Singer, music producer
Singer, songwriter, and music producer Akon is one of the best-selling R&B/hip-hop hybrid artists of the twenty-first century. Emerging from a life of crime in New Jersey and a stint in prison, Akon released his debut album in 2004 and has since risen to the top of the pop charts with two multiplatinum albums. Along the way Akon has worked with some of the biggest names in hip-hop and R&B, including Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Gwen Stefani, and Michael Jackson. Known for its blend of African lyricism and urban beats, Akon's music reaches across genres and provides an example of the multicultural evolution of African-American music.
Akon was born Aliaune Akon Thiam in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Senegalese parents who traveled to the United States for his birth in order to ensure that future immigration would not be a problem. Though Akon's birthday is known, April 30, the year of his birth is a matter of dispute, and in interviews Akon has repeatedly refused to divulge his actual age. While many media outlets have cited the year as 1981, in an interview with C. Bottomley for VH1.com Akon recalled meeting Michael Jackson "right before Thriller came out" in 1983, making it more likely that he was born in the 1970s.
Akon spent the first seven years of his life living in Dakar, Senegal, before the family relocated to Jersey City, New Jersey. He had a difficult time adjusting to life in the United States. "When I first came to the States, I used to get picked on because I was from Africa," he recalled in the VH1 interview. "I had nappy hair and my clothes were cultural. So people reacted to me in an ignorant way because they didn't know my culture."
Akon's father, the percussionist Mor Thiam, worked in a variety of musical styles and with artists ranging from the choreographers Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey to James Brown and B. B. King. Surrounded by music at home, Akon developed an early appreciation of various types of music, and has cited influences ranging from Stevie Wonder and Phil Collins to Steely Dan. As a teenager he grew to love hip-hop music, and he began writing songs, blending R&B lyricism with hip-hop beat structures. Though he showed an early musical talent, Akon did not believe he would succeed as a recording artist, and at a young age he turned to crime to make ends meet.
Served Time for Auto Theft
After dropping out of high school, Akon moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he specialized in stealing high-end automobiles and selling them to chop shops. After stealing a BMW 325, which Akon later described in an interview with Peter Relic in Rolling Stone as the "slowest car in the whole fleet," his criminal activities caught up with him, and he was arrested for auto theft. "I'd been in high-speed pursuit before and always got away, but this time I didn't because the car was too slow… And I wound up getting locked up for three years."
Prison was a transformative experience for Akon, who lost his taste for the criminal lifestyle after experiencing the consequences firsthand. "It's so crazy because in the beginning you feel like your life is over," Akon said to Bottomley. "But once you're in there for six months, it feels like home. When I became comfortable that's when I got scared. That's what made me say, ‘This is time for me to change. I want to do something with my life.’"
Akon used his time in jail to work on his music, and upon his release he set up a home studio. He shopped some of his songs around in Atlanta, and Devyne Stephens of Upfront Entertainment accepted him as a client and helped him to produce a demo album. Stephens and Akon sent the demo to a number of record labels and received immediate interest. Akon eventually signed a recording contract with Universal/Motown Records because, as Stephens reported on Akon's official Web site, "Steve Rifkind and SRC/Universal Motown … had the best understanding of what we were trying to achieve."
Released First Album
Akon's debut album, Trouble, was released in 2004. It featured the hit single "Locked Up," which was inspired by his experiences in the penal system and which Entertainment Weekly reviewer Tom Sinclair called "a hauntingly bleak meditation on incarceration." "You can hear an echo of older West African musical traditions in Akon's plaintive phrasing," noted New York Times music critic Kelefa Sanneh in a 2006 article, adding that other songs on the album sound "right at home on American radio." Akon was nominated for a Vibe Music Award and an MTV Europe Music Award for songs from his debut album and subsequent remixes. "He's got a voice that cuts through the noise," declared Relic, "a smooth, slightly nasal instrument that's one part reggae rootsman, one part Muslim call to prayer, one part R. Kelly."
Akon's blend of styles made his album difficult to classify and slowed his overall success with American audiences. Though he gained public recognition gradually, other artists in the rap genre quickly realized his potential and sought out Akon for collaborations. Akon appeared with rapper Young Jeezy in the 2005 radio hit "Soul Survivor" and with Obie Trice on the single "Snitch." He also had crossover success in 2007 with Gwen Stefani on the collaborative song "The Sweet Escape," and later toured with Stefani to sold out crowds.
While Akon was becoming well-known in the United States, in Senegal where his heritage was embraced, he even more quickly became a major star. "I used to send my music to Africa and the radio stations would play it," Akon told Bottomley in 2005. "The radio stations played my whole album every day before the States had it. Now I'm so big down there I can't even get home from the airport. I had to have the military escort me to the house!"
At a Glance …
Born Aliaune Akon Thiam on April 30, 1973 (some sources say 1981), in St. Louis, MO; son of Mor (a percussionist) and Kiné (a dancer) Thiam; married; children: four sons, one daughter. Religion: Muslim.
Career: SRC/Universal Motown Records, recording artist, 2003—.
Awards: Favorite Male Soul/R&B Artist, American Music Awards, 2007; Breakout Artist—Male, Teen Choice Awards, 2007.
Addresses: Record company—Universal/SRC, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
Akon returned to Atlanta to record his second album, Konvicted, which was released in the fall of 2006. The title of the album was chosen for its dual meaning, pertaining both to his turbulent legal history and his personal convictions. Most of his sophomore album was recorded solo, with two collaborative tracks, "Smack That" with Eminem and "I Wanna Love You" with Snoop Dog. Akon's second album debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 music chart, and the album sold more than 285,000 copies in its first week. The single "Smack That" eventually rose to #2 in Billboard's hip-hop category and was nominated for a Grammy Award as best rap collaboration. Akon won a 2007 American Music Award for favorite soul/R&B singer and a Teen Choice Award for Breakout Male Artist. In November of 2007 Akon achieved a personal career goal when he recorded with R&B legend Michael Jackson, producing a new version of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" for the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Jackson's Thriller album.
Expanded Role in Music Business
With his career as a recording artist established, Akon sought success in related business endeavors, including launching a record company and issuing branded merchandise through his own clothing label. His recording labels, Konvict Muzik and Kon Live Records, are associated with Geffen Records. "This is a great opportunity for me to invest in what I'm good at," Akon explained to Gail Mitchell in Billboard in 2007. "I wouldn't want to be an artist forever. I want to graduate altogether and become strictly an executive. So, I'm taking the steps now." In 2006 Akon began developing the Konvict Clothing line, which he planned to distribute online and through major department stores. He also established the Konfidence Foundation, a charity for African children that raised money through promoting concerts in Africa with well-known American artists.
While Akon became an internationally popular recording artist, his behavior also became the subject of controversy. During a concert in Trinidad in April of 2007, Akon was filmed performing a sexually explicit dance with an underage girl, and the resulting controversy convinced Verizon to withdraw its support from the Akon/Gwen Stefani tour. Akon apologized for the incident to the media, claiming that he was unaware that the fan was a minor as the venue had a stated policy of limiting admittance to those aged eighteen or older. At a subsequent concert in Fishkill, New York, Akon allegedly threw a fan from the stage, resulting in injury to an audience member who later sued him in the local court.
Akon keeps some details of his personal life private, and this has led to rumor and controversy surrounding his marital status. In an interview with Blender in September of 2007, Akon revealed that he is married and has fathered five children with three different women. His wife is reportedly named "Latrice," though Akon has refused to confirm the details of his marriage. Other sources have reported that Akon, a Muslim, practices polygamy and has three different wives, even though it is illegal in the United States.
In 2008 Akon was working on the release of his third album and was also involved in the production of a feature film loosely based on his life. His transformation from independent singer to multimillion-dollar entrepreneur happened in less than four years, and his career still appeared to be on the rise. When asked by an interviewer on MSN.com in October of 2007 what his fans could expect in the future, Akon responded, "Just expect the unexpected…. The fans can definitely know that I'm [gonna] always come a whole new way of how they saw me last. And that's always been my goal—to kind of surprise them and come from a blindside angle because that's how you keep the excitement going about you…. You always want to do something they would never expect you to do, and then when you do it, you do it well."
Trouble, Universal/Motown, 2004.
Konvicted, Universal/Motown, 2006.
Blender, September 2007.
Entertainment Weekly, August 13, 2004, p. 86.
New York Times, July 14, 2004; November 13, 2006; May 22, 2007.
Rolling Stone, November 2006.
Bottomley, C., "Akon: Trouble No More," VH1.com, May 2, 2005, http://www.vh1.com/artists/interview/1501105/05022005/akon.jhtml (accessed March 10, 2008).
Henley, Tara, "Konvict at Large," Straight.com, June 7, 2007, http://www.straight.com/article-94198/konvict-at-large (accessed May 5, 2008).
"Interview with Akon," MSN Video, 2007, http://video.msn.com/ (accessed May 6, 2008).
Konfidence Foundation, http://konfidence.org (accessed March 10, 2008).
Mitchell, Gail, "The Akon Empire," Billboard.com, October 3, 2007, http://www.billboard.com/bbcom/search/google/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003650500 (accessed March 10, 2008).
Official Akon Web Site, http://www.akononline.com (accessed March 10, 2008).
Turner, Mariele V., "Akon—Artist Interview," Rap Station, http://rapstation.com/files/archives/archive.php3?id=324502&title=archive%20-%20Inside%20the%20Rhyme%20-%20Artist%20Interview%20-%20Akon (accessed March 10, 2008).
—Micah L. Issitt
Singer, songwriter, producer
Urban R&B singer and producer Akon was born in Senegal, and raised in New Jersey, and has proven to be one of the most interesting and unique new voices in contemporary popular music. After his debut album, Trouble, was released in 2004, Akon worked with some of the best names in hip-hop, rap and pop music, including Eminem, R. Kelly, Gwen Stefani, Young Jeezy, and Obie Trice. With two multi-platinum solo records and a bevy of featured production and vocal spots on tracks for other artists, Akon reached worldwide success with his unique music that mixed styles of everything from hip-hop and R&B to reggae and pop. "He's got a voice that cuts through the noise: a smooth, slightly nasal instrument that's one part reggae rootsman, one part Muslim call to prayer, one part R. Kelly," wrote Rolling Stone's Peter Relic.
Akon was born Aliaune Thiam in 1981 in Dakar, Senegal. After just five years Akon and his family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey. Raised by his parents (his father, Mor Thiam, was an accomplished jazz musician), Akon grew up immersed in a musical household. In his teens Akon discovered hip-hop and rap and also encountered the uglier side of life in Jersey City, with its violence and crime. Music was the one constant in his life. "I grew-up listening to all kinds of music. Obviously I love soul songs, but I also like mixing in other types of music," Akon stated on his website. "For every Stevie Wonder track I've listened to, there is another by Steely Dan that helped shape me as an artist."
After getting kicked out of high school, Akon relocated to Atlanta, Georgia. Just as he had done in New Jersey, Akon continued to steal cars and sell them for profit. The aspiring singer ran out of luck one day after stealing a BMW and ended up in an Atlanta jail, where he served three years for grand theft auto. Upon his release, Akon began to focus on writing and recording songs. "Being a convicted felon," he told Entertainment Weekly, "I couldn't really get a job, so making music was the best [option]." Shopping around to record labels with a set of home-recorded R&B demos, in 2003 Akon secured a record deal with SRC/Universal Motown.
With a collection of songs that mixed urban R&B vocals, hip-hop beats, touches of reggae, and pop standards, Akon's debut album shaped up as an eclectic and hard-to-categorize record. On top of everything was Akon's attention-grabbing voice. In 2004 Akon released his debut album, Trouble, which All Music Guide's Johnny Loftus called "an interesting hybrid of Akon's raps and silky, West African-styled vocals with East Coast- and Southern-styled beats." Universal released two very different singles, the Top Ten hip-hop-styled track "Locked Up" and the crossover pop hit "Lonely." The hip-hop/rap market got hooked with "Locked Up," a tune that recounted Akon's time in jail. The noteworthy single "Lonely" was a hit in the pop market as well as in hip-hop/R&B. Much like Akon himself, "Lonely" was a unique mélange of styles. Akon melodically sung over a sample of 1960s crooner Bobby Vinton's memorable song "Mr. Lonely." But while Trouble's album sales were moderately successful, Akon wasn't yet a star. Since neither Akon nor his music could be pigeonholed, his career and subsequent success accelerated gradually. Few even knew that Akon was a talented producer until his profile exploded when he appeared on rapper Young Jeezy's immense 2005 hit "Soul Survivor."
With support from the hip-hop, R&B, and pop markets, Akon became an in-demand producer and guest vocalist. Artists of all genres sought to secure his production skills and vocals for their latest singles. "I think it's the distinct sound that I bring to the table. People want something different in music," Akon told Urban Connectionz. In addition to the Young Jeezy single, Akon worked on the Obie Trice single "Snitch," a remix of India.Arie's "I Am Not My Hair" and Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape" from her second solo album of the same name.
When it came time for Akon to get back to his own music, he settled in to record his sophomore album at his own Koncast Studios in Atlanta. Cautious not to feature too many special guests on his second record, Akon worked with Eminem for his new single "Smack That," and with Snoop Dogg for "I Wanna Love You." With these two smash success singles to support it, in November of 2006 Akon's new record Konvicted debuted at number two on the Billboard charts; the record sold more than 263,000 copies in its first week. "The new album finds the artist on the rebirth trail, but this time, more of his knack for fusing R&B/soul, hip-hop, pop, jazz, and reggae is exposed," wrote Billboard's Gail Mitchell. While it's easy to assume the album's title, Konvicted, had something to do with Akon's past legal troubles, the singer told Vibe that it had more to do with personal convictions. "I always felt like I was being convicted in some way. It was the hip-hop world that accepted me so I kept getting labeled as a rap artist. Then I got labeled a reggae artist. I have a lot of political ties with Africa, so some people thought I was a politician. People naturally assumed me to be a certain thing. It was never really let out who Akon really is."
Akon's collaboration with Eminem on Konvicted's "Smack That" earned the pair a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, and by the start of 2007 Akon's solo material was appearing all over hip-hop radio stations, and his work with Stefani's "The Sweet Escape" was on the pop stations. Akon's career appears to have no boundaries. Like many contemporary pop artists, Akon has tried to spread his talent to other aspects of the industry, starting with the launch of his record label and clothing line. His Konvict Music, distributed by Interscope, planned to release a debut album by former TLC member Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas.
Trouble, Universal, 2004.
Konvicted, Universal, 2006.
For the Record …
Born Aliaune Thiam in 1981, in Dakar, Senegal; son of Mor Thiam (a jazz musician); moved to Jersey City, NJ, 1988.
Released debut album, Trouble, SRC/Universal, 2004; released Konvicted, 2006.
Addresses: Record company—Universal/SRC, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404. Website—Akon Official Website: http://www.akononline.com.
Billboard, November 18, 2006.
Entertainment Weekly, August 13, 2004, p. 86.
"Akon," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 1, 2007).
Akon Official Website, http://www.akononline.com (February 1, 2007).
"Akon: A Whole New Trouble," Vibe,http://www.vibe.com/news/online_exclusives/2006/10/akon_a_whole_new_trouble/ (February 1, 2007).
"The Hook Man," Rolling Stone,http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/12310051/interview_akon_hiphips_preeminent_rb_singer_loves_fast_cars_phil_collins_polygamy (February 1, 2007).
Urban Connectionz,http://www.urbanconnectionz.com/Muzik/AkonKonvicted/Exclusive.html (February 1, 2006).