By Reshma B
Fifteen years after the release of his debut album Trouble, Akon feels like he’s just getting started. The multi-platinum Grammy-nominated artist has collaborated with The Fugees, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem, produced for Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, and spotted talents like Lady Gaga and T-Pain before most of the music industry had a clue. Long a champion of African, Caribbean, and Latin music, he encountered some resistance to his global vision. But with streaming technology changing the game, he’s been able to liberate his creativity from the restrictions of radio formats. Akon recently announced a new venture called Akonic Label Group with four divisions that speak to four disparate genres: Latin Music (El Negreeto), Afrobeats (Akonda), Mainstream/Rap (Konnect/The Konnection) and Reggae (Jamakon). During a recent visit to TIDAL HQ, Akon spoke about his new venture and the power of music to bring the world together.
You’ve created records with multiple artists across four different genres. This is a huge body of work.
This is probably considered a very big project to the ordinary person. For me, it’s actually going to get bigger.
So what was your reason for taking on such an ambitious project?
The whole purpose of the Akonic Label Group is to be able to put music out in every genre and every territory, with people that speak multiple languages. I’ll always be a global artist. I always felt like every album limited my potential reach because it always created a specific sound for that specific time. As I’m traveling, I’m realizing that this type of music may not quite work in this region, or this kind of music may not relate to these kinds of people.
Back in 2010, I wanted to put out the Stadium project, which was supposed to consist of five albums—a hip-hop album, a reggae album, an R&B album, a pop album, and a dance music album. Clearly they thought I was crazy. There’s no way you can do all that! Five albums at the same time? To me, it was a no-brainer. I’ve had hits in every single one of these genres anyway. But because of the way the format was set up and how the music business pushed music out, they just couldn’t see it.
I waited it out, let the technology mature a bit. It went from radio to streaming. That’s when I realized this was the perfect time to do it. Dance music has changed a lot. It’s more electronic now and I don’t really see myself doing an electronic album. So those five albums drifted down to four albums. This is the music that I love, that I want to be a part of. As a way of building my legacy, I created the infrastructure to support that. Not only will I be able to use it for myself to put out records in any genre I want, but also artists that I’m signing from all different parts of the world can also have a platform to push their music and follow their dreams. That’s why Akonic Label Group was created.
To launch that label group I’m putting out a reggae album, a hip-hop and R&B album, an Afrobeats album, and a Latin album. There’s no way anyone can tell me I can’t put out those kinds of records at the exact same time, because radio doesn’t exist in the way it was when I was coming up. Now, it’s about DSPs and playlists. Each genre has its own playlist—reggae, Latin, hip-hop, pop—and it’s on demand. Now you give the consumer the opportunity to search and play whatever they want, at the moment they want to play it. Now the fans are deciding what they want to hear. They search that genre, choose that playlist—or create their own playlist, for that matter. The timing is so perfect. I can create my dream strategy of how I want to release music.
You have been merging African music and hip-hop since you first came out. Why do you think Afrobeats is having such a moment right now?
The reason why Afrobeat is being recognized is because now we actually have the platforms that give listeners the option. When I was trying to expose Afrobeat to the world in 2008, I was like, “Yo, this could be the next big thing.” But we didn’t have the platforms. We were all conditioned for the genres that we grew up on. The music of Afrobeat just stayed in Africa, or it trickled into the diaspora in Europe, and maybe two or three trickles in the U.S. or Canada.
I had stars signed to me at that time that no one even knew were big stars, but they would perform in stadiums in Africa. Like Wizkid, Davido, and P-Square. I’m trying to explain to the labels in America, “Yo, listen. I got the hottest five acts in Africa. We need to move on this. This could be huge!” And they’re like, “Is that reggae?” I’m like, “No, it’s Afropop.”
A lot of people call it Afrobeats.
It’s not quite Afrobeat. What you’re really hearing now is Afropop. Afrobeat is a genre Fela created from a certain political and cultural standpoint. It was a lifestyle that came with Afrobeat, but the younger generation did it in a more swaggy way. When you go back and listen to Fela, that’s all traditional drums, voices, instruments—nothing electronic about it. That’s Afrobeat.
That’s the foundation of the culture.
When you look at the evolution of hip-hop, it was straight scratch and breakbeat basslines, simple one, two, three nursery rhymes. But then the next generation started adding instruments to it, adding keyboards and making it very musical. Everybody translated it and hip-hop grew to become a genre you can’t even control. And that’s what’s happening with Afrobeat. It will turn into something even crazier. Now we’re even creating a concept of Afroton, where I’m mixing Afrobeat with reggaeton, and connecting those cultures. When you look at Latin America and you look at Africa, we have the same culture. When you look at salsa, merengue, and bachata, it’s all the same. It’s just different language.
How did you become interested in Latin music?
I’ve been engulfed in Latin music since the beginning. To me it was always one because we had the same struggle. I was raised by Puerto Ricans in New Jersey. That’s my family. People think I’m just popping into it, but the Latin community will tell you how engulfed I was in it. All the way back to “Locked Up,” the first remix was with Voltio, out of Puerto Rico. People forgot that. Then out came, “I Want to Love You,” and I put Tego Calderon on that remix. And from there, having a hand in Wisin & Yandel. You can hear the similarity to Ozuna. He’s like the new Latin Akon right now. You know what I mean? So, the influence is so heavy. People don’t really know how intertwined I am with Latin music.
You also went to Jamaica in 2003 and did dancehall music. You got on Dave Kelly’s “Fiesta” riddim and did a song called “Gunshot.”
[Laughs] It’s funny because even someone like Dave Kelly was following my career. Back when dancehall was the thing in Brooklyn and Jersey, I was a young kid doing dubplates. I’m doing dubs for everybody. This was before I even got into the hip-hop side of it. My family tree dates all the way to being a part of The Fugees, a lot of people don’t know that about me. They have no idea the history that led to what you’re hearing today. They thought “Locked Up” was my first single. When I threw out that single, people had no idea of my history of songwriting and production, from The Score album to Busta Rhymes.
All that experience is being unveiled. You’re going to roll out a Caribbean label too, right?
Absolutely. For my Caribbean album, I really want it to be traditional. I want that Studio One sound, that one drop beat. I always said if I do this, I would do it for the culture, just to embrace what’s real. I’m going to have multiple collaborations. I got the legends, and I got the young generation legends. I think that right there will shut Jamaica down.
Are you working on the production side of it also?
Me and Salaam Remi, we’ve been working on that. Salaam is a guy who will grab a plate off the coffee table and create an instrument out of that. He understands culture. We both breathe reggae. And we never had the chance to really get it off. So we were like, “You know, let’s come together and get this one off.”
The whole idea is to be able to put records out in different genres, as I feel it. I don’t want to be pigeonholed to when I can put a record out or I can’t move this way because I’ve got to negotiate with the label. This is one of the reasons why I went through the process of getting myself clear from everything. Finally I can do it the way I want to do it. For me it’s about fun. It’s not about the money anymore.
Congratulations on this move that you’re making. It’s crazy how relaxed you seem about the whole thing.
For me, it’s going to be easy. I already got terabytes of drives of songs. I have over 1200, 1500 songs ready to go. God forbid, if something happened to me today, they’d definitely be releasing music from me for the next 25-30 years. This I know for sure. I’m filthy rich when it comes to content. I’ve got more than enough to keep pushing it out. My biggest challenge was finding a platform that I can successfully do it. I just didn’t understand how the establishments didn’t understand the concept and it’s hard to move in a certain direction when you’re not seeing eye to eye with the distributors. You have to be able to create a proof of concept so they can understand, because this is also going to help them create new sources of revenue and new ways to push music out.
If you open a creative person’s mind, you don’t know what you’re going to get. When I saw Lady Gaga, when I first heard her demo, it was jazz. A lot of people don’t know that Gaga’s a classical pianist. She’s fucking brilliant. Me knowing how creative she could become, you have to allow her to say, “I want to do this.” And we figured out a way to help her do that. Had we closed it into that box of just being jazz or classical, still might be undiscovered today. She’s just a ball of creativity. You have to allow that to be what it is and give it the freedom and push it out.
You’ve worked in this industry for years now. I’m sure you know there’s only a handful of people who understand that.
You’ve got to let a creative person create. Steve Rifkind, prime example, when he first signed me over to SRC, he says, “Bro, I don’t know what to do with you. All I could do is give you a platform and I’m going to fucking fight for you every single day. I don’t care. I don’t have much money but I’ve got a lot of fight.”
And I said, “You know what? I prefer the fight because the fight will get us to the money.” And he believed. If you don’t value creativity, you’re in the wrong business. Believe me, when you’re creative, you’re going to find the money—creatively.
There is a saying that when you have a really good idea you have to bash it into people’s heads.
It’s so true.
I guess it’s people like you who, over the years, have bashed it in.
Still bashing. [Laughs] The bash don’t stop. You’ve got to break through the door, and then they’re like, “Oh my God! We apologize for keeping the door locked so long.”
Photo credit: Cat Harper