Ethiopia contains multitudes, and a massive backstory. “Our history is millennia old, if you like,” Fisseha Tadesse, an Ethiopian language scholar and Toronto resident, told MTV News. “There are so many monuments of wonder and there are a lot of things to reflect the abiding characteristics of the country.” But across North America, there aren’t enough opportunities to engage with Ethiopia’s economic, political, social, and even ancient history.
That’s why the University of Toronto set up a fund-raiser to create an Ethiopian studies program, beginning with a course in the fall of 2016 focused on the ancient language of Ge’ez. Grammy award–winning singer The Weeknd has been one of the university’s biggest contributors.
Ge’ez isn’t just any ancient language — it’s one of the first known languages, standing alongside Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Ge’ez was the original language of Ethiopia, but it’s no longer spoken outside of church services and is in danger of being lost entirely. And Ge’ez is critical not just to Ethiopian history, but to history as a whole. “There are many texts [originally written in Greek or Hebrew] that are now only preserved in this language,” Tadesse says (here’s a video of him speaking Ge’ez). “That makes Ge’ez not only significant for Ethiopia, and Africa, but also for the whole world. It’s a very important language.”
The Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye, is Ethiopian-Canadian, and has always kept his heritage close. He is a past winner of the Canada-based Bikila Award, aimed at encouraging Ethiopian-Canadian young people to succeed in academics and business, and when the organization put out a call for support for the University of Toronto’s Ethiopian studies program, the Weeknd responded immediately and donated $50,000. The Bikila Award’s Tessema Mulugeta says, “Despite all odds, [The Weeknd] has tenaciously pursued his dream as a singer-songwriter and achieved international success winning various prestigious awards. He is our community hero for giving back.”
Eventually, the University of Toronto wants to create an Ethiopian studies center that will be a vital space for African-centered scholarship through an Ethiopian lens. The Weeknd’s contribution, Mulugeta says, will be huge for Ethiopians across Toronto and beyond. Tadesse adds that Ethiopian studies would do a lot to change the perceptions of Ethiopia and Africa as a whole. “Africa is not just a blank slate where you take whatever you have from the West and write over it,” he says, and he noted that the Ethiopian community in Toronto was playing a big part in creating the program.
“Study should tell us something about ourselves,” Tadesse says. “It is self-examination. The attempt is to understand ourselves as human beings, however that’s expressed — in art, in literature, in whatever ways.” Sounds like The Weeknd would agree.