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Five-time Grammy nominee Akon, who has sold over 40 million albums, shares his thoughts on music, politics and women
February 5, 20157:00AM ET
Folly Bah Thibault: Very few artists are able to take their celebrity and build it into a brand that goes far beyond the art, the music in your case. You seem to be succeeding in doing just this. What’s the secret?
Akon: Well, it’s not really a secret. You have to be a businessman first. This is the music business. Some people, more relating to artists, they exclude the business, and they have other people that run it. But ultimately, when I create musically, I figure out, “How can that music be maximized?”
So are you a businessman first and a musician second?
I started off as a hustler. So first businessman, then musician.
You’ve got quite a lot going on. A clothing line, nightclubs, investments in Africa, a diamond mine in South Africa. Is this social capitalism? You’re making money, obviously. What do you say to people who say this is all just a way for Akon to make money?
It is a way for me to make money. It is clearly a business. Do not get it twisted. It’s a real business. It’s just ultimately at the stage that I’m at now I only want to get into business that’s going to help people, that’s going to change lives, that’s going to make a difference, because I could be an artist that just goes on stage, does endorsements, makes money, literally. But I’m in a position where I'm gifted. I’m in a place where I’ve been offered opportunities where I can make a difference and change lives. So why not change lives and make money at the same time?
Let’s talk a little bit more about your Africa-focused ventures. I want to start off with Akon Lighting Africa. What’s been achieved?
We’ve actually overachieved. We’re beyond a million households now. We’re actually in 14 countries. We started with just creating solar energy for rural areas and homes, and now we’re doing solar streetlamps all through countries, also incorporating it within each country. We’re putting solar in all the villages. And we’re actually creating a system where we employing all the locals to be able to maintain it. And also keep everything pretty much in order.
But you have to acknowledge that it’s a huge challenge to bring electricity to Africa. I mean, 5 million people don’t have power and only 1 percent of private sector investments go to Africa, and I wonder when you say you’re in 14 countries …
We have 30,000 streetlamps, and it’s all solar. These are areas where you couldn’t even drive or even walk out at night. You wouldn’t even have a clue where you’re going. So all those areas and people in that path is actually affecting. And then we also have over a 100,000 home systems in selected villages in those areas, and we’re still expanding in those areas. And that’s just one country.
And I wonder how that initiative was received by different African countries. I mean Guinea, Senegal, because these are governments that are often criticized for not doing enough.
When it comes to electricity. I mean the president in Senegal was heavily criticized when they started. Did they welcome your initiative?
I think every single country was a little suspicious, because they are like, “He is a music guy. What is he doing in energy?” So there was always that. But we came fully prepared with answers to every question, and we also came prepared to execute. So we didn’t come into these countries with an idea. We put together a full team, full infrastructure. So from the moment we came in, we came in creating pilots. We didn’t even ask the country for any money. Our own money in the beginning.
How much money are we talking?
Well it depends on the pilot. We allowed them to choose the villages that they would want electrified first. Just to give them a scope of the work, how we work and so on. And ultimately after that, they were in full belief, and we continued on doing the whole country afterwards.
But how much money did you invest in this particular project?
Collectively, I don’t have all of the accounting, but per village [the] range [was] anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 just for a pilot.
Peace One Day held a huge concert Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year. Tell us about that. What’s the objective?
Peace One Day is just a huge event that promotes peace. Where just one day in the year you just ask yourself, “Who do I want to make peace with?” We are often at times conflicted, and no one is communicating. You could be mad at me for a whole year and a half, and we haven’t even spoke. And sometimes, a lot of times, is just all miscommunication. Peace One Day is that moment we try to create annually. That can create that moment for people to communicate.
What was it like to perform at the airport in Goma?
I mean, listen, just putting that concert together was a whole year preparation. And we couldn’t find a venue big enough to do it. So we reached out to the government to see if we could take the airport because that was really the only place that would allow so many people there. And it was just an experience. I mean, it was amazing.
But you know, Akon, once the concert is over, these people in Goma go back to their daily lives in Goma of hardship, of war, because that is the reality for them.
War is a choice. War is a choice. The thing is, everybody has to go back to their daily lives. But they won’t go back to their daily lives with their same mind state that they walked into it with.
But who is going to war? I’s not the people who came to see your concert. They’re the victims. So who should your message really be addressed to?
The thing is, this war can only happen if it is supported by the people. It’s simple. It’s people that carry guns and shoot. You’re a person. These are people that do it. They have to be the one to make that difference and that change. You have to say, “You know what? I’m not doing this.”
What difference do you think it’s made for the people of Goma?
I mean, if I could save one life a year, I think it is a difference made. So when you take a whole day of no guns, no firepower, no bombs, no nothing, just straight peace — you know how many lives were saved that day? It’s a lot. And it may not be to people’s standards of a difference made. But to me, one life gone is a difference made.
‘I’m in a position where I’m gifted. I’m in a place where I’ve been offered opportunities where I can make a difference and change lives. So why not change lives and make money at the same time?’
It’s been a very busy year for you. In addition to Peace One Day, there is also the Silent Campaign for Ebola, which was launched by the One campaign. Bono, Angelique Kidjo, just to name a few, took part in the silent campaign, urging governments to do more basically in the fight against Ebola. I am almost tempted to say that this is the cynical voice in me — “There you go again, Africa needing help from foreigners.”
Absolutely. I think it is an issue that Africa has to face as well too. I think we play a huge role. I think we just have to rebrand our continent, because when you look at the prime example, when you look at the Ebola crisis in general, a lot of it stemmed in certain parts of Africa. And yes, it has to be contained. But in a lot of ways, Ebola has been overexaggerated in a lot of ways too where it’s really going to affect Africa’s economy in the future.
What has been exaggerated?
The Ebola crisis in general. Think about it. Malaria has killed more people than Ebola. Really. But the way the media has portrayed this — it’s a billion and change of people in Africa. It’s a couple of thousands of people that’s been affected. It’s less than 0.001 percent of anyone getting touched or affected, but the fear of it is so strong that people wouldn’t even want travel to Africa because of that, and that affects Africa’s economy. It affects its future. It affects its business.
What do you think of these Western charity songs as a response to African emergencies?
I mean, honestly, you want to applaud anyone that wants to do anything great for a cause. And I am sure that everyone who is doing it has nothing but great intentions toward it. But the question is, once its done, what is the action that is being taken afterward? Because it is the same amount of people that is still infected. Actually, it’s more now than before all this money was raised and a few thousand people, so why isn’t anything happening?
What do you think is happening to the money that is being raised?
Use your common sense. It’s not going to Africa.
Where is it going?
If I knew that question, I would expose it. But I don’t. I don’t know where it is going.
The reason I ask about what you thought about all these Western musicians and so on is that there is a paternalistic view that still exists — and this is decades after colonialism — that Africa still must be saved by the West.
Well, actually, honestly, believe it or not, that’s actually true. But I don’t think the word “save” is the right word for Africa, because Africa, to an extent, has been the anchor to the rest of the world. Because every natural resource that is keeping every other nation operating is a resource that has been pulled from Africa. Everyone benefits but Africa. So Africa doesn’t need to be saved. Africa is the one doing the saving.
You have said, “If I could have my way, Africa would be the United States of Africa with just one leader.” Bob Marley wrote a song about this, but when you look at Africa today, is it realistic?
First of all, it has to be our generation and the generation that comes after that have to achieve it. That [older] generation would never be able to achieve it because there is too much history, and it’s too much, where it is built up to where it started today. It has to be [the] generation that is clear from the history and conflict and see the world in the way that we see it. The only way that Africa can evolve in that way is we have to be united. It has to be a united Africa. It has to be one Africa.
But in [just] one [African] country, it is difficult to have democratic elections. How do you have a democratic election in a United States of Africa?
It’s not hard. I mean, listen, if China can do it, and they don’t even have a democratic election, you know what I mean.
So democratic elections are something that Africa doesn’t need, maybe?
No, listen, in Africa, there has to be elections. If you want to keep Africa stable, there has to be elections. All we need is Africans able to govern themselves. What’s stopping Africa from governing themselves and creating one Africa is that there’s still foreigners in certain areas that control Africa.
The former colonial powers?
A lot of the wars are created by foreign influences.
‘Africa, to an extent, has been the anchor to the rest of the world. Because every natural resource that is keeping every other nation operating is a resource that has been pulled from Africa. Everyone benefits but Africa. So Africa doesn’t need to be saved. Africa is the one doing the saving.’
You’re considered a first-generation American. Your parents are African. What do you consider yourself?
I’m an African raised in America.
So you’re not American?
I wish I was, but my mind is not American. It’s clearly African.
But you have the [American] accent.
I went to school in America. All my early childhood, I was raised in Africa. Then I came to America, and we would go back to Africa every summer for vacation. And then when I graduated high school, there was the choice of going back to Africa or stay in the U.S. And the opportunities in the U.S. were so much greater.
You’re certainly the perfect example of the American dream coming true. Millions of Africans make it to the States and don’t have the same success and the same luck as you have. What would be your advice to a young African who is immigrating to the States today?
I think this advice would go to any person migrating to the States. Ultimately, you can’t change who you are, and I think the biggest obstacle is that when people come to the U.S., they kind of alienate their original personalities, ways of lives, and they conform to what’s there, and when you do that, first of all, you’ll never get accepted.
But isn’t that the best way to integrate?
Absolutely not, because first of all, there’s no way you can move forward if you’re not you. One thing I notice about America is they respect other cultures, they admire other cultures, when they can see the difference of who you are. If you’re walking toward me and you’re acting like an American but I know you’re a foreigner, you just seem fake. It’s not genuine, so the respect level is completely different. But if I walk up to you as an American, and you’re clearly an African or Asian, that makes me more curious about who you are. I ask more questions. Now I’m more intuitive as to what this is. I get more motivated to ask questions, and now the respect level is different because now you’re teaching me something.
So when you're in the States, you’re proud to say you're African?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, clearly African.
You once told Source magazine, and I want to quote this, “Black people in the U.S. can nag all they want how the system is against black people, but if they saw how other people lived in Africa, they would see how blessed they really are.” Do you still believe this, when you see unarmed black teenagers being killed by the police, when you see protests in St. Louis, where you lived for a long time? When you see people taking to the streets in Atlanta, New York to denounce police brutality against young African-American men? Do you think the system really is for these people?
Well, the system was never for them.
So, what made you say this to Source magazine?
When I said that, I was talking about the environment where they live. And the rights they actually have. And the blessing they do, you know, have actual access to. In Africa, the way I grew up — let's just pick a project in New York, for instance. That's a five-star hotel compared to the environment I grew up in. If they see how they live, they actually get money from the government. There actually are programs that helps the impoverished and the poor, and you get food stamps. I mean, they have it good, compared to Africa, you follow?
There's a huge difference in how the government allocates funds for the poor in Africa. The environment is not even left and right.If these guys were to be taken from the environment where they are now to the same equal environment in Africa, they would be crying to come back to America.
But you say now that the system is against them?
I was talking about a way of life. Now, as far as systems, the system in America was never built for black people. This is my personal opinion, I am speaking for myself. I don't believe it was ever built for black people because that system has never been changed. Those documents have never been altered. These things were made back in the umpteen hundreds, and these are the same exact literature that’s down today. So mind you, by the time it was made, black people were never in a position where they were looked at as equal, so if it’s the same documents that they are applying today, it t meant for them.
What was it like growing up as a black man in America?
Well, in America, it was a little bit different because I was a foreigner. I was an African, and I was very dark skinned, and at the time, dark skinned wasn’t the lead style. I was always getting picked on in school.
But you were in trouble a lot?
That is what got me in trouble.
What got you in trouble?
I felt like I was being mistreated. Unfairly judged.
You spent time in jail.
I spent time in jail. Collectively, about three years. [For] stealing cars and hustling.
When you see Ferguson, Missouri, today and, you know, you hear of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, do you sympathize? Do you understand that experience that these people are denouncing?
I clearly understand the frustration. What I don't understand is that how, if I'm in a position where they are and I don't want to speak too much for them, because I think I might have some knowledge they might not quite have, because I'm in the position where I have experienced Africa and I've experienced the United States. I always felt like Africa was for Africans. So when I see African-Americans in America dealing with all these issues, my first question is, ‘Why don’t they just go back home’?
Back to Africa. Where they’ll be treated fair. Where they’ll actually be praised for who they are, because of the fact that they are American. They’ll get way better treatment, they can invest their money.
How do you tell people who have lived for generations, centuries and centuries in one land to move to a place they don't know?
But that's my point. They don't know. It starts with a visit. How many African-Americans do you know actually consider Africa as a vacation spot? Not one. I mean, when you look at the overall population of African-Americans, a very few percentage would decide to go to Africa for vacation. Even just for knowledge, just to know where they came from, just to get an idea of what that is, there is so much fear instilled in them, that they wouldn't even want to go there to visit. You mention Africa, they start shaking.
I want to talk about women and your view of women.
I love women.
When you sing about them, they’re called sexy chicks, and — this is a clean version, of course — [there was an] incident in Trinidad with a teenager. In hip-hop, women are called names. I wonder, can dehumanizing women be passed off as entertainment?
Women call themselves bitches more than we do as men. But it’s just a figure of speech. I just think some people are so uptight. They don’t just embrace personality.