He discovered Lady Gaga and gave us T-Pain, spurring the auto-tuned pandemic that has torn through the top 40. Aliaune Thiam, better known as Akon, has his thumb on the pulse of pop, evidenced by his label’s signature jail-door clink at the start of songs and his smooth, infectious hooks which have been guest featured on over 300 songs. Almost as long as his list of accolades are his scandals, replete with boosted cars, blood diamonds and an indeterminate number of leading ladies and offspring. So what if it’s not all true? We keep eating it up.
“That’s what makes this game so exciting,” the 38-year-old singer/songwriter/producer tells us from a studio in Hollywood, where he is finishing up his fourth album, Stadium. “It’s cool for them to print wrong stories once in a while, then you go out and correct it and they don’t believe you.”
Akon has been tweaking Stadium for more than a year – it was originally slated for release in September 2010, but was continuously pushed back, and is now due out mid-November. “I like to keep recording until the last day, you never know what’s going to come out,” he says. “I just go in and whatever comes is magic, you know.”
Akon still made it on to the Forbes’ 2011 list of hip-hop top earners, raking in US$13 million from royalties, touring, assorted business ventures and a guest feature on comedy music group The Lonely Island’s ‘I Just Had Sex,’ which debuted on Saturday Night Live and has been viewed more than 120 million times on YouTube.
Akon says he has hours of music recorded that he has no plans to do anything with. He envisions multiple releases after he’s dead. “We can go for two or three days just recording,” he says. In order to stay fresh, he listens to “everything but what I do.” He’s especially keen on John Mayer’s latest album (“That album is pretty dope”) and the bluegrass sounds of English folk rockers Mumford & Sons.
The man is prolific, but even Akon gets writer’s block. It was during one dry spell that he was introduced to Lady Gaga. Sitting in a Los Angeles studio in need of inspiration, Akon told friend and fellow producer RedOne to bring in some girls (“You know, just to hang out”). What RedOne presented him with was a songwriter dressed in a gold leotard.
“I guess he thought I was asking to bring some girls that actually write songs. That’s funny,” Akon laughs.
They hit it off immediately. Akon was impressed with Gaga’s vocals and helped convince other producers that they had an artist on their hands. Akon signed her to his label. Just one month after they met her debut album, The Fame, was in the can. Nowadays Akon refers to Gaga as his franchise player. He says that she effectively retired him, that he doesn’t have to work anymore thanks to her.
Akon’s musical education began early. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he spent much of his early childhood in Senegal, where both his parents are from. His father is famed percussionist Mor Thiam, so there were always artists around, while his mother designed costumes for the Jackson 5. Working in a barbershop in Newark, New Jersey, he met hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, then one-third of The Fugees. They used to jam together in Akon’s basement. In 1996 Akon landed a small singing part on The Fugees’ acclaimed final album, The Score, but it was all just a hobby back then, he says.
According to Akon, his main source of income back then was from jacking Porsches, Mercedes and Lambos. He had a host of chop shops under his purview and was selling stolen cars at deep discounts to celebrity-types in Atlanta, home to several prominent hip-hop labels. In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, Akon said:
“When I was stealing cars I used to think, ‘If I stole your car it’s because you did something bad and it’s coming back to you. If I can’t get this car, it’s because God doesn’t want me to have it because this is a good person.’”
His breakout single was ‘Locked Up,’ inspired, he said, by years spent in the big house, while he named his label Konvict. It was a fanciful yarn that went mostly uncontested until a 2007 incident at a concert in New York. A teenager threw something at the stage and Akon had a security guard bring the heckler up to him. Once the teen was up, Akon tossed him back into the riled audience and was subsequently charged with endangering the welfare of a minor and second-degree harassment. He was conspicuously released on US$5,000 bail, a paltry sum in consideration of his alleged criminal history. FBI records showed Akon had only one felony conviction for gun possession, for which he was sentenced to probation, and in 1998 he was arrested for pos- session of a single stolen BMW and spent just months in a Georgia county jail before pros- ecutors dropped the charges.
Celebrity mug shot curator The Smoking Gun dug up FBI agent Peter McFarlane, who consulted local police on the stolen BMW case.
“Ah, this is bullshit. This guy is so phony,” McFarlane, who worked on auto crime for the state of Georgia, told The Smoking Gun. “I don’t think he had any role besides [wanting] to drive a high-dollar vehicle,” Detective R.L. Brewer, one of the arresting officers, said.
Akon doesn’t peddle the car-thief king story anymore, but his factual endeavors have stirred plenty of controversy: in 2007 newspapers reported he owned a South African diamond mine, and denied the existence of conflict diamonds, dismissing the concept with this wonder- ful logic: “I don’t believe in conflict diamonds. That’s just a movie. Think about it. Nobody thought or cared about conflict diamonds until Blood Diamond was released.” He later amended this position, saying part of the reason for buying the mine was to put some of the profits back into rebuilding Africa. Later the same year he came under fire for simulating sex on stage with an underage girl at a club in Trinidad (the venue was supposed to be 21-and-over, and authorities shut it down afterward). Verizon, a major American telecom company, ended its advertising partnership with Akon over the incident. Akon apologized, but also says if he had his career to do over, he wouldn’t change anything.
“I don’t really regret too many things. Everything had to happen for me to move on to the next step,” he tells us. “I feel grateful and pray and thank God for things like that.”
Akon is Muslim and doesn’t drink. He has said that he doesn’t know the difference between Sunni and Shia, but believes in polygamy as accorded by Islamic scripture. He has 12 brothers and sisters and says that his father has three wives (polygamy is common in Senegal). In a 2008 interview Akon claimed to have “four wifeys,” but when we asked about his present tally of women and children he replied, “I can’t get into all of that.” Gossip blogs erupted last month with rumors that Motown legend Diana Ross was livid that her daughter was dating Akon’s younger brother, Bu Thiam, who also has several girlfriends.
“Miss Ross would have never said such a thing. She’s a sweetheart,” Akon says, before adding, “I don’t know any guys that don’t [have more than one girlfriend]. A lot of people make the main girl think she’s the only one. How honest you choose to be, that’s the really important thing. I’m straightforward.”
Akon is careful to keep his kids out of the spotlight, but his oldest son is now 14 and frequently joins Dad in the studio, he says.
“You’ll be reading about him in the next year or two, he’s already producing.” Akon says he won’t be letting on that they’re related too quickly. He wants his son to earn his stripes without the pressure and expectations his father’s name would bring upon his act. “He’s a real keen thinker. I can’t believe some of the stuff he’s coming up with. It’s one of the things that’s going to change the game.”
The game needs it, he says, “There’s nothing really meaningful happening in pop. Gaga is probably the only thing. She’s the only one being herself, seems like everyone else is try- ing to do what worked for her.”
Having conquered the airwaves, there’s one place left to go – part of the reason for his visit to Hollywood is to look at scripts and get to know the studios.
He says his favorite movie is Gladiator, but all the scripts he’s looking at are action-dramas set in modern times. He wants to produce and direct, maybe act some. We think he should consider a biopic. Plenty of room for embellishment.
That’s Shanghai, 2011