Interview by Black Dog Bone
I always wanted to interview you. You have worked with so many rappers who are in Murder Dog, and all of them speak highly of you.
I’ve definitely been active in the Hip Hop community. In the beginning that was my way of promoting. I thought that was a great avenue to promote Akon the artist. It started off from me as an R&B artist doin choruses on Hip Hop tracks. That was a promotional tool for me.
A lot of R&B artists have a very clean image, but you have always come with that street, Gangsta edge. That adds a lot of color to your music. You’re not a typical R & B singer.
Absolutely. It’s been amazing. It wasn’t intending to be that way, it just so happens that it works so well together.
Storytelling is a big part of African culture. Can you tell us some stories of your life, about growing up between two lands, about your family?
I was seven or maybe eight when I first came to US from Senegal. When I came here everything was really different. The culture was different, the environment was different, the food, the people. It took me a minute to kind of adjust. Kids always find themselves in a position where they just say what they feel, and in the US kids were really ignorant to African culture. I used to get teased about it and because of that I used to always get into fights and get into trouble. Slowly after that it put me in a position where I had a lot of friends, because of the fact that I fight a lot. So I’m now always around troublemakers. I think that lead me into having a different mind state which allowed me to start getting into trouble. I ended up getting locked up, and before you know it I’m a convict. From that I learned a lot, not being the way I was brought up. My father, being from Africa, he always brought us up with different ways of doing things. The manners, and how you look to your elders, and always think twice and have a plan B when you move forward into your future in life. Just try to be more organized and thoughtful in anything you do. I used all the experience I had in the situation I was in to turn that into a positive situation. That allowed me to be able to create Konvict Muzik brand name, and before you know it that became one of the biggest brands in the world. Then I started workin with Kon Live, and that became my more upscale top brand. That’s when we signed Lady Gaga under that. Before you know it—the rest is history.
The people in Senegal are probably really proud of you.
Growing up in Africa was always a small community, very family orientated way of living—a lot of cousins, lot of aunties and uncles. They’re all very proud of me now.
Did you grow up in a village setting or more of a city setting in Africa?
I grew up more in a village setting in Africa. It was at least 15 or 16 of us in one house. We didn’t grow up as fortunate, but it was really family. Everybody lived in the same house. I shared my bedroom with my cousins.
I feel like that atmosphere you grew up in comes out in your music. Do you see that?
Absolutely. You can hear the support and you can hear the love. You can hear the inspiration. My voice has a lot to do with the environment in which I grew up. I always feel when I hear my own voice that my voice is telling the story. Sometimes it’s not quite what I’m actually saying in a song, but the melody tells you that I have some kind of history.
It’s like the silence between the words. What’s not said comes through. Your success is related to that story.
100%. Exactly. You’re absolutely right. Especially with my grandparents, they all pray for me all the time. They’re always making sure that spiritually I’m clean. That nothing disturbs or stops my growth. You know sometimes you’re moving and you don’t think too much, but the spiritual state is serious. It’s very heavy. Some people don’t believe in that, but I really do. I always feel that as long as you keep yourself clean and positive then great things will happen for you.
When you were in school in the States you probably had an accent. Is that why you got cornered?
The accent is definitely how they called me out. The moment you speak they know you’re not from here. Also the mannerisms were different. Cause I was very polite, I was very very quiet. But after so much abuse verbally and mentally, you snap. Next thing you know it you’re there. You start to demand the respect. The only way you can do it is through physical. Otherwise they don’t pay attention.
Your greatness is that you’re different. Your background growing up, and also your musical influences being African music and Dancehall/Reggae.
Dancehall was like the beginning. I love Dancehall. I used to do dub plates for a lot of artists and a lot of deejays from Jamaica like Mikey Spice and Sly & Robbie and people like that. I did things with Beenie Man. I always loved Dancehall. And I always put myself in a position where I always be international. Dancehall is just as international as Hip Hop, but Hip Hop of course kind of cut through a lot quicker because Hip Hop catered to the youth.
You’re in a unique place where you have the mainstream R&B crowd, but you also appeal to fans of hardcore street Rap. You’re blessed to be in that position.
Very blessed. I think I’m in the perfect position.
Do you consider yourself to be more a musician or a businessman?
That’s a very very good question. Cause I was always a businessman. I started as a businessman. Music was always just the hobby, something that I loved to do. It just so happened that I could apply my business towards the music. I was in a position where I could combine my passion for business with my music, which is the love. Now I’m doin two things that I love to do. I use my artistry more as a vehicle to be able to create bigger and better business opportunities for myself and my people. I love them both together. If I had to choose one, it would definitely be the music.
What was it that drew you to music? Was it your father being a musician?
It was a combination of things. Of course my Pops was a Jazz musician and I grew up to music. That was one thing that followed me all the way until I reached a certain age. And then when I got arrested, normally in the US when you get arrested and you have a criminal background in your records, it’s hard to get a regular job. Nobody wants to hire you because they’re afraid of your criminal background. So I was kind of forced into doing what I loved to do, cause I wasn’t planning on getting into anymore trouble. The only thing I could do to make great money, and at the same time I could change my life with it, was music. That was one of the main reasons I decided to go with the music.
What happened when you were recently banned from performing in Sri Lanka?
That was something, I’m still confused about that. I wasn’t really sure exactly why. I got a call one day and the promoter said the show was cancelled because of a video. I was like, “What are you talkin about?” Then come to find out that during the “Sexy Chick” video with David Guetta there was a statue of a Buddha in the background. And a lot of people in Sri Lanka that follow Buddhism found it offensive. Mind you, when we did it we had no idea. It was just a house that we rented for the video and we didn’t pay attention. By that time it was too late to change it or blur it out. We just had to send out an apology letter to people to let them know that we wasn’t aware and we wasn’t educated enough to understand what it was that upset them. Sometimes things like that happen and you don’t have a clue, but the promoter, he lived in Sri Lanka so he understood how serious was and he wanted to play it safe and make sure that we wasn’t in harm’s way. So he cancelled the show.
I’m from Sri Lanka and they love you over there.
I love it there too. I felt really bad. If I’d known, of course, we wouldn’ta did it. We didn’t know. We shot the video and it just happened to be in the background. We never even noticed.
I understand. In America people use the statue of Buddha as an ornament. It was just something in the background. But they really love you out there.
Thank you, my brother. I really appreciate that.
Do you pay attention to what’s going on with African music? There’s so much great music coming out of Senegal.
You’re absolutely right. So much stuff going on in Africa, music wise especially in Senegal. I’m very in tuned to a lot of the African music there—Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour and Mansour Seck. It’s amazing. And when you go out to other places you got the Fela’s, you got the Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s. It’s a lot of great music happening in Africa.
Do you think you will ever go to Africa and do an album with African musicians?
Absolutely! That’s something I definitely want to do. I wanna be able to do compilations where I go to every major country and collaborate with the biggest artists there, call it “The Akon’s World Tour Album”. I definitely wanna do that.
What made your family move to America in the first place?
Actually, my Pops is a djembe player. He was the one that introduced the djembe in the US. He’s very very popular for djembe playing. I think in the sixties he was offered an invitation to come to the United States to play with the Katherine Dunham dance company. So they flew him to St. Louis, and it went really well, very successful. Every time my mom was pregnant he would fly her to the US for her to have the baby. Five of us—four boys and one girl—and we were all born in the US. My dad wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t have any immigration problems, that we were all US citizens. That way when we got older and wanted to come to schools in the US we wouldn’t have any problems.
Do you have dual citizenship?
Yes. I have dual citizenship; I’ve got US and Senegalese both.
What can we expect from your new album?
This new album is called “Stadium”. I’m very excited about the album. It’s really World music mixed with dance and Hip Hop altogether. You can’t imagine. I’m very excited about this one.
What was your inspiration when you made “Stadium”?
It basically came from me doing a lot of traveling. The more I travelled I started to realize that this album was going to be something different. I was so influenced and intrigued by so many different sounds as I was travelling. Then I was in Europe a lot, in Spain and England, and the rhythmic aspect kept surrounding me. Before you know it I had made so many records with that feeling. It gave me the idea when I was producing songs for the World Cup—it gave me the idea to make this album sound a certain way.
Do you listen to Dubstep and Grime music that’s going on in England?
I love the Grime in England. That’s one of the things I wanna introduce to the US. That’s gonna be my next step. Grime is one of my favorite styles, I love Grime. I think that is the direction the music is gonna go. Also, Ska. I’m hoping that sound comes back. If no one brings it back, then I’m gonna definitely bring it back on my next album. I love the up tempo dance Reggae beats. I love that.
Were you ever into Rock music or Punk music?
Soft Rock, I’m into that. I love Country music. I listened to both of those all the time. Heavy Metal, I’m not too excited about. I don’t think it has enough melody and there’s a lot of screaming. I haven’t gotten into Heavy Metal.
Your first experience as a musician was with percussion. Were you playing drums?
Exactly. In Africa the drum is very very important. I’m a percussionist first as a musician. That’s why the drums are always very important in my songs. They always stand out. But I think moving forward to these next albums, I’m gonna incorporate a lot of international drums, especially African drums, into my music.
You’ve collaborated with so many different artists. Were there certain people that really impressed and amazed you?
Michael Jackson was the best and the most exciting artist that I’ve worked with in my whole career. I had the most amazing time working with him and got to know him as a person. I also got the chance to work with Lionel Richie, who’s also an amazing man. I loved working with him. It seems like the older he gets the younger he looks. He looks better now than he did back 20 years ago. Of course I got a chance to work with Quincy Jones. He’s another legend, as a producer. He’s an amazing man. Taught me so much about the business that I actually apply to my business now. I got to work with Whitney Houston, Gwen Stefani, Madonna, Eminem, 50 Cent. It’s been so amazing! This ride has been—I couldn’t ask for more in my career.
When you were young and doing your hustle in the streets, you probably could never imagine where you were heading. You’re one of the biggest artists in the world right now. You’re as big as Michael Jackson or the Beatles. How does it feel?
Man! You’d be surprised. In the beginning when you first come in you’re gonna be star struck. Everybody that you grew up listening to, that you admired—but after a while to get to realize that they’re just human beings, just like you. They just happened to have an opportunity. And you watch yourself slowly start to fall into their footsteps and becoming in the same status as them. Before you know it, they all seem like regular people and great friends to you. It’s so deep. And after a while you start to lose the excitement of meeting everyone. Some people are the way you expect them to be when you meet ‘em, and some people are not the way you expect them to be. Sometimes you’re disappointed like, “I thought he was gonna be a nicer guy. I thought it was gonna be a joyous experience meeting this person.” But it comes out to be the worst experience ever because he wasn’t the kind of person you thought he was gonna be. Sometimes you’re kind of hesitant about meeting people cause you don’t know how they’re gonna react.
They say, don’t meet your heroes. But I feel like if I met you, you would be a cool person.
I’m totally normal. I’m the same guy as before the career. I’m really simple. I’ve always been really simple, man. I look at life like, everything that comes to you is a blessing. It could be gone as fast as it came to you. You should always enjoy it and treat people the way you want to be treated, and hope that this legacy lasts for as long as it can.
When is Akon gonna do a song with Black Dog Bone?
You know what? I would really love to hear what you’re doin. If I ever get out that way you should come see me and play something for me.
The American diet has been unhealthy for a long time, but now we see other people in the World, in Africa and Asia, eating in a similar way. It’s making our people sick. You look like you take care of yourself.
I’ve always tried to eat as healthy as possible. The only thing is that I can’t stay away from sodas. I love soda. But I eat healthy. I always eat a lot of fresh vegetables, a lot of fish. I’m a big vegetable freak. No matter what type of meat I eat, I always follow it up with vegetables. I try to drink a lot of water, but for some reason when I see the sodas, I always choose soda. That’s the one thing that I’ve gotta fix.
It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how successful you are, if your health is not good.
Exactly. If you’re not healthy you can’t enjoy the wealth. It’s definitely very important.
Would you say there’s a dark, melancholy side to your music as well as joy?
Absolutely. I think there’s got to be a balance of both. It depends on what I’m goin through at that time. If I’m goin through something dark, then I’m gonna create a dark record. If I’m going through some happy times, then I’m gonna create a happy time record. My records are always determined by how I feel at the time. That’s why a lot of my later records are more happy and for the club, because I’m in a better position now. My life has changed, everything around me is positive. So I’m making great positive type music. In the beginning of my career everything was more dark. I was coming out of a different situation, I had a lotta struggles in my life, so I was expressing those struggles in my records. Now things have lightened up.
I remember in your first album you had a song called “Lonely”.
Yeah. At the time I was. I was very lonely. Now I’m tryin to become lonely again. I need a break.
Probably you miss that side of life now. Being alone.
What’s going on with the TV show you were doing with your brother?
What happened is, we’re going to have to cancel it because my brother started getting really popular. He’s very popular here in the US now. Everybody knows him, so it’s hard to really do it. It doesn’t work out like that. They be lookin like, “Hey that’s Boo!”
In your life things are happy at this time. What do you remember from times when you were feeling down?
I understand. Back in the early days of my career I had a friend that I went to school with who was there right before my “Konvicted” album came out. He passed away 2 weeks before the album came out. That whole month I was in a dark. I just couldn’t believe that that would actually happen. He helped me create the album, he contributed to making that record, not being able to see the success of it. Of course, there are other times where depending on the weather you might just feel bad. Like me, when I go to certain places and see a lot of poverty it makes me feel bad. I wish that I could do more to help. There are always situations that could be resolved, it’s just that the people in power don’t really care. They never take the time to help regular people. They’re so focused on themselves and other people that’s making money around them, they don’t think of the people under them that really needs the help. That always brings me down as well.
Do you ever listen to old classic music, like Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder?
Absolutely. That’s all pioneers. They’re the ones that paved the way for us to get to where we are today. Without them there would be no Akon. I love all the pioneers, the old school OG’s. They paved the way for us. Not only that, but they was very original and innovative. They gave us the melodies that even still today we recycle and use. It was a very important lesson to us history-wise. We gotta make sure that we keep those people alive. Make sure they get their just due and the respect that they deserve.
When you write a song what is most important to you? is it the bass line or the drums or the melody?
A lot of times the melody is the most important part for me. If you have a beat and a melody and they both work together, before you even put the words in there if it sounds like a hit then it’s a hit. I always try the beat with different melodies to see which melody sounds good on it. From there, it just depends on what I’m talkin about. But I think the melody is the most important part.
How does the melody come to you? Do you play instruments?
It comes to me out of how I’m feeling. A lot of my melodies come from my experiences. Half the time it depends on what kind of tracks I’m building at the moment. That shapes what kind of melody will work.
Do you play keyboards or guitar?
Pretty much in the studio I can play any instrument. Guitar I’m still learning. I’m more of a keyboard player than anything. Between keyboards, percussion and that drum machine, I can play anything I need in the studio.
The internet is a good promotional tool for artists, but no one can deny that it’s really killing the music industry as we know it.
Absolutely. I feel the same way you do. The internet took the value out of music itself, cause now anyone can get it anytime they want it. When you have a situation like that you don’t take it seriously because it’s so accessible to you. And anybody can be a star now, which makes the star irrelevant.
How does an artist survive in these times?
The best way to survive is just make great music that people can’t deny. As long as you’re doing that, you’re always gonna be in good shape. Because no one can match what you’re doing. You’re doin it in a way that only you can do it. That way there never can be no imposters.