The UAE saw a different side of Akon this week.
The US-Senegalese singer and rapper, real name Aliaune Thiam, skipped the club stage in favour of a forum to deliver an inspirational keynote address at the Sharjah Entrepreneurial Festival on Monday.
More than 2,000 people were at the Sharjah Expo Centre to see the Lonely singer trace his journey from car thief to pop star and social entrepreneur.
Despite the millions of albums sold and the Grammy Awards on his shelf, Akon says that his life away from the music industry provides him with the most satisfaction.
Whether it is through the Akon Lighting Africa Project, a business providing solar-powered energy across the continent, or to do with the future launch of his own cryptocurrency, Akoin, the 46-year-old singer says many of his business moves are shaped by his Islamic faith.
“Always perfect your craft," he told the crowd, going on to add, however, that "sometimes things happen when you don’t want them to happen, and when God wants it to happen. And I think that’s a side that entrepreneurs dismiss – the spiritual side of your goal, or the spiritual side of your success.”
Akon credits spirituality with making him reassess what he wanted to achieve in his professional life, even when he was a rising star in the music industry.
“It makes you ask the question: what is success? Is it fame or fortune? Does that measure what success means to you? Or is it faith?” he questioned. “For me, real success is faith. If God is not smiling upon me I am not successful. I don’t care even if I have a billion dollars in the bank. And what good am I if have a billion dollars sitting in the bank in the first place?”
It was this mindset, he explained, that caused him to launch the Akon Lighting Africa Project, which presently operates in 14 countries, including his native Senegal, and employs more than 5,000 people.
While immensely proud of the company’s growth, Akon said his motivations are ultimately linked to reaching the light that’s beyond. “I don’t believe in having that much money sitting away without applying it to changing somebody’s life. Now I may not make a million dollars out of that transaction, but I may get a few good credits to go to paradise. I am cool with that.”
He went on to say that putting impact first can also lead to success. “If you are looking for financial gain then it’s very easy to structure because it is simply about profit and loss. I do it in a way that whatever I get myself into, I want it to have an impact. I want to get into a business to help. The most successful businesses in the world are those that solve problems or offer solutions to issues in life that we are facing.”
In 2015, Akon spoke to The National about Islam, and he told us about the relationship between his religion and his faith, "I was born a Muslim and, depending on what part of Senegal you came from, music was considered haram [unlawful] and there has always been a debate about Islam and music.
"I never looked at the performing aspect of the music itself but on the intention. Even if you look at the daily prayers in Islam we pray in melody, when we hear the call to prayer in any part of the world it is also done with melody, so no one can tell me that music is haram. Now this is my personal point of view and I am not speaking for anyone else.
“Now I am not in a position to judge any man and I don’t expect them to judge me as well, but no matter what decision you decide to make just do right by it. Because, at the end of the day, Allah is watching and he knows what is in your heart.”