Grammy-winning artist The Weeknd, who has made no secret of the influence his Ethiopian heritage has on his music, made a $50,000 donation to the University of Toronto this weekend — a contribution to a hoped-for Ethiopian Studies program.
The family of the R&B musician, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, presented the cheque at a fundraising event on Sunday at Varsity Stadium, Tim Harrison, chair of the university’s Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations department, told CBC News.
The donation is part of a larger fundraising campaign that began in 2015, when Scarborough-campus Professor Michael Gervers promised to donate $50,000 of his own money if the university and wider Ethiopian community would help match contributions.
Born and raised in Scarborough, Tesfaye has been a source of pride within the Ethiopian community, and has introduced strands of Ethiopian culture to his broader fan base, sampling Amharic in some of his songs.
So when the Toronto-based non-profit Ethiopian group Bikila Award, which promotes volunteerism within the community, joined the effort to raise money for the program, Tesfaye responded to the call, posting about it on his Twitter account Saturday.
The Bikila Award was created in honour of celebrated Ethiopian long-distance runner Abebe Bikila, who broke a record at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, running barefoot because the shoes provided to him weren’t the right size.
“For us to have someone from that community give that gift is enormous,” Harrison says. “But it’s also really important in terms of trying to build engagement with diasporic communities who have a natural interest in these programs.”
Tesfaye’s donation will go toward a course on Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian language, to be offered in January 2017, Harrison says.
His cheque brings the total amount raised to about $200,000, which Harrison says will support initial efforts to get the program off the ground. The larger goal is to build up a roster of courses as part of a larger Ethiopian Studies curriculum.
The Weeknd wasn’t able to attend Sunday’s event, Harrison says, but he would be glad for some face-time with the artist. “We would definitely hope to meet him and thank him in person.”