There was a moment a decade ago when the musician known as The Weeknd was both everywhere and nowhere. The Torontonian’s career popped off with a free mixtape of slinky, hedonistic R&B that seized the attention of fans and critics—all without playing a single concert or revealing who he was. He gradually shed his enigmatic persona, and the Ethiopian-Canadian Abel Tesfaye settled into the role of bona fide pop star. Yet he’s managed to keep control of his ever-expanding projects.
Let the work speak for itself
Tesfaye had been releasing music anonymously online for a couple of years before he dropped House of Balloons in 2011. Even with an early co-sign from Drake, he decided to keep up the ruse. It worked. Countless R&B fans scoured the internet for anything they could learn about him, drawing them even closer to his music. By year’s end, The Weeknd was one of the most hyped artists in the world.
Stay true to yourself and your fans
By building his brand before revealing his true identity, The Weeknd held on to creative control of his work—and fans loved him for it. When he signed to Republic Records in 2012, they worried his vision might be compromised. “This does not mean what you think it means,” he assured them on his blog. “You will still get what you fell in love with.” A decade later, he still holds on to control, whether it’s his 2016 partnership with Puma or his upcoming HBO series The Idol—Tesfaye is the co-creator (with Euphoria’s Sam Levinson), executive producer and stars in it, too.
Stand up for your values
Tesfaye’s Blinding Lights dethroned Chubby Checker’s The Twist last year to top Billboard’s Greatest Songs of All Time chart. Yet he got zero Grammy nominations for it. Black artists had long been disproportionately ignored, but missing the biggest song of 2020 was even more blatant. Tesfaye blamed the Recording Academy’s anonymous nomination committees. The Grammys did away with them within weeks—but he’s still boycotting the awards.
Spread the wealth
Playing sold-out concerts worldwide, Tesfaye met plenty of Torontonians who’d left the city because of a creative void. So, he and his creative director, La Mar Taylor, teamed up with Scarborough entrepreneur Ahmed Ismail to create HXOUSE, a multidisciplinary incubator on Toronto’s waterfront for artists in fashion, music and visual media. The Weeknd’s rise has been called improbable; he’s making sure the next gen has better odds.
Embrace unexpected connections
The 2019 film Uncut Gems saw Adam Sandler on an anxiety-riddled ride through New York’s diamond district. In it, The Weeknd plays himself as a rising star circa 2012. The role proved astonishingly lucrative: Tesfaye befriended the film’s scorer, Oneohtrix Point Never, a relationship that culminated in the 2022 album Dawn FM, which might be Tesfaye’s best yet. And it wouldn’t have happened if he’d just taken his Uncut Gems cheque and walked.
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