Nine Songs: Akon
Akon comes from a world that’s alien to most of us. It’s by no means an exaggeration to describe the man as a global superstar.
His early songs detailed a lavish, high-flying life of cars, crime, money and complicated relationships, whilst more recently his songs have taken a more euphoric and spiritual turn, documenting the relatable inner struggles of life.
There was a moment in time where you couldn’t escape his tracks on the radio, whether you liked them or not. To some, the Senegalese artist is an icon, and to others, a blast of nostalgia, but whatever your conclusion, his mark on the musical world simply can’t be denied.
His status in Senegal he isn’t something to be overlooked either. Akon is currently building a mini city in the country, which he hopes to sustain with his very own cryptocurrency, ‘Akoin’. “The whole idea is to create an economy for the currency to be spent for young entrepreneurs all throughout the African continent and give them a base to utilise their resources with a current stable currency.”
Despite these large-scale undertakings, he’s also working on a new album. “We wanted to make sure that I put some music out there for the fans who have been waiting for so long, but more than anything to feed my creative appetite. So we did two new albums last year, an afrobeat album Akonda and a Latin album El Negreeto. Coming very soon is a pop record, that we’re really excited about.”
Akon tells me that turning his hand to so many genres was something of a learning curve, but an incredibly worthwhile undertaking. “The experience was amazing. I’ve got a really diverse, global fanbase, so every fan from a different part of the world will have a certain kind of record they’re used to hearing me in. I want to be able to satisfy my audiences across the world, it gave me a great sense of how I could put these records out and utilise the different genres. I wanted to give the audience different parts of Akon they haven’t heard yet.”
Akon's Nine Songs also show different parts to his rags to riches story. Most artists collate their selections before we do the interview, but Akon on the other hand, confesses he had them all stored in his wonderful mind.
These are the songs, including two of his own, that have shaped the life of a man who has gone on to build an empire from his musical achievements, that reveal times of struggle, times of insecurity but ultimately joy.
“This was always a great record to me. From a standpoint of watching my Mother struggle when I was younger, I loved the idea that there was a sense of protection listening to this song. It struck a chord with me, of knowing that the song would assist her when I wasn’t there. Even though I was too young to do anything at the time, that was the reason why it became so instrumental to me.
“I never knew why music was inspiring to me at that age, but I knew it made me feel a certain way and that music gave me a certain emotion when I was listening to it. At the time, I never thought that music would be something I would do, there wasn’t a sense of it inspiring me in that respect, because music was never on my agenda.
"I never thought about being an artist until later, when there was nothing else left to do at that point. I became a convicted felon and I couldn’t get any jobs or opportunities, so music became the only thing that I could do. Before all that, music wasn’t even an option.
“This song still gives me the same feeling today - maybe more so now I have a better understanding lyrically of what the song represented - and how it was made to uplift the woman in a position that’s sad, emotional or in need. I look at "No Woman No Cry" from a different perspective now.”
“Sam Cooke is an amazing songwriter and the soulful aspect of his voice is hard to explain. There are some artists you can’t duplicate lyrically or even on a performance level; they create an emotion that can’t be imitated.
“This song is timeless, because there’s always going to be a moment in life when the world is going to challenge us. At the time that I first heard it, it held a different meaning to when it was written - the song was about racism, equality and the system being a certain kind of way.
“Even though those same qualities existed when I was hearing it, it was more about black on black crime and gangs, people dying extremely young, kids growing up without fathers and things like that. If my son was to hear this song today, he’d be thinking about how his generation is; no guidance and no rules to abide by.
“I think every generation has something they go through that they want to change. As I’m getting older, I’m seeing the new generation and comparing it with that of my day and seeing how even more severe the problems have become. There haven’t been any solutions to any of these issues.”
“A lot of these songs come from my childhood. Coming from Africa, I loved great music, but there was never a specific genre that held me to what I listened to. I just liked good music regardless of what it was.
“That opened up huge ideas and emotions in my mind as far as creativity goes. I think a lot of that plays in my role of how I make music, even today. I think ‘genre’ was set up to organise your playlist, but I don’t think it was ever meant to be how music describes anything, because there is no way to describe music, other than it’s a great feeling, or a sound that motivates and inspires us. I don’t think a genre itself should be a way to describe music.
“This was one of my favourite records growing up and I think it was because of the guitar riff that sets it all off. A lot of records grow with you as you grow, so you never really understand what or when certain songs you’ve experienced are until later. I don’t remember when I first heard this track, but every time I hear it, I remember being in Miami riding my bike. I don’t know why, but that’s the vision that comes up!”
“This record has always been one of my favourites in the transition of hip-hop music in general. I’m always triggered and moved by melody. It’s the specific instrument being used in this track, Lauryn Hill’s soulful voice with the message “Ready or not, here I come” that’s just crazy. I loved it.
“I think this track had a partial influence on my own music for sure. Around that time I was getting more involved in music, getting to understand myself as a musician, producer and songwriter, and working with The Fugees opened up a different creative side to me.
“Creating my music was always a way of giving myself a platform to release what was going on in my mind, because I was never the kind of person to open up about my problems to other people. I held them in, and I would never express myself. Music was a way of getting all of that out without having to put my business out there. A lot of the tracks in my earlier days are really personal and writing about it helped me deal with my issues.
“It’s funny, because this record is kind of a short mini-biography of myself in many ways. I think freedom has always been what I have strived for. Sometimes you may think that you’re free, but you’re trapped or enslaved mentally, in the sense that you’re not able to do what you want to do when you want to do it.
“When you’re surrounded by people that are searching for freedom and validity it pulls you in too, because you feel responsible for them as well as yourself. I always look at my story as relating to others and that’s why “Freedom” has so much meaning to me.”
“This is one of those really motivational songs, and I’ve always loved songs that motivate others. Those are the kind of songs that are going to be around forever.
"Bill Withers' “Lean On Me” motivated everyone to redo it, but there’s a certain feeling to the original that other versions just can’t duplicate because it’s so sincere.
“Bill Withers’ voice always came across as a guardian to me. He was so motivational and he has that old school tone, where it’s like your uncle is talking to you and you have to listen. He actually reminds me of my favourite uncle, who used to tell me that I could accomplish anything. This song became similar to that for me and it also became a signature record that you can dedicate to someone like that.”
“This song is not too far off from what Drake normally does, but “God’s Plan” one of the few records that has a real message to it. When I watched the video, it touched me so much.
“I feel that more of these songs need to be put out, especially with today’s generation; how they consume music and how it can motivate us to do things we wouldn’t usually do. When you take people outside of their element to make them realise they can actually make contributions in life - and that’s what the video did.
“It showed how he’s sharing his fortune with those less fortunate. The song itself is amazing, but the way it was packaged showed a different side to Drake that related to everyone.
“I’ve always felt that fortune goes through your hands purposely and that you are chosen specifically by God because you are responsible enough to pass that on to others. I’ve never looked at fortune as a specific reward exclusive to you, that fortune is a blessing to spread.”
“This song speaks of a certain time in my life, where I felt as if I was on this planet alone. It was a way for me to reflect on life and all the wrong decisions I’d made. I was literally in a cell at that point, locked away from society and alone. It was a decision that I made that got me there and it became a turning point of my life - to understand how important decisions are and how they can affect you.
“I based “Lonely” around a relationship. It was the fall of a relationship that made me realise all the things that surrounded it and led up to that point. The breakup brought about the motivation to write the song and realise how alone I was at that moment in time, but the reason I’ve been able to move so ahead is I don’t think too much about the past. I reflect on it, but my building blocks are always more about moving forward than memories. The only time the thought of the past comes to mind is when you have too much time to think, and I haven’t had too much time to think lately.
“Loneliness comes in so many different forms. At the time the song was made, nobody knew who I was, so it was easy to feel lonely - I only had a handful of people to trust - but today it’s different. I’m surrounded by millions of people every day and everywhere I go everybody knows me, but the difference is they’re all strangers.
“To be surrounded by people giving you attention but you have no idea who they are becomes a loneliness in a crowded place. The dynamics of this track are still the same today, it’s just in a different environment.”
“This was probably the first time in my life where I thought 'I want to be like him.' I’d never wanted to be like anybody else until I saw the “Thriller” video.
“I couldn’t understand how somebody could be so amazing, to the point they could do something you’d never seen before and inspire me so much. The way the video was shot and being one of the first mini-movie videos, it was unthought of. It gave me more of a drive; I was seeing things I thought were impossible were actually possible. Knowing what he was able to accomplish showed me that I could also accomplish anything.
“I never imagined I’d work with Michael Jackson, let alone meet him. When I was incarcerated I made a list of ten major goals and accomplishments, and at the top of my list was meeting and working with him within 15 years of releasing my first record. I got to work with him within five years. I achieved an incredible goal. I didn’t expect it to happen, but after achieving that there was nothing you could tell me that couldn’t be accomplished.
“We got a chance to get to know and understand each other, and we developed a great friendship. We were together almost every day for two years before he passed away, and he gave me a lot of jewels. I was really mentored by him as to how the music industry worked, the tricks that are played and the entrepreneur side of it.”