Akon: Free at last
At age seven - when he first moved to New Jersey, USA from his native Senegal - Aliaune ‘Akon’ Thiam couldn’t speak a word of English. Yet today - the eve of release of his eagerly-anticipated third album ‘Freedom’ - finds him currently the world’s biggest-selling male black recording artist of the last two years…
… Not bad for the once-self-proclaimed “singing thug” who (having originally, back in the early Nineties, worked under the Refugee Camp Production umbrella) was allegedly serving a prison sentence for car theft in the three years immediately before recording his 2004 debut LP ‘Trouble’.
With his distinctive blend of hip hop/soul, folky West African vocals and storyline street confessionals having propelled his first two albums (2004’s aforementioned ‘Trouble’ and 2006’s record-breaking ‘Konvicted’) to eight-million-plus global sales, today additionally sees Akon-the-artist simultaneously (mostly under his ‘Konvict’ trademark) owning a record label, clothing-line, plus a South African diamond mine! Meanwhile, his political aspirations of becoming a future president of his country-of-birth (where he has streets and buildings named after him) are currently being aided by his position as ambassador to Senegal’s current President Abdoulaye Wade on youth-related issues.
Indeed, with his new album’s typically-expansive musical moods ranging from bangin’ ghetto jams like the LiI Wayne & Young-Jeezy-featuring ‘I’m So Paid’ and sexual, T-Pain featuring ‘Holla Holla’; to uplifting universal anthems like the autobiographical title-track and reggae-infused ‘Sunny Day’, hopes are high this time round to even eclipse Akon’s already-amazing past international success. Which, in addition to him scoring two Number One singles (‘Lonely’ and ‘Smack That’) and one chart-topping album in the UK (not to mention record-breaking chart success Stateside), has seen Africa’s first bona fide music megastar impressively score Gold and Platinum certifications in over a dozen countries.
Meanwhile, in addition to his singing and songwriting talents, Akon’s production skills have resulted in a slew of international hits for such high-profile and varied artists as Californian style icon Gwen Stefani; grimy Southern rapper Young Jeezy; London’s ‘X-Factor’-winning diva Leona Lewis; plus pop’s ultimate megastar Michael Jackson. While his penchant for chart-making hooks has seen him incredibly guesting on over 165 tracks; resulting in his presence on over 40 US pop hits to date.
Nevertheless, fame comes at a price. And recently Dakar-born Akon - actually the son of famed Senegalese jazz percussionist Mor Thiam - has faced his fair share of controversy in a series of widely-reported incidents. All of which began in April 2007, when he drew criticism for having onstage simulated sex with a 15-year-old girl in Trinidad and Tobago. Which in turn was followed by legal charges being brought against him in June 2007, after he pulled a man from the crowd, hoisted him across his shoulder, and then tossed him back into the audience during a concert at Fishkill, New York. Meanwhile, his street-cred took an unexpected nosedive when, in April 2008, an article in US publication ‘The Smoking Gun’ (with the apparent aid of court records and interviews with relevant detectives) reported that much of his purported criminal and incarceration history had been dramatically embellished. In particular alleging that Akon had not been convicted of any crime and had not spent time in prison from 1999 to 2001, as he had previously claimed.
All of which together makes for interesting conversation, as an ever-affable, humble-mannered and suitably-blinged-up Akon reacquaints himself with ‘Blues & Soul's Pete Lewis in a typically-plush suite of West London’s celeb-friendly K West Hotel.
Changing the name of his new album to ‘Freedom’ from its original title ‘Acquitted’
“I wanted to make sure everyone understood what we’re trying to do with Konvict in general. I felt the interpretation of our movement was being misrepresented, and that a lotta people had started to misjudge me. So I wanted to make sure we came across to people the way we INTENDED to come across, and that people only got the most positive thoughts when they thought of Akon and what the Konvict movement stands for. Which is someone who came out of a very negative environment, and made a very positive situation out of it. You know, though the word ‘freedom’ in essence means the same thing as ‘acquitted’, it does come across a lot more positive. So we changed the album title to ‘Freedom’, because it felt bigger, it was a lot broader, and you get a more positive feeling when you say the word. It was all about how we want to be perceived in this business and how we want to be remembered. Which is for doing good and making a difference.”
What Akon wanted to achieve musically with his new LP
“Because I think every album should reflect growth along with the artist, this one is focused more on an international sound and was built to attract a bigger audience. You know, because we saw that every one in the urban world had pretty much adopted the Konvict sound - in terms of the melody aspect and the auto-tune aspect of it - we just wanted to musically switch it up completely. Plus, with many of my urban listeners never getting to travel outside the US - they just stay in the ghettos listening to songs like (his prison-themed first hit) ‘Locked Up’ all day - we really wanted to kinda educate them by exposing them more to the European club vibe this time around. So that as fans they can grow with me. While lyrically - as I’m starting to realise my following has expanded to take in all races, creeds, ages and genders - I’ve adapted to a more conscious, more happy and more entertaining vibe, rather than being so preachy or negative.”
Artist collaborations on ‘Freedom’
“This album is pretty much family-orientated, as far as the collaborations go. Because while of course we are gonna make a ‘Freedom’ remix album - which will incorporate more people from outside sources - for the original record itself I felt it had to be something more personal. So, though I pretty much had the opportunity to collaborate with whoever I wanted, I decided to just choose people I was close to from the beginning - Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, Wyclef Jean - in addition to artists from our record company. Like T-Pain - who was the original Konvict artist - as well as Colby O’Donis and Kardinal Offishall. Because, with both those artists jump-starting their careers right now, I felt - with the kind of exposure I was about to get with my album - it was a wise decision let them piggyback offa that. So they can both get exposed to audiences that wouldn’t normally be checking for them.”
The album’s first single ‘Right Now’, which incorporates an electronic Euro-club feel
“That was always a feel I wanted to go for. But of course we’ve had to take time to slowly groom the US to that sound, because over there the club scene is different. It’s been the same for the past 10 years - to the point where it’s now getting boring - whereas here in London it’s much more open to different types of music. But, having said that, I also then have the problem that that sound is still not being completely accepted by black radio in the US. In fact, I’m probably the only artist that’s getting that kinda radio play over there right now with that kinda record. And that’s only because the fan-base I’ve established over the years are actually calling to request the record. Whereas I think, had it just been down to the urban radio stations alone, they probably still would have shied away from it. Because it’s not the kinda music they normally play. Whereas I feel that, in order for the MUSIC to expand, the STATIONS should expand their selection as well. They really need to allow people to discover music they wouldn’t normally discover.”
Regarding the track ‘Birthmark’ as his first (and potentially controversial) foray into the realms of country music
“I think that country music is a wide-open - and potentially very lucrative - market for today’s urban artists. Because you have to remember that rhythm & blues and country all expanded from the same thing. The only difference is the adaptation of it all, and how it’s been perceived and actually marketed over the years. So yeah, eventually I will probably step away from everything and just try to do one of those kinda records to see how it would come out. Because musicalIy I feel like there’s nothing, or nowhere, else different left for me to go! You know, I always want to set myself a challenge by doing something no-one would expect me to do! But, having said that, I don’t feel as a musician you can steer TOO far away from what you normally do. Which is why ‘Birthmark’, beat-wise, does still have a kinda underlying urban/hip hop feel. So my country album probably won’t sound totally like full-blown country music. Because, at the end of the day, I gotta do stuff the way I understand it!”
Akon’s duet with Michael Jackson - ‘Hold My Hand’ - being removed from his new album last-minute
“That was a record that was supposed to be set up a certain way. But unfortunately, because it got leaked over the internet, that took away a lotta the powers that we had. I mean, when you do a record collaboration of that sort - and you have an incredible marketing-plan to go with it - when everyone’s exposed to the record before you can implement all those ideas, you don’t get the same reaction and the same effect. So collectively we decided that instead we wanted to give the people something brand-new that they can actually look forward to. You know, we wanted to make sure that, when we do it, we do it RIGHT! So that the record is properly released, properly contained, and people can get the full effect of it. So between us we’ve decided to wait for a future project and do something huge with that. And, in the meantime, we’ll probably use ‘Hold My Hand’ as some kind of foundation/charity record - to create other positive opportunities and raise money for some really good causes.”
His ongoing working relationship with Michael Jackson
“It’s been an incredible experience! Mike is the King Of Pop, and I think that it’s a dream come true for ANY major artist/songwriter/producer to be able to work with the best in the business! You know, to work with someone like Mike - who’s created opportunties, opened doors for so many people, and achieved so much in the music world, period - is just an experience which would be enough to take home for ANYONE! I mean, when I first flew out to Vegas and met him it was almost like we’d known each other for YEARS! LITERALLY! ‘Cause musically we were on the same exact page! The chemistry was just INCREDIBLE! And, as a person, he was totally not what I’d expected! I was thrown completely off-guard! Because he was the most cool, humble dude I’ve ever met! I mean, we even actually got to go to the movies together - in broad daylight! Which was an experience in itself! He put on his shoes, grabbed a scarf, put it around his head; did exactly the same with the kids; passed me a scarf for me to do the same... And we just walked THROUGH! Because people just naturally thought we were all Muslim! You know, he just moves around like EVERYBODY! Because you’d never know who he was, unless you actually took his scarf and unravelled it!”
Signing award-winning London rapper Sway to his label Konlive Records
“We just recently finalised his deal on paper. He’s now officially signed to Konvict and we’re currently working on his record. Actually his new single will feature me, and we’re very excited about him. ‘Cause I think he has the talent, the capabilities and just about EVERYTHING intact for us to be able to break him properly in the States.”
Some of the other upcoming artists Akon has signed
“We have Colby O’Donis, who’s doing incredibly well. His single recently debuted in the Top 10 over in The States. He has that early Michael Jackson kinda tone - like when Mike was a kid. But, when you look at him and you then listen to his voice, you’d never think it was HIM! You know, that voice coming outta his little body! And while he has a whole teenage following - a bit like the next, up-and-coming Justin Timberlake - he’s actually a real MUSICIAN! He plays every instrument, and is an incredible songwriter and producer as well. Then of course Kardinal Offishall outta Canada is ALSO doing incredible things. His single ‘Dangerous’ has done CRAZY numbers for a new artist. And, while he has that Ludacris/Busta Rhymes-type animated thing, he definitely has his own style of rapping. So I think he’s definitely gonna make his mark. Plus we have a lotta new projects that haven’t really made it out yet. Like Ray Lavender, a US R&B/urban singer; plus Rock City - two guys outta the Virgin Islands, that are the most incredible performers I’ve seen probably since The Fugees!”
Akon’s feelings about recent controversies and negative media coverage of him
“When you’re having the kind success I’m having, naturally that kinda stuff comes with it. So you gotta be prepared for every situation that arrives. Whatever obstacle comes your way, you gotta be prepared to jump over it! And I think that’s what separates the legends from the regular artists. It’s all in how you manage that success, and how you deal with the controversy when it actually comes. And while, as a PERSON, none of it has really affected me - I’ve stayed the same person I’ve always been - in terms of me being an ARTIST, it definitely HAS affected me a lot! Because with Konvict we use music almost as a tool and as a vehicle to do a lotta positive things in many different areas, like charity work. And it kinda hinders you from doing those things you’d love to do on a positive level, when people have this negative image of you that the media portray. So, on that score, I have come to realise that it is import to make sure your image is constantly clean. Because one thing I’ve noticed and learnt is that, the one time you make that mistake, it sticks with you forever! So lately I have been watching myself carefully in terms of how I speak, how I react, and how I behave in public in general. I’m very conscious these days of the fact that I do have a voice now, and that I am a role-model. So some things I USED to do, I can’t necessarily do any MORE! Which was the main purpose behind us creating this whole ‘Freedom’ atmosphere with this new album. It’s all about being able to move forward in a positive way, and letting people forget about any controversies and negativity that have happened in the past.”
His diamond supply and mining company, Aliaune
“The main purpose of me getting involved with the diamond thing really was to find new ways to be able to rebuild Africa. As a continent, we’ve been completely rich in resources for hundreds of years. But, for some reason, these natural resources have never actually benefited the place they originate from. And we’ve always felt that was one of the things that wasn’t fair to Africa in general. The fact that a lotta people have come in from different areas, extorting the continent’s resources, and never let Africa benefit from it. So the whole concept behind Aliaune was that, in terms of the majority of diamonds being sold, a percentage of the profits would go back into rebuilding the continent ITSELF. So that way - in terms of both the economy and the technology - Africa will have a more stable future.”
Current and future plans in general
“We’re just trying to expand in every area, and trying to figure out ways to keep this movement going on a positive level. Of course my main focus right now is moving forward with the ‘Freedom’ album, and then the second priority is the label and ensuring the artists are set up for a stable future. Then we go on to Konvict Clothing and making sure that coincides with the lifestyle and music, so that all three move forward together. You know, right now the urban brand of clothing - which is like street wear - is starting to really take off. We’re launching January 1 in the US, leading into European markets in the spring of 2009... So yeah, as I say, my focus is split between me as the artist, the label and the clothing line. Anything outside of that, and we’ll deal with it as it comes along. And, as long as it supports those three movements, then we’ll move forward along with it.”
The single 'Right Now (Na, Na, Na)' is released November 24, with the album 'Freedom' due December 1. The single ‘I’m So Paid ft. Lil Wayne’ follows February 16, all through SRC Street Records Corporation/Universal Motown
All photos care of Romain Kedochim. For more visit ROMAIN PHOTOGRAPHY
Words PETE LEWIS