Born in the U.S. and raised in Senegal, Akon said he’s a businessman first and a musician second. He has taken his brand beyond his art and he’s taken it to Africa, according to an AlJazeera interview.
The “Smack That” singer owns a clothing line in New York City, a diamond mine in South Africa, and an African solar lighting company.
He was listed as the No. 1-selling artist in the world for ringtones by the Guinness Book of World Records. He is the first solo artist to hold both the No. 1 and No. 2 spots simultaneously on Billboard Hot 100 charts — twice.
The American rhythm and blues and hip hop recording artist, songwriter, and record producer was born in 1973 in St. Louis, Missouri, to Senegalese parents. He spent much of his childhood in Senegal without electricity, according to PSFK. His mother was a dancer, his father, a percussionist.
On the Ellen Degeneres Show and other interviews, he said that as a Muslim, he has never drunk alcohol or smoked. He spent three years in U.S. jails, he told AlJazeera, for “stealing cars and hustling.”
In 2011, Forbes ranked him fifth out of 40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa.
Artists often exclude the business side of their art, and they have other people run it for them, Akon said. Not him. “When I create musically, I figure out, ‘How can that music be maximized?'”
How does Akon answer people who ask if it’s all about making money?
“The stage that I’m at now I only want to get into business that’s going to help people,” he told AlJazeera. “I’m in a position where I’m gifted. I’m in a place where I’ve been offered opportunities where I can make a difference and change lives. So why not change lives and make money at the same time?
One of Akon’s Africa-focused ventures where he’s trying to change lives is Akon Lighting Africa. He claims the company has brought solar lighting to more than 1 million households in 14 African countries.
“We started with just creating solar energy for rural areas and homes, and now we’re doing solar streetlamps,” he said. “We’re putting solar in all the villages. And we’re actually creating a system where we are employing all the locals to be able to maintain it.”
When Akon first brought lighting to Africa, some people were suspicious, he told AlJazeera.
“Because they are like, ‘He is a music guy. What is he doing in energy?’ … But we came fully prepared with answers to every question, and we also came prepared to execute,” he said. “So we didn’t come into these countries with an idea. We put together a full team, full infrastructure. So from the moment we came in, we came in creating pilots. We didn’t even ask the country for any money. (We used) our own money in the beginning.”
Akon estimates that installing a pilot solar lighting program in each village cost $100,000 to $200,000.
In a 2007 interview with TheIndependent, Akon said he got a chance to buy a diamond mine in 2006 and did so. “Diamonds are always going to be selling, people are always going to get married, black people will always want to shine and bling-bling,” he said in the interview. “I always felt like if you get to a point where you’ve got enough money to invest in something real, you gotta invest in anything that’s related to a natural resource because that’s gonna be here forever — so you might as well invest in something that’s gonna be here, rather than invest in something that’s gonna wear out. I know for a fact that these are going to be selling forever.”
Akon speaks with an American accent and identifies as an African raised in America, “but my mind is not American,” he told AlJazeera, “It’s clearly African. I went to school in America. All my early childhood, I was raised in Africa. Then I came to America, and we would go back to Africa every summer for vacation. And then when I graduated high school, there was the choice of going back to Africa or stay in the U.S. And the opportunities in the U.S. were so much greater.”