“I Do Believe That Amapiano Will Be The Next Biggest Thing” – An MM Exclusive Interview With Akon

Joe Simpson

By Joe Simpson

Joe Simpson

26 Jun 2023

Boasting a historic career that includes 3 UK number one singles, 12 Top 10 singles and 18 Top 40 singles, Akon has redefined what it means to be a Popstar. With a discography that spans over almost two decades, the artist has been able to maintain relevance through evolving his sound and collaborating with artists across multiple genres, working with some of the icons of modern music from Lil Wayne and Eminem to Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson. He has also demonstrated a clear desire to be as successful outside of music, and has leveraged his success in the industry into opportunities to give back to his community.

In the wake of his latest EP, ‘TT Freak’, dropping, we sat down with Akon to talk about his journey to stardom, giving back to Africa, his views on the UK scene, and what he would like his legacy to be:

What was it like for you growing up between Senegal and New Jersey? How did it influence your music?

Oh, man, I think that was actually an advantage. it gave me an advantage in so many ways because the two cultures allowed me to be able to cross-market the melodies, and also bring in a brand new energy, rhythm, and sound, to a market that wasn’t exposed to that as much, you know? It also gave me the opportunity to have education on both sides when it comes to the fan bases to understand what each side is looking for. I was able to find the right median in between.

You then had your first big hit with ‘Locked Up’. What was that like for you and how quickly did things change?

Things changed drastically, actually. You know, before that, it was by any means necessary. I was in survival mode (laughs). I was writing about my experiences and locked up was one of them, like, I was literally going in and out of jail. I was trying to find the right means to make a living to an extent, and utilise the knowledge that I did have on how to flip it and make money, basically a hustler. When that song popped off, it kind of changed my mindset saying, “Okay, now I actually have a platform that I can utilise.” I could really start to do things legitimately, and it actually all worked out.

That in turn led to you working with some of the all time greats in music. Is there anyone in particular who stood out for you?

Definitely from a company building standpoint, it would probably be Lady Gaga. But from a fan standpoint, it’s probably Michael Jackson. It was amazing. Starting with Gaga first, it was almost like, looking at myself, you know? Someone with an endless amount of creativity, but just didn’t know how to express it and just needed the right machine and guidance to get it to that point, and support really more than anything, because she always had it. She was a star by nature, and she was born to star, but it was a matter of who can take what’s in that mind and open it up to the public. I think we were kind of in the same boat, because our minds thought differently from the average audience and the average way of how the music industry actually promoted and marketed music in itself. It was easy for me to come on board and say, “Okay, what is it that you want to do?” Then I found the right way to commercialise it to where it made sense on a business level.

When it came to Michael Jackson, that was something totally different because he was an artist I never thought I’d be able to work with in my lifetime. I think with all the work that I put in and the energy I put out there in the atmosphere was enough for him to pay attention, and he reached out to do some collaborations. Within that, I became one of the head producers to work on his re-release of ‘Thriller’, and from there we just connected, like two lost brothers that were separated at birth. I mean, from the moment we met each other, we knew everything about each other and we clicked instantly. It was like the perfect marriage, so everything kind of came together as it was supposed to. But these were things that I would have never expected to happen the way it did, and it just all worked out in my favour, thank God.

Your first album came out almost 20 years ago now. After so long in the industry, what do you think your long lasting impact has been on the music scene?

If you’re asking about my legacy, I still think I’m building it. There’s so much more to me. I would like my legacy to be someone that actually opened the doors for many other artists to be able to express themselves and someone who created opportunities for other artists in general. Also, the legacy to be someone that utilised his struggle, his story, and success, influencing his finances and connections to rebuild Africa.  I think that’s my calling now, really. Ultimately, I’d have the experience to be able to open the door and create a platform for us artists and artists outside of Africa.

That was the reason why back in 2008, 9, and 10, we kind of developed this whole concept of music where we find the local artists and put pop sounding instruments and production around a nice structure and start blasting them. That began the whole movement of the traditional tribal Afrobeat into the more Afro Pop today. Stuff like that, I look back, and I’m proud of myself and the people that looked and believed in it. We don’t take credit for it at all, but we would like to say that we helped ignite the opportunity for things to happen, and for people to be able to express their talents and allow that talent to be able to feed their families in a different way.

Obviously Afrobeats and African music in general is having an explosion of success at the moment. How much do you think your career has led up to this?

1,000 percent! I definitely believe that, because I was pretty much the first African artist to accomplish what we have on a global scale.  I think we took the chance to expose local talent in Africa, even though some artists are still struggling to try to make it out.  

It’s almost like Reggae music to an extent where you had so much amazing talent on an island. Then one big record from Shabba Ranks opened the doors for someone like Shaggy, who came with ‘It Wasn’t Me’, and made it so Pop that it became the biggest selling record in Reggae history. There’s always going to be pioneers that take the chance to feature or open up doors for newer artists to make it out by utilising platforms in general. 

I think oftentimes, even when you look at Rap music – how you had those guys in a park in the Bronx beatboxing, ones and twos and turntables and Rap battles. You turn around to now and no matter where you go in the world, Rap music exists and it exists in so many different languages. There’s always going to be pioneers and people that paved the way for the masses to actually be able to express themselves. In Africa, I don’t think it was any different. I think we definitely played a big role in that.

You’ve got a new EP out and your music video for ‘Slow Motion’ has just dropped. It feels as if you’re kind of leaning into an Amapiano influence. Would you agree with that?

100 percent. That’s how it was kind of all set up to be. We started exposing the Afrobeat/Pop type of thing and then, as we’re seeing that and I’m moving across and doing so many things in South Africa, I’m realising just how much of Amapiano needs to be exposed. At the time, we were doing a lot of Dance music. I was working with the likes of David Guetta and all these guys, but this is our version of Dance music, really. That’s when we turned around and started putting in work and helping people like Black Coffee. We became a representative for him to blow him up out of the water. He opened the doors for all of that. I thought to myself that I got to just put out records that kind of now flows in the realm of Amapiano to expose what that is, so people can now also explore the other genres coming out of Africa as well.

You’ve shown that you’re clearly a student of the game through your changes in sound and development of other artists. What artists inspire you to create?

The interesting part about it is that I always just do what I love. I kind of attach myself to something that moves me a certain way, because I know if it moves in me, it’s gonna move a million other people.  It’s always been more about the sound in the music, versus the artists themselves. Artists will come and will go every year. There’s going to be a new group and a new generation of artists that come in, but the question is, what are they bringing with them? Are they adapting what’s already existed? Or are they creating something new? That’s how I kind of decide what to jump onto or what to expose and put my energy and machine behind to give it more exposure for the rest of the masses. Honestly, it’s not more so the artists but I do believe that Amapiano will be the next biggest thing that will generate the growth for these major festivals coming in.

What is your relationship with the UK scene and UK Rap in general? At the start of your career you were close with Sway…

Yes! Sway is my brother, man. Even outside of business he’s just a good dude, you know? At that time we were trying to help Sway because I was so excited about the Grime scene. I couldn’t understand why this was only in the UK because the sound was huge. Like, this is your version of Crunk music in Atlanta, you know what I’m saying? This is crazy. Even now I feel like it has such a huge impact. It’s kind of come into the New York scene and is going stupid in so many different ways. A lot of people give Pop Smoke the credit for it but it’s clear that when he came to the UK he was super inspired by what he heard.

It’s at the point now where I feel like the UK artists have to come together and really take it and own it, because if not New York is going to take it and own it as they been doing at this point. I think now when people are being more open and the internet is opening up music so more people are starting to understand certain sounds and where it’s coming from, but I think the UK artists need to do a better job at claiming that sound because they played a huge part in creating it. I think more of it now is that you have more UK artists, you know, that were really highly successful turning more towards Afrobeat because that’s more popular, but not realising their gift and what they already have, and that sound that they never fully maximised on, if that makes sense. We now call it Drill but that’s just a cousin of what Grime was. That’s the body, the mothership of the whole genre. The opportunity is really now for UK rappers to take that over, because the US is so open, and has already adapted so now they just want to hit the authentic sound of it at this point.

Throughout your career there’s always been a desire from you to be seen as more than music, giving back to Africa and Senegal in particular. How does that manifest itself?

Yeah, I think a lot of it comes from me being raised in Africa before I came to the States to go to school. When I came to the States, I kind of saw the similar culture but the only difference is that in Africa we were more family orientated and there was less competition amongst us. We kind of found ways to really work together, because that’s all we had. It was all family driven as far as how we’re raised in the household, whereas in America everybody was so competitive, and everybody did things separately, even though they had the power to change and influence the culture. The reason why they never controlled the culture is because they never worked together, it was always competitiveness; me against you, your clique against mine. 

That was why I tried to install unity in the US when I was doing music there, and that’s why I built my whole career off collaborations. If you notice every record, I would always collaborate with other artists to give them exposure, opening the doors for their marketplace, and me also opening myself up to their audience and things of that nature. I tried to bring the concept of collaboration, which is significant to unity in general, that I felt was the only thing missing in the United States when it comes to African Americans and Latinos in music. I feel like the more we work together, the more we can control that, and then we have more freedom when it comes to finances and our creativity.

You hope these things work – you just kind of ignite the opportunity and hope it actually flows through, and if not, you just tried where you could. In Africa, we’re trying the same thing. I’m just hoping that the younger generation get it a lot more than the older generation, because I think there was a little bit of separation there as well, too. Everyone’s trying to fight for that number one spot, but not realising that that spot is available to all of us. All we have to do is just do our part and wait our turn.

Talk to me about Akon City. How is the process going and what is the vision?

Oh, my goodness, so Akon City has been moving rapidly. Just last month, we broke ground on construction. We’re building the Welcome Center as we speak, that’s all the way up. Hopefully before the end of this year the Welcome Center will be complete  and then we’ll be selling the plots for the condominiums and the business centres and stuff like that, and moving the master plan forward as we go on. 

I’m really excited about where that’s at, and I’m kind of happy that it ended up the way it did. In the beginning there was a lot of doubt in a lot of people’s eyes and you know, a lot of press that was going against the narrative of what was really happening on the grounds because of whatever agenda that was attached to it. It actually only made us stronger and more focussed. It gave us motivation to make sure that this didn’t fail. Because of that we were able to secure enough financing to actually get the construction part rolling and so now that we’re actually physically moving forward everything’s kind of turnkey now.  We got men on the ground, construction is actually rolling now, and once the Welcome Center is complete we’ll be going to the next building and the next building all the way until we get closer to the ocean where we start building the docks for the boats to park and things of that nature.

As you look back on your career, what have been your highlights and is there anything you would have done differently?

I don’t think I would have done anything differently. Maybe from a business standpoint I would have coined certain things and kind of patterned certain ways of how I did business. Outside of that, I think pretty much every move I made did what it was supposed to do. When I came into it, it wasn’t more so about expressing my personal feelings and music and opening up the opportunity towards myself creatively. I also wanted to open up doors for others as well. So I always came in like a team player, you know? I had a one hand washes the other and both hands wash the face kind of mentality. I love how that came about and it actually put me in a position to open up doors to other things. 

I think, you know, as much as most people would like to say that they will change things in their career and a path, I think if there was anything changed, it wouldn’t have been what it is today. Oftentimes, you can think the grass is greener on the other side when it never really is. I think that’s probably what leads me to stay hungry, and always want more and think I can actually accomplish a lot more than I am. I never put myself in a position where I feel comfortable.I don’t think I will take anything back. I will leave it exactly the way it was.

And going forward, what’s next for your in your career both in and outside of music?

In terms of my solo stuff,  I have an EP that we’re about to drop which is the remix EP for ‘TT Freak’. It’s called ‘Afro Freak’ and it’s more based on the sounds of Amapiano and Afrobeat. And then coming into the summer, we got a brand new album that I’ll be releasing as well too shortly, right after the album of the Akon greatest hits.

I’m also putting together a huge distribution platform for Africa in general that we’re going to be announcing very, very soon. We’ve refurbished Konvict Music which was the original label we started with to become Konvict Kulture, because we realised it’s more than just about music, it’s about the culture. We’re going to not only represent artists, writers, producers, and performers, but we’ll also be going into sports, famous soccer players that we’ll be representing in the future as well too. We’ve got Soccer Camps or football camps all throughout Senegal that we’re building brand new talent for the sport of soccer in America and football in the European leagues and so on and so forth. We’re also going to be doing a lot of biographical documentaries and films relating to some of the biggest icons of our time, telling their stories so that way their names live on■

While Akon reaches yet another chapter of an iconic career, it is clear that his growth and maturity as an artist and person has allowed him to achieve momentous successes both behind the microphone and away from music. There is still a definite hunger for the artist to break new ground in music, but it is also apparent that Akon gets as much satisfaction from the success of others as he does his own. TT Freak is out now on all digital platforms.