On an October evening at Atlanta’s Embr Lounge, Akon is beaming with pride. You can’t quite see it on his face—the red and blue strobe lights oscillating the venue make him a difficult read—but you can certainly hear it in his voice. The 49-year-old superstar is holding court before family, friends, and industry tastemakers to showcase new music from Jahvor, his son and signee to Akon’s newly rebranded Konvict Kulture imprint (formerly Konvict Muzik).
“Every time we put out a record, we never skip this process,” Akon says while standing in the elevated DJ booth of the hookah lounge he launched in 2021. The curated room of about 60 people doubles as a focus group; each attendee has been given a clipboard, pen, and paper to leave feedback on which songs he or she feels are the standouts. Akon is confident in Jahvor’s talents (“He does things with his voice that I could never do,” he insists), but still receptive to outside opinions. He feels this tradition and open mindedness has been integral in his own career, which has seen 35 million albums sold worldwide and more than 35 Billboard Hot 100-charting earworms.
“I promise you, I never thought ‘Lonely’ was gonna be a strip club record,” Akon says with a laugh. “I went to Magic City, that s**t was poppin’! I ain’t realize how many strippers were as lonely as me!”
More than two decades deep into his life as an entertainer, Akon is learning to draw boundaries and prioritize family. What makes tonight so special is seeing those worlds overlap. He’s also savoring the spoils of his success, a mindset shift he delves into on his newest single, the Metro Boomin-produced “Enjoy That.” But even though he’s kept a lower profile over the past few years, Akon has no plans to cease dropping fire. His upcoming project, TikTok Freak, will soon be released via a first-of-its-kind collaboration with the eponymous social media platform. His Akonik album is set to follow, along with a 2023 tour. Additionally, Akon is embarking on filmmaking, with a focus on telling stories based on and set in the motherland. He’s got his own Akoin cryptocurrency to mine, and, yes, a Senegalese smart city to build. Not bad for the guy whose breakout record was about doing hard time.
How did Akon get here? He sat down with LEVEL to reflect on his journey, in his own words. —As told to John Kennedy
I was still in the streets when I had my first son. That changed my mindset from negative to positive. It also helped my luck. Once I started having kids, all the opportunities I would normally chase started coming to me. I literally saw my luck change. The moment you start having kids, God gon' bless you with things you never even expected. But you have to realize your responsibility towards your children, too.
When I got locked up, I was facing 75 years. They had phone taps, surveillance—it was no way I was getting out of that. But spiritually, Africa has these powers. To this day, I can't explain it. My mom came to visit me. I gave her a shirt with my sweat on it, and she took it to Africa. Days later, the judge dismissed the charges because somebody fumbled the evidence. If I didn't have 100 percent faith, that's the day it happened. Everything I do now is with God's permission.
You couldn't really speak openly about going through issues in the streets, so I wrote songs about it. That habit followed me in jail; I naturally wrote about getting locked up. And the rest is history.
In my earlier career, I got caught in a lot of controversy. That was just a lack of experience. I made a lot of mistakes because I allowed energies in my circle that didn't need to be there—people who either didn't have my best interest at heart, or were just as ignorant as I was because they've never been through it either.
Oftentimes when you're successful, you don't get a chance to enjoy it because you're in demand. The schedule is constantly filled up. You don't really have time to vacation or time for family and love life.
One day, I looked up and my son had already turned 21. I said, “Wait a minute! This much time flew by this fast?” Days are passing me by. What feels like days to other people is like seconds to me. Hopefully, I'll be a granddad soon so I can dump all that energy into my grandkids that I didn't get a chance to dump into my kids.
My first go-around, I had fun doing music, but my free time had to go towards doing business. I'm gonna take full advantage of it this time: have fun, visit places and stay for more than a day, taste the food, have conversations with people.
I love discovering new artists. I get a thrill out of turning zero into something big. I know how it was when I was coming up and looking for somebody to help me out. All I needed was a cosign, somebody to listen to my demo. I like to put myself in a position to expand somebody's career and set it up to win.
From the moment I set eyes on [T-Pain and Lady Gaga], I was like, that's a star. They were naturally gifted; it was just a matter of managing the talent. They had all this genius that was compressed. No one understood it enough to allow it to breathe. I was like, I know what they want you to do, but what do you want? Then we expanded on that.
I been a geek for a minute, I just camouflaged it. In the streets, niggas can't know you smart. [Laughs] This is why I was always ahead of everyone, from ringtones all the way down to blockchain and crypto. I'm deeply involved in a lot of the newest technologies. I was always trying to be ahead of technology so I wouldn't have to catch up. If you don't stay on top of it, you’ll be lost.
I was getting on a plane to go to Atlanta from Senegal, and I had to connect in Paris, but I forgot to change the local currency. I was like, That's no problem, I can change it when I get to France. Mind you, the French created Senegal’s money, but they would not convert it. At that moment, I realized we are still being duped. Our value is not being respected. That's why I created Akoin [cryptocurrency]. We have a wallet that we're going to launch at the top of the year that you can utilize in any African country. And Akoin can be exchanged to any fiat currency—including foreign countries.
I don't see myself dying with a whole bunch of money in my account. I just don't. I don't want to die a billionaire. That is the most selfish thing in the world, to have billions sitting in somebody's bank collecting interest when you got all these people out here suffering and needing help or support. I was always a giver. Even now, I give away more money than I actually make.
There's nothing left for me to buy that will make me feel whole. Now it's like, what do I do with all of this fortune and fame? That's when I started to realize my purpose.
I'm not walking this earth just to be singing and dancing. There's definitely a bigger role for me. When I started taking trips to Africa and seeing how people received me there—it was presidential. That's when I started putting my energy into helping Africa develop.
Now, my only goal is giving access or bringing value—wherever people need me.