The instant Akon joined me at The Root’s office in a skyscraper overlooking Times Square, he seemed at ease. With his publicist in tow, he strolled in, falling headfirst into a conversation we were having about the huge buzz around upcoming events in Accra, Ghana in December (AfroNation and Afrochella); a pilgrimage so massive, hotels in the city are rumored to be all sold out. This is all for people to experience the Motherland en masse. We were speaking his language.
Wearing a Versace-print polo shirt, baseball cap, and white jeans, Aliaune “Akon” Thiam took a sip of tea and slipped back into his chair. He displayed a humility unexpected for someone who once owned a diamond mine; was given a $1 billion credit line from investors in China; and who is set to launch his own cryptocurrency, the Akoin, in his very own Akon City in Senegal. He does show excitement at times—as when he revealed a vision to collaborate with Jay-Z on a business venture in the future—but otherwise, he’s laid back.
Akon has obviously become a pro at interviews since he released his first single “Locked Up” in 2004. The Senegalese-American music star-turned-philanthropist and businessman had flown to the States from Senegal to chat about his plans to end the decade with a global takeover by dropping an album every month before December, each focusing on a specific music genre.
El Negreeto, which landed at No. 1 on the Latin iTunes charts, was released in September; Akonda (Afrobeats) will release on Oct. 25; and The Konnect (Hip-Hop, R&B) will drop in November.
It’s been four years since Akon has released music in the U.S., and in that time, Afrobeats music (not to be confused with the more traditional genre Afrobeat) has become a massive global phenomenon, especially after Drake’s “One Dance” broke ground stateside three years ago, proving its commercial viability. The crossover hit brought more visibility to the current kings of Afrobeat—namely Davido and Wizkid (whom, coincidentally, Akon said he signed early in their careers) as well as Burna Boy, all from Nigeria. Banking on Drake’s success, other projects from various artists would follow and pay tribute—the Black Panther soundtrack; Columbian artist J Balvin’s music, and Rae Sremmurd rapper Swae Lee and Beyonce’s “Lion King: The Gift.”
After lending his vocals to countless Afrobeat collaborations over the years, Akon is delivering his very own contribution to the cipher—his fifth album, Akonda, drops Friday. It features Nigerian artists Olamide (“Scammers”, “Low Waist”), Kizz Daniel (“Take Your Place”) and Ivory Coast’s Afro B- who gained global recognition for his 2018 hit “Drogba” (“Joanna”).
In our time together, we discussed existing in between worlds, this year’s Super Bowl halftime show and putting out projects from the music industry’s first multinational, multicultural label group. In a world of redundancy and blandness, Akon’s latest act stands out as the most boundary-pushing move of his career.
The Root: You have stated in other interviews that out of all your business ventures, you make the least amount of money from music, despite all of your critical success. Why did you still feel the need to put out new music?
Akon: Music is my passion and I believe that music is the most important piece. Music is not for the financial commitment, at this point. It opens up more doors and creates more opportunities, especially for the youth. And... I’ve always been the guy that’s been stuck in this gray area: When I’m in Africa I’m more American than I am African, and then when I’m in America, I am more African than American. So I never really get African awards because I’m not African enough. And then I don’t get American awards because I’m not American enough. (Laughs). So, I’ve always been that guy. I mean, I’ve got one World Music Award because I’ve always been considered a world artist but this is one thing I’ve learned to live with.
TR: “Get Money,” your first single released from El Negreeto, is a duet with Puerto Rican rapper Anuel AA and the second single “Como No” with Becky G is doing very well. J.Lo and Shakira will perform year’s Super Bowl halftime show and Fat Joe said recently all music is African music. The Latin audience consumes more digital music content more than any other group. Is this why you ventured into the Latin music market? Or is it more organic?
A: That’s definitely why they were selected. And I was always into that music even before hip-hop, believe it or not. For me it’s organic, you listened to my first single “Locked Up,” my first remix was Latin. So it’s always been there. I always wanted to put out a Latin album, I just couldn’t do it under the restraints that I had under Universal (Records) at the time. So this is why I decided I want to have my own labels and do what I want to do from a business standpoint. But from the standpoint of the Super Bowl, I think it’s because Latin music is the wave right now. When you look at J.Lo and Shakira they’re probably the most popular from a global perspective. I honestly think is a smart choice because they’ve already broken into all markets as Latina women. So I thought it was a good choice.
TR: Who would you like to collaborate with that you haven’t already worked with?
A: It’s funny because I was thinking the other day, ‘I’ve literally collaborated with everybody in the industry one way or the other.’ But the only one that I haven’t collaborated with musically is Jay-Z. He’s the only one and I realized why. He branched off into business and I branched off into business. When Biggie passed away it seemed to slow him down a lot in an impactful way. I was doing a lot of collaboration with brand new artists at that time. And Jay was never the kind of artist who struck me as collaborating with new artists. So I kind of can see why that collaboration didn’t work around that time. But I think our collaboration will probably be more from a business standpoint at this stage we are in now, rather than music.
TR: What would people be surprised to know about you?
A: I have a hit record in every country in their language. A lot of people don’t know that. You go to India, I got a record in Hindi. You go to China, I got a record out there. I’ve touched everywhere. It’s why I’ve been gone so long.
TR: What are your thoughts on xenophobia in South Africa? Will you still do business there? (Editor’s note: In recent years, at least a dozen people have been killed and hundreds arrested in South Africa due to violence against Nigerians and other African citizens by South Africans, with some accusing the foreign nationals of taking jobs from South Africans and bringing drugs into the country).
A: That’s all throughout the continent. There are so many country countries that’s dealing with this. South Africa has dealt with that since the apartheid. But it wasn’t blacks against blacks.
TR: Would you still continue to do business there?
A: Well, that’s not going to stop me from doing business. I mean those kinds of clashes have been happening throughout Africa for hundreds of years. So I don’t think [a boycott] would affect that in any kind of way. I think the type of business we choose to do though will help to eradicate that issue because a lot of times it happens because of status. And I think we’re constantly separated because we’re not putting ourselves in a position to come together. And I think when you start to create businesses that actually allow people to come together and everybody profits from a situation you can delete a lot of [the strife] so that gives me more reason to want to go into South Africa and create businesses and do things.
TR: What did you learn from your experience when you attempted to put out four albums in four different languages in 2015?
A: What I learned was that the technology hadn’t matured yet. And the (record label) will be actually judging or creating their decisions according to how the system is set up at that time. So around that time (their focus) was not on video. YouTube plays a big part of a digital strategy. We know now that we have to be focused on that. But it was more so then about radio play. You can’t have more than two songs by the same artist played in the same hour because they start treating it with all these new rules. And I still think I was probably the reason why those rules happened because between 2006 and 2009, every radio station had me on. When I wrote the record, produced it, was featured on it like literally out of 20 songs played about 12 of them would be read as I was attached toBut I just wanted to go over every platform. Fast forward five years, now the technology has completely matured. It is no longer about radio. It’s about streaming platforms. So now I can drop those kinds of records and this large amount of songs because now the audience themselves is like the director. It helps you get to know the audience. They decide what they want to listen to and when they want to listen to it. So now this is a different game.
On Nov. 3, Akon will perform at the 2019 MTV Europe Music Awards live from Spain alongside this year’s EMA host Becky G from El Negreeto. His second album, Akonda, drops Friday, Oct. 25.
Sonya Magett is currently fundraising and recruiting to disrupt intergenerational poverty while increasing diversity in the tech talent pipeline with Code & Content Academy (CCA) in Brooklyn, N.Y. CCA teaches 4th-12th-grade students how to create content and code for websites, mobile apps and video games at schools, libraries and various programs in underserved communities.