Akon - Freedom Fighter
3D’s Sasha Perera talks heritage, legacy and Freedom with Akon, the rapper who’s put his troubled past behind him to solidify his reputation as one of America’s most sought after properties.
In person Akon is about half the size of pumped-up gangsta-rapper 50 Cent. He’s a smallish-built man who, today, is sporting a black suit, a yellow roll-neck sweater, gold chains, and a hospitable grin. Not only is Akon welcoming, but he’s also polite and talkative, and punctuates his conversation every few minutes with an infectious chuckle. He’s hardly recognisable from the reported gangsta reformed criminal who’s currently one of the world’s biggest urban superstars.
Despite some people’s assumptions, Akon isn’t just another American rapper. Aside from the fact that he’s an accomplished songwriter and producer with a wide-reaching musical palate, what makes him even more unique in the American-based hip hop industry is that he’s proudly African. More precisely, Akon (real name, Aliaune Thiam) is of Senegalese heritage, and spent his formative years in West Africa with his jazz musician father, before moving to New Jersey in the US when he was around seven years old. From there he went through the class struggle and ghetto hip hop clichés of brushes with the law, prison, and now redemption. However, it’s his African heritage, which he’s reconnected with over the years, that seems central to his aspirations, despite the fact that his roots have only been truly recognised recently.
“I think in the States they definitely differentiate between me and other rappers,” he offers, when I ask whether he’s readily accepted into the US hip hop community. “They definitely consider me as a foreigner – some don’t really know whether I’m Haitian, African or Jamaican, really, because I never really claimed any of them until recently. Now of course, the word is out that I’m completely African… but then Haitians are Africans too, and Jamaicans are definitely Africans. I just think they always looked at me like a foreigner that actually broke through.”
In his early days Akon worked closely with The Fugees – Wyclef himself a non-American and Haitian immigrant – before Akon relocated to Atlanta, and The Fugees went onto become worldwide superstars. Both Akon and Wyclef reunited on Wyclef’s last album, and the two find themselves back together again on the song Sunny Day from Akon’s brand new album Freedom, which gets a release this month. It seems that Akon’s worldwide perspective to his music and career is rooted in his global experience.
“Absolutely – our main focus is international,” he says firmly. “I think that the fact that I have this international background is what triggered a lot of the international success. The fact that I’m African has a lot, a lot to do with it – I give that more credit than anything for my international success because I get so much support from Africans worldwide. If it was just Africans alone worldwide supporting me, I think I’d be just as successful. That’s the one thing I’m blessed to have – I have a whole nation behind me that supports the music.
“I also think the understandings I have from all the cultures I’ve experienced has allowed me to be free and open-minded enough to go into these territories. If I was raised with the American mentality, I probably wouldn’t have even left the US; I probably would have stayed in the US and not even travelled at all. I think my roots have definitely made a big difference in that sense. Music has always been a tool for people of different generations, backgrounds and customs to come together. You can reach out to people through music that you’re not able to reach sometimes through normal conversation,” says the singer, who has also collaborated in the past with the likes of Canada’s Kardinal Offishall, Britain’s Sway, and New Zealand rapper Savage.
Currently Akon is continuing to blur the boundaries of his music with two simultaneously released singles – the unashamed pop-skip of “Right Now (Na Na Na)”, and the pants-low hip-hop swagger of “I’m So Paid” (feat. Lil Wayne) – aimed at hitting urban and crossover markets at the same time. His new studio album “Freedom” similarly has it’s grounding in different genres; the album is split into three distinct musical parts, each of which are aimed at different audiences… and in turn, intent on growing Akon’s fanbase wider.
“That’s exactly how I see it – you called it, right on,” he grins. “Every album of mine had a little bit for everybody; we always tried to make sure we satisfied every fanbase. With this album it was no different – but the only difference is that we made it obvious that the genres were changing. Previously we would switch the genres up and shuffle them around, but with this album I wanted to keep you in certain moods. So with the pop/dance stuff, I wanted to keep you there in the clubs, before I slowly took you into the hip hop world, and then took you further into the urban ballad type songs. The album then ends with the title track “Freedom” which is more of an autobiographical record.”
Aside from his own material, Akon has also been actively producing and collaborating on a number of other different projects - most notably working on the comeback singles for superstar singers Michael Jackson (Hold My Hand) and Whitney Houston (Like I Never Left). However, the songs he worked on for them respectively were both leaked onto the internet, forcing the planned singles to both be scrapped. The MJ collaboration was even rumoured, at one stage, to be appearing on the new Akon album, although that is now definitely not the case, either.
“Honestly… for me, it helps me,” he says, with a shrug, regarding the music leaks. “Every record I do that comes out benefits me in some way. It doesn’t really affect me too tough. For artists like them - where they’re coming back after a long gap, and they have certain things prepared for the release of a record – it affects them tremendously. It’s put a monkey-wrench in their plans, because if a record is improperly released it affects them financially, and it affects them in terms of planning their career. It’s really important how they present their records – presentation is everything for those artists because they’re resting their careers on how they come back. Mike (Jackson) always comes back with a big video, movie, event… but when a record’s already been leaked, it kills the whole excitement of it.
“I think that same situation happened with Whitney too. Those leaks spoiled a lot of big collaborations, so we’re all investing in the future, and just figuring out what we’re gonna do, even if we have to come up with different songs. We all are just gonna keep working at it – that’s how we do it. We gotta get it right for everyone around the world.”
WHAT: Freedom through Universal
WHEN: Saturday 6 December
MORE: akononline.com / download a free Akon track Get Paid feat Lil Wayne from universalmusic.net.au/freedownloads/akon