Sweets-seller, inmate, hip-hop star and philanthropist: Akon is a man reinvented

Before his arrival in Abu Dhabi, we talk to the star about his life on the streets and his new quest to rebrand Africa

SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 25 November 2019. Sharjah Entrepreneurial Forum Expo Centre Sharjah. Akon gives a speach during the opening ceremony. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Saeed Saeed. Section: National.
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Spare a thought for the person tasked with packing Akon's clothes for his next overseas jaunt. It's not so simple, as the singer, 46, doesn't move exclusively in club circles any more. While each trip does often include a string of late-night gigs, they are increasingly at the tail-end of days spent in meetings with chief executives from Fortune 500 companies and high-profile speaking engagements alongside the likes of tech pioneer Bill Gates or former US first lady Michelle Obama.

When Akon last appeared in the UAE, back in November, dressed in a dapper salmon blazer and white jeans he spoke to a packed hall of students at the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival. Two days later, in flashy hip-hop-appropriate attire, he drove down Sheikh Zayed Road for a 2am gig at White Dubai. He was then suited and booted for a soiree at the Paddock Club of the Abu Dhabi F1 on race day.

This is how Akon likes it: he relishes his many guises as an entertainer, businessman and social philanthropist. Speaking to The National ahead of his keynote speech at the World Future Energy Summit, as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, which starts on Saturday, January 11, Akon says it's the quest to "approach things from a different angle" that drives him. Whether he's launching his own renewable energy company, Akon Lighting Africa, or his own cryptocurrency (the brilliantly named Akoin) and releasing his first Spanish album, El Negreeto, the man is always working and creating. 

He describes this as his "street hustle" mentality. "And that doesn't mean you actually have to go to the streets, like I did, to get that knowledge," he is quick to point out. "The street hustle is ­basically common sense, albeit a more aggressive form of that. Common sense is learning from life.

“Street hustle is only a more aggravated version of that as the stakes can be life or death, or jail.”

From the school yard to the charts

Akon knows all about the latter. Born in the US, Aliaune Thiam (his real name) spent six years in his parent's native Senegal before returning to the States. He says he was "the black sheep of the family".

“My brother was out there in school studying hard and getting straight As,” he says. “I was in school, too, but making money.” It was in the school yard as a teenager where Akon launched his first business, so to speak. It’s an experience that has remained useful in future endeavours.

"It all began with me and a locker that was full of candy and potato chips that I would sell to the other kids," he explains. "But then I learnt more about what I was doing, so I went on to sell test questions and books and I did well off that. It made me realise how important information is and how that is valued."

It took a series of arrests and accumulated jail time of up to three years from 1998 for Akon to begin reflecting on his lifestyle. While he always knew he could rap and hold a tune, it was the lure of creating a new type of modern RnB – one that mixed the machismo of hip-hop with the delicate melodies of soul music – that pushed him into the industry. Akon also credits a conversation he had with a cell mate in jail for motivating him to steer clear of the street life. "He told me that with all the success I had on the streets, if I just put all that energy into my talent there was no way I wouldn't be successful."

It was a spot-on prediction: Akon went on to become one of the most successful RnB singers of the past two decades, with chart-topping tracks that include his debut 2003 single Locked Up (which he wrote in jail), Lonely and the Eminem collaboration Smack That.

It is time to rebrand Africa

It was his success in the music industry that opened the doors to his entry into the renewable energy market. The idea for his Akon Lighting Africa project came to him in the dark, literally. It was 2010 and he was performing a sold-out concert in Sierra Leone when the electricity went out mid-show and the gig was abandoned. Not long after, he discovered the opportunity to use solar-powered panels made in China to provide light in Africa. AKA, as the company is called for short, was launched in 2014 and now operates in 14 countries on the continent, including in his parents' homeland, Senegal.

On top of working with governments and the private sector to install solar-powered street lamps and solar panel kits, the company has been praised for stimulating economies through job creation and environmental education.

Forget his 30-plus international music awards, it's his lighting project that Akon says he is most proud of. Ultimate success, he says, will be in changing perceptions of what Africa can offer the world. "Because we do need to change the way we speak about Africa," he says. "The continent has been positioned as a place for charity since the 1970s and some of those concepts are still being used today. This needs to change, of course, but it is up to us Africans to rebrand Africa. While some charity organisations are using their branding to show Africa in a certain way to promote their initiatives, we need to change that message and show that Africa is a place to do business, because it has the people and resources."

The continent has the cool factor, too. In the past decade, African influence has increasingly swept across pop culture, from the African-­inspired motifs of the 2018 blockbuster film Black Panther to the emergence of artists such as Nigeria's Wiz Kid and Burna Boy in the US pop charts. Never one to miss an ­opportunity, Akon also recently launched the album and music label Akonda, which is dedicated to boosting the burgeoning Afro-pop genre.

While Akon is in Abu Dhabi this week for rounds of meetings with some of the energy industry’s biggest wheelers and dealers, there’s also a high probability that he’ll perform a club show in the capital. “Oh man, I just do music for fun now,” he says with a wide grin. “And that’s why I love it. I will never stop performing.” That’s as long as he has packed the right attire.