtis Santiago, Rose played one of his instrumentals for Tesfaye, who freestyle rapped over it. This led to the two collaborating on an album. Rose produced three songs – “What You Need”, “Loft Music”, and “The Morning” – and others that Tesfaye had rapped on, which were ultimately scrapped. Rose let Tesfaye keep the tracks he had produced under the condition that he would ultimately be credited for them. In December 2010, Tesfaye uploaded “What You Need”, “Loft Music” and “The Morning” to YouTube under his stage name, although his identity was initially unknown. The songs drew some attention online, and were later included in a blog post from Drake. The songs subsequently received coverage from various media outlets, including Pitchfork and The New York Times. Before adopting the stage name “The Weeknd”, he worked under the aliases of “The Noise” and “Kin Kane”.
Tesfaye took to his Twitter to mention that his extended play, Noise, were “a bunch of songs leaked by salty producers and found AFTER HOB dropped.” He says that they were demos that he had written as a teenager to try and get recognition. The EP consists of 10 tracks, some of which influenced his debut mixtape, House of Balloons.
On March 21, 2011, Tesfaye self-released his debut mixtape House of Balloons. The mixtape included production from Canadian producers Illangelo and Doc McKinney, and included the tracks produced by Rose, although, he did not receive production credits. House of Balloons was met with critical acclaim. It was named as one of ten shortlisted nominees for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize.
Tesfaye began a tour of Toronto, with his first live performance at the city’s Mod Club venue. Drake was in attendance to view the performance, which ran for a total of ninety minutes. Drake approached Tesfaye and described a potential musical collaboration between the pair. Tesfaye accompanied Drake at his various shows, often performing as the opening act for shows scheduled at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, as well as appearing at the second annual OVO Fest in July. Over the summer of 2011, Tesfaye contributed to four songs on Drake’s Take Care, both as a writer and a featured artist.
Tesfaye refrained from participating in interviews, choosing to communicate via Twitter, after the album was released. This was credited as an advertising tactic for Tesfayes second mixtape Thursday, which was released on August 18, 2011. Tesfaye’s third mixtape Echoes of Silence was released on December 21, 2011, a year after his debut singles.
Following this release, the three mixtapes were collectively known as the Balloons Trilogy, and saw Tesfaye receiving offers from various record labels.
Tesfaye cites Michael Jackson, Prince, and R. Kelly as his main musical inspirations. He has attributed Jackson’s music as key in spurring him to be a singer, referencing the lyrics to “Dirty Diana” as an example. He also said his high-flying vocal style was influenced by habesha singers like Aster Aweke. He grew up listening to a variety of music genres, including soul, hip hop, funk, indie rock, and post-punk. Tesfaye has said: “I’ve always had an admiration for the era before I was born. You can hear it as far back as my first mixtape that the ’80s — Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cocteau Twins — play such a huge role in my sound.”
Tesfaye’s songs are “built around a fogged, crepuscular production”, and feature slow tempos, rumbling bass, and forlorn echoes. Tesfaye often sings in a falsetto register, exhibiting an enticing tone. J. D. Considine finds his singing’s “tremulous quality” similar to Michael Jackson, but writes that he eschews Jackson’s “strong basis in the blues” for a more Arabic-influenced melisma. Tesfaye possesses a wide light-lyric tenor vocal range, which spans over three octaves. His vocal range reaches its extreme low at the bass F (F2), and its peak high at the tenor G♯ (G♯5), with a natural tessitura within the upper fourth octave. Tesfaye often makes use of his head voice in order to build resonance to belt out strong high notes within the fifth octave. His music incorporates samples that are unconventional in R&B production, including punk and alternative rock. Marc Hogan of Spin says that Tesfaye’s samples tend “to draw from rock critic-approved sources, though generally ones that already share elements of his sexual menace”, with samples of artists such as Beach House, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Aaliyah. Tesfaye worked mostly with producers Illangelo and Doc McKinney, whom Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen credits with developing “a state-of-the-art R&B template” with the artist. In concert, Tesfaye reappropriates his digitized productions with a suite-like arena rock aesthetic.
His emotional, plaintive lyrics often express feelings of hurt and deal with subject matter such as sex, drugs, and partying. Hermione Hoby of The Guardian characterizes Tesfaye’s songs as “narcotised-slow jams” and delineates their message as “partying is an existential experience, sex is fraught with alienation, and everything registers as unreal and unsettling”. The Guardian’s Paul MacInnes has stated that he views Tesfaye’s three mixtapes as “a rough trajectory of party, after-party and hangover”. Anupa Mistry of the Toronto Standard observes throughout his mixtapes a “cast of supine, stoned zombie-women … whose legs willingly part after being plied with substances and who morph into threats only when [he is] coming down and feeling vulnerable”. Tesfaye has viewed that, by singing vulgar, ignorant lyrics in an elegant, sexy way, he is paying homage to R. Kelly and Prince.
Tesfaye has helped broaden R&B’s musical palette to incorporate indie and electronic styles; his work has been categorized with the alternative R&B tag. Mistry writes that he “will be obsequiously praised as the future of R&B music—because [he] is a black singer, not because he’s making quantifiable, canonical R&B”. AllMusic’s Andy Kellman categorizes him as an “alternative R&B act”. While promoting his third album Starboy, Tesfaye also revealed Lana Del Rey, David Bowie, The Smiths, Bad Brains, Talking Heads, DeBarge, 50 Cent, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Eminem as influences.
Tesfaye began dating model Bella Hadid in early 2015. The couple were first seen together in May at Coachella and Hadid later starred in his music video “In the Night” in December of the same year. They made a red carpet appearance as a couple at the 2016 Grammy Awards. On November 11, 2016, it was reported that the couple had split, citing their conflicting schedules as the rationale for ending the relationship. Tesfaye reportedly started dating Selena Gomez in January 2017. They moved in together temporarily in September 2017, but broke up a month later in October 2017. By May 2018, Tesfaye and Hadid began dating again, before splitting in 2019. It has been reported that the two were in touch once more, nine months after the split.
Tesfaye often used drugs to help get over writer’s block on earlier albums and also abused illegal substances such as “… Ketamine, cocaine, MDMA, mushrooms and cough syrup”. Speaking in December 2013, Tesfaye said that drugs were a “crutch” for him when it came to writing music. On social media he typically suffixed his first name with “xo”. According to writer Hermione Hoby, it is meant as an emoticon for “a kiss and a hug”, while VH1’s Zara Golden’s stated that it is a reference to his recreational use of ecstasy and oxycodone. He later altered the handles on his social media to reflect his stage name in preparation for the release of Starboy.
Tesfaye’s hairstyle has been claimed to be partly inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat and has been described as his most recognizable trait. In an interview, he detailed that he began growing it out in 2011, and remarked at the easiness in maintaining it, with “a hard shampoo every once in a while”. He eventually cut his hair in 2016 prior to the release of Starboy.
In his leisure time, he enjoys watching television and is an avid video game fan. In May 2016, Tesfaye and Belly cancelled an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! due to Donald Trump being present.
In January 2015, Tesfaye was arrested for punching a Las Vegas police officer. Tesfaye pleaded no contest, and was sentenced to 50 hours of community service.
In December 2015, Tesfaye was sued by Cutting Edge Music, who alleged that the bass line for “The Hills” had been taken from a composition featured in the score for The Machine. One of the producers of the song has alleged to have sent a DM to Tom Raybould, the composer of the film’s score to tell him about the sample. In September 2018, Tesfaye and Daft Punk were sued for allegedly stealing the rhythm from a self-described poet, singer and songwriter named Yasminah. Tesfaye has denied these allegations.
In April 2019, Tesfaye was sued by British trio William Smith, Brian Clover and Scott McCulloh who accused Tesfaye of plagiarizing their song “I Need to Love” in order to create his song “A Lonely Night”. Smith, Clover, and McCulloh sought $150,000 from Tesfaye and Ahmed Balshe in lieu of copyright infringement. In November 2019, Tesfaye attempted to get the song-theft lawsuit dismissed which was denied by Judge Percy Anderson.
After being presented with a Bikila Award for Professional Excellence in 2014, Tesfaye donated $50,000 to the University of Toronto to help them start a course on Ge’ez, the classic language of Ethiopia. He stated that he “was proud to support his hometown by sharing the brilliant, ancient history of Ethiopia.” In August 2016 he continued donations to the University in the creation of a new Ethiopic Studies program. In May 2016 Tesfaye donated $50,000 to the St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Toronto, Canada, the church he once attended as a child.
In December 2015, he worked with Ryan Seacrest’s foundation to visit Children’s Hospital in Atlanta. In June 2017, Tesfaye donated $100,000 to the Suubi Health Center, a maternity and children’s medical facility in Budondo, Uganda. Tesfaye was inspired to support the center after learning of his friend French Montana’s work with Global Citizen and Mama Hope to help raise awareness for Suubi and the people of Uganda.
In April 2020, Tesfaye relaunched his record label XO’s popular line of non-medical cloth face masks in an effort to raise money for MusiCares Coronavirus Relief Fund, which is a campaign launched by the Grammys to help musicians affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was announced that 100% of the proceeds from the sale of the masks will be donated to the relief fund. With the profit, Tesfaye donated $500,000 each to MusiCares and $500,000 to his hometown front-line hospital workers of the Scarborough Health Network in Ontario, Canada for a total of $1 million to COVID-19 relief.
In the context of media outlets reporting cases of police brutality, in 2016, he expressed disdain, tweeting “blue lives murder”. In August 2016, Tesfaye donated $250,000 to Black Lives Matter. In May 2020, in response to the killing of George Floyd, the ongoing protests in reaction, and racial violence in the United States, Tesfaye donated $500,000 to Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp, and the National Bail Out; he also posted on his official Instagram account to spread awareness.
- Kiss Land (2013)
- Beauty Behind the Madness (2015)
- Starboy (2016)
- After Hours (2020)
- King of the Fall Tour (2014)
- The Madness Fall Tour (2015)
- Starboy: Legend of the Fall Tour (2017)
- The Weeknd Asia Tour (2018)
- The After Hours Tour (2021)