An exclusive interview with international music superstar Akon.
Before Afrobeats’ global success began gaining notable momentum in the mid-2010s, few American superstars gave their co-signs to the mainstream Pop music coming out of Nigeria & Ghana. Leading this early wave of international support was R&B and Pop Grammy-nominated star Akon.
In the 2000s, Akon was a superstar in Nigeria with his music being one of the primary Western contents interacted with by Nigerian listeners many of whom still greatly favoured foreign content.
With his huge profile in Nigeria, it was a source of pride for Nigerians when the Senegalese-born superstar lent his talent to the Afrobeats ecosystem through his collaborations and partnerships.
After his memorable appearance on P-Square‘s megahit single ‘Chop Your Money’, Akon would go on to become one of Afrobeats’ most eager ambassadors. Having been part of the facilitators of Afrobeats’ earliest entries into the American mainstream, Akon would be no doubt filled with pride to see Nigerian mainstream Pop music enjoying global success, and it’s this pride that informs his decision to join the celebration through his latest Afro-centric project ‘Afro – Freak’.
In this exclusive Pulse interview, I spoke to the international megastar on his era-defiling success, contributions to Afrobeats’ early international push, making a full circle with his latest Afro-centric EP, and the misconstruing of his intentions towards Africa.
Akon is one of the American artists whose music had a huge followership in Nigeria in the 2000s. Even today, his music and the music from that era continue to be ever-green in the Nigerian market. I asked Akon if he was aware of the huge popularity of his music in Nigeria in the 2000s considering the low internet penetration at the time.
He tells me he always enjoyed love from Africa but he never grasped just how huge he was on the continent until he performed in a couple of countries.
“I kind of knew I was big in Africa and Nigeria has always been supportive of my music, but I didn’t properly understand just how big until I started performing in some countries.”
In 2011, Akon collaborated with Nigerian superstar duo P-Square for the remix of their hit single ‘Chop My Money’. It was a huge moment for Nigerian music as it introduced Afrobeats to a Western mainstream audience. Few years later, Akon would later collaborate with Wizkid, Davido while also signing the former to his Konvict Music Label. His contributions to Afrobeats’ early international foray have not enjoyed the appreciation it deserves, especially when we consider his role in facilitating collaborations between Nigerian and American stars such as T Pain & Rick Ross.
Akon saw the potential in Afrobeats very early before the rest of the West caught on and a huge part of this is because of his Senegalese heritage and the pride he takes in African talents.
“My goal was to expose the talent in Africa. I collaborated with African artists so people can use me to discover the talents in Nigeria”
Akon prides himself on his role in spotlighting the continent and he showcases his Senegalese heritage with pride. Before Afrobeats became a source of pride for Africans in the West, it wasn’t particularly cool to be Africans. According to different narrations by Nigerians who lived in the UK and the US in the early 2000s, Africans pretended to be Jamaicans since the success of Dancehall Music had given the Caribbeans an identity to be proud of. This situation of Africans pretending to be Jamaicans was even captured by Nigerian Entertainment Executive and Filmmaker Ayo Shonaiya in his documentary on the backstory of Afrobeats.
“Reggae and Dancehall music was doing so well that even Africans were pretending to be Jamaicans and those from the Francophone African countries will claim to be from Paris,” Akon tells me what the situation used to be.
Akon’s willingness to embrace his African identity distinguished him and his commercial success gave Africans something to be proud of.
“Everything I touched was going number 1,” Akon says about his commercial success and how it earned him a wider acceptance that made being African cool.
More than ever, it’s now a source of great pride to identify as Nigerian and African as Afrobeats’ global success through artists like Davido, Wizkid, Burna Boy, Rema, Tiwa Savage, Asake, Libianca, and Ayra Star, has provided the Nigerians with invaluable soft power and cultural currency. I asked Akon if he feels proud to have played an early role in opening the international doors for Afrobeats and he tells me he always knew the time was coming when the world would pay attention to African talents.
“To see African artists selling out stadiums across the world is so huge. To see that makes tears come down my eyes just knowing we worked so hard to get to that point.”
Over a decade since first interacting with Afrobeats, Akon is making a full circle to join the current global push of African music. His latest EP ‘Afro – Freak’ is an exploration of Afrobeats and South Africa’s Amapiano, and Akon tells me he intends to use the EP to further spotlight African music just as he did with his collaborations with P-Square, Wizkid, and Davido.
“Now that the world knows Afrobeats very well, how about we introduce them to Amapiano and show them there’s more to African music,” Akon shares about the inspiration behind his latest project.
With Afrobeats’ global push, the music is being exposed to significant Western input in terms of funding and structure. This has seen Nigerian superstars enjoy impressive international success which hasn’t really translated to growth for the Nigerian ecosystem. This situation has raised concerns of Afrobeats heading in the direction of Dancehall which used to be a widely commercial genre until the Western markets moved on to another sound and Dancehall left struggling due to a lack of local structure.
I asked Akon what advice he would give Nigerian artists and the local industry, to avoid going down the path of Dancehall. Akon believes what Afrobeats need to survive is to stick together. He tells me Dancehall suffered because of unhealthy competition among their stars which led to a destructive scramble for the throne and this is something Nigerian artists need to avoid.
“You can never be too big for the hometown,” Akon’s words resonate strongly, especially in the face of Nigerian artists increasingly snubbing local institutions due to their international success.
Akon cautions that once the stars begin to nurture the mindset that they are bigger than the local industry and act condescendingly towards the hometown, they begin to slowly lose their way, and Afrobeats as a whole will suffer.
Akon’s international success and his efforts in spotlighting Africa have made him a source of information for American Pop culture media platforms who need context around Africa and her culture. This has led to some criticism over what many people in his home country of Senegal and even across Africa consider to be his penchant for misrepresenting the continent.
I asked Akon if he thinks his intentions are sometimes misconstrued to be self-serving and if the criticisms bother him. He tells me it doesn’t bother him and he considers it the price he has to pay to bring the changes he desires just as anyone in history who attempted to make notable social changes.
Regarding social changes, Akon’s home country of Senegal is experiencing some political turmoil as the President Macky Sall who’s hoping to extend his tenure has been accused of victimising the lead opposition and popular candidate Ouseman Sonko. I asked Akon if he might one day consider taking his social crusade to the ballots. He tells me why he always insisted on not running for office, he’s having a rethink.
“You can only bring through change from a position of influence,” Akon shares his thoughts about the possibility of someday venturing into politics.
For the nearly 30 minutes of our conversation, Akon sounded lively and willing to go into extra details despite only just landing in Dubai a few minutes before the Zoom call. He tells me about his upcoming album which he describes as a fusion of the old and new Akon.
I assume he was in Dubai to put some finishing touches to the album he says is scheduled for release later in the year. Perhaps he would also headline a couple of shows in Dubai’s bubbling nightlife.
Almost 20 years after releasing his debut album, Akon continues to stay relevant. He tells me he has managed to stay thriving because he has contributed to the success of many artists. He also contributed to Afrobeats’ early international foray even if he might not get as much credit as he deserves for his efforts.