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Interview: Akon – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

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Akon is a shining example of a man determined to keep his past from dictating his future. Although a convicted felon, he has found his artistic freedom in the world of music, even in the face of controversy. Since 2004, Akon has sold 7 million albums worldwide and served as a featured guest on more than 150 singles, including "Bartender," his GRAMMY-nominated performance with protégé T-Pain.

With the success of "Smack That" (featuring Eminem) and "I Wanna Love You" (featuring Snoop Dogg) in 2006, Akon became the third artist in music history to hold the top two spots on Billboard's Hot 100 chart simultaneously. The following year, he would join a league of his own with the chart-topping success of "Don't Matter" and Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape." To date, he is the only artist to accomplish this feat twice.

Upon review of Freedom, Akon managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on "Locked Up," Mother Africa and the media's portrayal of the Konvict brand.

As a child, you spent a great deal of time in both the U.S. and Senegal. Since you've had the rare opportunity to experience and interact with two different cultures — African and American — for an extended period of time, what impact has that had on your artistic journey? 

Actually, that is one is the major advantages that I have over a lot of artists. I have experienced the best of both worlds, you know what I'm saying? I came from a place that has experienced a whole other side of struggling with a completely different way of living. Even the music has a whole other side. When I came to the United States, I was able to experience the development of hip-hop and combine all of that with melodies from back home. Nothing was ever forced, crafted or choreographed. It just happened naturally.

Few people know that your father, Mor Thiam, is a famous jazz percussionist. Looking back at your childhood, what lasting influence did your father's career have upon yours? 

Man, my Pop was literally a grinder. I would watch him do two to three shows a day from one side of the city to the other side of the city, going back and forth, and then going on the road for months at a time. Back then, he was doing that because he loved it. There wasn't even money in it. You can't really hold your family down with that kind of paycheck. He just didn't know that hip-hop would be developed to a point where we love the business and we can pull so much paper out of it. He definitely influenced me in a lot of different ways, just watching him as a kid. That's one of the reasons why I didn't even want to do music. It became more of a hobby than a career. It just so happens that later, I had the opportunity to showcase some of these records. I didn't have anywhere else to turn. I couldn't get a regular job and this was the only outlet. It actually worked out for me. 

As you were introduced to the music industry and coming into your own, what's the best professional advice that your father ever gave you?

He pushed me away from music, actually. He taught me how to play the percussion because I loved percussion and I would love to watch him perform. When I was younger, he would always say, 'If you can help it, find your Plan B. Let music be your Plan C. Plan A is to get your education. That way, you can do whatever it is you want to do in the world.' That was always what he preached to me.

Well, you certainly found your Plan B. When you moved to New Jersey, when did you first discover hip-hop?

Well, I grew into it like everybody else. It all started back in those little parks in New York and before you know it, it branched out to become this huge way of expression. At that time, the reason hip-hop was so intriguing to me was because of the fact that it was drum-driven. Everything starts out with just drum beats, you know what I'm saying? I'm a percussionist, so naturally I was going to be attracted to it. I got caught up by the fact that it was a drum-driven genre. Before you know it, I was making drum beats on the drum machine and mixing it up with live African percussion. At the time, I was producing, not even knowing what it meant to be a producer. I just dove into the music and it started evolving into this big old thing. It started off as a hobby for me.

It is rare for an individual to fall into a profession that they feel is a genuine extension of themselves. And your experience is really cool, simply because it was a natural progression.

Yeah, exactly. 

As the hip-hop genre evolved, a lot of hip-hop artists have been used as scapegoats in the mainstream media. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?

The biggest misconception is probably the fact that — me coming out of the situation I was in and being locked up and so on — I was no different from any other gangsta rapper. It became easy for them to point their finger and label me. They labeled me as a rapper, but I'm more of an R&B soul singer wrapped up with 'street,' you know what I'm saying? I guess it's only natural to compare me with other rappers but, if you were going to compare me, you should compare the attitude. My attitude is completely different. I am more mature and I have business sense. Much of my success has come from the fact that I have learned from the mistakes of others. When people know your background, though, they tend to focus on it and put you in a stereotypical box that's less than what you consider yourself to be.

Considering your background, what specific moment do you consider to be pivotal to your success and the "turning point" of your life?

Well, getting locked up was a turning point. Sitting there in jail, I thought, 'Oh, my life can't be like this. There's got to be another way.' You know what I'm saying? That's when I even got the idea of making a record called "Locked Up," creating a new vision for the future, like, 'When I get out, this is what I plan to do.' It opened up doors for other things that I wanted to do. Music was relevant at that point. That's when I knew exactly what time it was.

"Locked Up" was definitely an international smash. Everybody was singing it—everywhere! Throughout your travels, has there been a particular place in which you were surprised to hear your music playing?

Yeah, places like Germany, where they don't speak English whatsoever. They were singing the lyrics from beginning to end, and then they would come up to me and say, 'Hello.' And I would be like, 'I don't understand!' [laughing] A little situation like that, that'll really trip you up, you know what I'm saying? When the record came on, fans went bananas.

How did you end up getting that big break? A few years ago, I came across some reports about you linking up with Devyne Stephens, CEO of Upfront Entertainment.

D was always there since the beginning. He was always one of my partners, always looked out for me. When I was locked up or whatever, he would be the one to buy me out, you know what I'm saying? He was the one who was always steering me towards music. Situations happened and it's like, 'You know, dude, this is the last time I'm buying you out.' And then he'd buy me out again. He was there from the very beginning. Once he told me, 'If you put as much hustle into music as you do on the street, boy, you'd be out of here.' It took me to get locked for a long period of time before I realized what he was saying. 

Your first album, Trouble, was released under Universal and your next two, Konvicted and Freedom, were under your Konvict Muzik imprint. At what point did you feel like 'Okay, I need to branch out and just have my own imprint?'

When I was locked up long enough to see so much talent. I was just trying to figure out why they were in there. 'Why, with all this talent, you still end up in here? You need to figure it out. That, right there, is your gift; it's your way out.' You know what I'm saying? Of course, I turned the same voice to myself. 'Why the hell am I in here?' So as soon as I got out, that was the first thing I was going to do: start a record company, Konvict Muzik, and start signing a whole bunch of these gifted people. That was the idea.

I see. Between, singing, writing, and producing, how do you manage to balance it all?

The key is really to continue to just do it. When you overload, then you have to find the balance. But the key is to get it done. And sometimes you have to let somebody else figure out how to balance it. That's always my key. I have a whole bunch of material set up and when it's time to put something in place, I just hire people to get down and do it. 'This is what I need over here; this is what I need over there.' And I continue doing what I need to do so I can stay creative. 

Initially, your third album was to be entitled Acquitted. What led you to change the name to Freedom?

A lot of times when you try to move into a positive realm and you try to move everything into a positive level, of course the word "convict" sounds negative to everybody. I had to explain to them exactly what that was and why it shows in the name. A lot of people got it. You can come out of a situation like that — a convicted felon — and start over and not necessarily be looked at as somebody evil, you know what I'm saying? Everybody makes mistakes. You do your thing. You change your life over and then you make moves to get better. The whole concept was, you know, troubled, convicted, then acquitted. But because of how the media was perceiving it, I felt like the whole goal of what we're trying to do as far as the movement was being translated wrong. Everyone took the negative aspect of it because of the incident in Trinidad and Tobago and all the other stuff that was going on, and they were using that to try to paint the Konvict brand as a company to view negatively.

So I had to restructure everything on how we did things, how we imaged ourselves, and even the titling of our projects, so that we could prevent anything negative. That's when we took Acquitted and changed it to Freedom. They really mean the same thing but "freedom" is reflected in a more positive light. When you're acquitted, you naturally think negative. You think court, you think convicted felon, you think of someone bad getting away with something. Whereas "freedom," it opens your mind to a lot of bigger, broad concepts which is a lot more positive than the word "acquitted." So we decided to change the words because that is the image we want to portray and bring across to the rest of the world.

One positive image of you that is rarely seen is the work that you do with Konfidence Foundation. What inspired the vision for the organization?

The slogan of the Konfidence Foundation is, "Believe in the Future of Africa." Our current efforts are centered in Senegal, where we build schools and hospitals. The foundation really focuses on children, because the only thing that can change Africa — the way of thinking, the way of development — is the kids. In order to do that, you got to prepare them for it. We have to make sure that the schools are in great condition and the hospitals have the proper equipment to treat them, so that Africa's children are stable and moving. That way, the future of Africa is pretty secure.

For more information on Akon, visit his official website.

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About Clayton Perry