The up-and-comer speaks on women, crime and his muse

Raised partially in Senegal, Akon's family moved back to the United States when he was seven. His mother and father, master Senagalese percussionist Mor Thiam, settled on the East Coast, and it was there that much of the inspiration for Trouble originated. Add R&B with a hip-hop flavor, and you've got atmosphere reminiscent of the open-sore-rawness of an early Mary J. Blige.

I recently caught up with Akon and we talked about all the simple uncomplicated things... women, crime and the mystery surrounding his age.

So everybody wants to know, what kind of trouble have you gotten into? How did it go over with your parents?
They’re mad traditional. The thing was at the time I was living in Jersey they were in Atlanta. In Africa they make you go on your own at an early age like around 14 or 15. Me and my older brother had our own crib in New Jersey. We had the car, driving around with no license.

You were driving in New Jersey at the age of 15?
Was I! We didn’t know that though.

Get out!
We had the crib, we had the car.

How were you making a living?
They were supporting us. We were still in school, my older brother was watching me. He was like going on 18, about to graduate. For the last couple of years he was doing I was just running through highschool and ended up getting kicked out.

What for?
Selling guns out the locker.

So you were an entrepreneur.
I was outta control. Anything you needed, I had it. I mean anything. From candy, to bullets. I had test questions for every test. Everything you need I had you. You didn’t study you needed answers to the test I had you.

You are crazy…
Eventually they raided my locker and I was kicked out of highschool, which was in Jersey City and I couldn’t go to no school in the district so I had to do my last year in Bayonne Highscool, upstate.

How old are you?
Ummm… I’m pretty young. I’m under 25. I just don’t want to taint myself cuz when you taint yourself at a particular age that’s when the countdown begins as far as –

Right... you don’t wanna blow up your own spot.
I look mad young. I look younger than I am, way younger.

Do you have a lady in your life?
Not at the moment, nah not really.

Are you looking?
If it comes, it comes, but it’s not like a main focus. If you go looking for something you’re never gone find what you’re looking for. If it’s meant for you it’s gonna find you.

With the album have a lot of ladies been stepping to you?
Oh yeah. It’s crazy.

Oh, it’s like that?
I’m weeding them out. People would normally like it, but I hate the fact that I gotta let them down. I don’t like to disappoint people.

So what are you interested in?
I’m looking for someone who’s not trying to compete against me. I’m looking for a woman that’s willing to be a woman. Let me do the manly things, she do the female-y things. Her 50 part, I do my 50 part and keep moving. I know it’s like today a lot of women like to compete against guys. Like they feel like “I can do it myself I don’t need no man.” I don’t like that attitude.

You think that’s an American thing? Or a Black woman thing?
An American thing! In Africa, women don’t do that. In Africa men are treated differently there. Here is like there’s really no difference between a man and a woman besides sex. Like women do everything men are doing so after a while men start treating the women like men. Women will start realizing why men don’t treat them like ladies. Men are looking at them like you’re trying to be like me. Femininity is all out the window. The sweetness, the love aspect of it, the emotional part of the woman is gone because she walks around with her guard up.

You’ve been meeting the wrong women. When you hook up, will it be with an African sister?
I think it could be any nationality. It’s just a matter of bumping into ‘em. I know that here in the States its hard to bump into them right away because they all been tainted a certain way. They all look at men in a certain way. Not saying that it’s their fault, cuz here in the States guys do a lot of things to make women treat them the way they treat them too. Naturally when they see me, they assume I’m like everybody else.

Enough of the romantic stuff. What kind of instruments do you play?
Pretty much everything.

Like what?
I’m a studio musician. You get me in the studio I can play an accordion. 4 bars and loop it back. Percussion is my main field.

Cuz your dad’s a drummer.
I grew up with it. Any kind of drum you put in front of me, I don’t care what kind I can bang it out.

Any plans to work with your father?
Yeah, in the future definitely I’ll probably do some records with pop. But like actually when I was doing these records, it wasn’t like choreographed or put together an album or anything. I was doing records for my own personal use. Like I’d go through something and write about it. Anything significant that might happen on that particular day and I need to vent, my way of venting was actually recording about it.

What made you decide to take it to the another level and put an album together?
I have so many records put away now, it was just a matter of picking 13 songs and selling it. It was all these songs that were done, like 150 songs pretty much complete before I signed the deal. That situation came to me. It was like a choice. The music got to the man who could actually put you in a situation where you can make a lot of money, but people would know your whole life story.

That was what you wanted all along?
That’s what I didn’t want. I didn’t really care about the masses. It’s something that I did for my own satisfaction. I don’t drink, I don’t get high. It’s like my way of saying this is me.

Now that Trouble is out, where do you see yourself as an artist in 2005?
I can see myself more as an artist now because I can see what the music done did for people. I feel like now I went through it and I actually shared something I went through with people and it touched so many people. ”Locked Up” touched so many people. People been locked up or they got someone locked up now. It hit me. Reality hit like yo 85% of every family in the United States got somebody locked up or they been locked up before. Basically if I went through it there’s a million other people that went through the same thing. It made everything easier for me. It gave me the knowing that I could continue to do what I do and people will accept it because they’re probably going through the same thing I’m going through.

Who inspires you?
I grew up listening to everything outside hip-hop. Hip-hop came later in my life. I grew up listening to Black Uhuru, Bob Marley, Tracy Chapman, the names just keep going. From Creed to Hootie and the Blowfish to 3 Doors Down to Guns and Roses, you name it. When you look at my closet of music you’re gonna find a little something of everything. You barely might find any rap. Only rap CD you might find is Fugees, 2Pac and Biggie.

When I first heard your voice it reminded me of this cat named Ini Kamoze.
Ini Kamoze, that’s my man right there.

I’m not talking "Hot Stepper,” I’m talking the stuff he did before that.
Yeah, the earlier stuff. That “Hot Stepper” he just fell off… but the stuff before that? (exhale)

Yeah that first album he did… Shocking Out, one of my favorite of all times.

So with all this music under your belt, how old were you when hip-hop actually got your attention?
It got my attention when I got into highschool. Actually. That’s when all the havoc started. Cuz a lot of the stuff I was doing, like I was fighting through grammar school just to aaccepted. So when I got to highschool I was pretty much respected for being a fighter. Any kind of beef or anything happen they’d come get me. So what comes with that, the people you hang with, you hang out with a whole bunch of ghetto cats, a whole bunch of thugs, through that you start to learn a whole bunch of things. The main thing I picked up was stealing cars. That was my bread and butter for a minute. I was selling Lamborghinis, Porsches, Benzes…

This is real stuff. Not some sort of marketing thing the people came up with?
Yeah this is real.

Cuz you express yourself so intelligently. When did all the craziness end?
After getting into so much shit and then you grow up. It’s really growing up. And then when you do something for so long, the excitement is gone. What took the excitement out of it was when I got locked up. That’s what really what got me straight.

How long?
Year and a half. Waiting to go on trial.

I was pretty young.

Come on! 15…?
18. I had just moved to Atlanta. I brought the hustle to Atlanta. Atlanta was crazy cuz it was the south. A lot of the stuff we were doing in New York they weren’t even up on it. You can’t get nothing past them in Atlanta now.

The industry’s giving you a lot of love right now. How’s it feel ?
It feels real good. In the beginning support wasn’t there. I almost had to grind myself to prove to them that this is something they need to get behind. Like normally when you come in as a new artists they look at you like ok you’re a new artist. They don’t take the time to listen to the music, pay attention to the lyrics. We had a rough time in the beginning. Like I had to get a staff together. And we had to get on the road, do promos, meet djs ourselves, get to know them, let them know what we’re doing, set them down, take them out, make them listen to the music. I feel like if we get the streets first, we’re pretty much good. Cuz radio didn’t want to play it. They feel like the lyrics were too blunt, it was too hard. The topic was something new to them and they were afraid of it. So when the streets naturally just gravitated and accepted it, it forced the radio to pick it up.


AKON – Artist Interview

By Marielle V. Turner

Marielle: How did you choose your name?
AKON: It’s not a significant made-up name. AKON is actually a middle name of mine.
Marielle: Well what’s your whole name then?
AKON: Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam.
Marielle: Wow that’s a mouthful. Could you spell that?
AKON: I’ll write it down for you.
Marielle: Thank you.

My apologies to AKON if I didn’t read it correctly. He asked me to just write down Aliaune Akon Thiam for short – I just had to have y’all see the whole thing.
Marielle: I went to TowerRecords.com to listen to the snippets they have of your CD. I notice you quote Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.” There’s also a song called “Lonely.” Who is the original song by?
AKON: That would be Bobby Vinton. You don’t know nothin’ about that huh?

Marielle: I was just thinking, “This song sounds familiar.” This is some serious cross-over material though I know you ain’t tryin’ to do that.
If you look at most Black Americans, we don’t know where we’re from originally. Being from Africa –
Senegal, what’s it like to know exactly where you’re from, then to move here to grow up with Black Americans?
AKON: I was blessed to see both sides. Here, you only see one side of life, until you take the time to go back home and see where you’re from.

Marielle: Well like Eddie Griffin said, “We can’t just show up and say, ‘Take me to Shamboogoo’s house.’” We’re not from there.
AKON: You can actually just show up. You really can. People don’t know what to expect when they get there. It’s the same distance from here to Senegal as it is from here to L.A.
I really wanted him to understand that we can’t just show up and find family in Senegal or any other place in Africa. I guess I gotta have the hook up through him somehow to get the home treatment -- hint, hint. Otherwise, it’s like going anywhere else to visit, I’m so sure.

Marielle: A lot of Black Americans think that Africans don’t like us. Like they’re mad at us for being allowed to grow up here. Well, we are descendants of the ones who happened to survive that long-ass boat ride. So growing up with Black Americans, what was your perspective? Tell me about your friendships, relationships with women, whatever.
AKON: I personally can’t speak for other Africans. I didn’t have that experience. As a kid, growin’ up, I can’t front, it was hard. I was just coming in from Africa. I was mad black. Dark skin wasn’t in style. My accent was crazy. I was getting teased and fighting, but you know, kids are gonna be kids anyway. But they didn’t give me the impression that I didn’t get along with them. I ended up making crazy friends once they got to know me. I just think it’s a lack of understanding. People stereotype you before they get to know you as a person. So, naturally, Black people think that Africans don’t like them, and it’s never been like that. If you’re American and you go to Africa, you get treated better than most Africans. I don’t know why or what their motivation is. Maybe they want your money. I don’t know. But they’ll treat you very well as an African-American. Once they make it to the states, that’s probably something different. They might treat you a certain way since they get treated a certain way. You never know what drives people to react and treat people the way they do. It could also have a lot to do with the fact that they don’t teach African history here.

Marielle: I know. Unless you studied African history on your own, you didn’t really know about how we got here from Africa until you saw Roots.
AKON: And if you use Roots as an example, that’s no good. Until you take the time to go research yourself, you won’t know anything and there’s always gonna be that gap and misunderstanding between Africans and African-Americans.

Marielle: What about your relationships with women here? Have you had any?
AKON: All of my relationships with women here have been great. I’ve had no problems. The only thing I’ve had to adjust with here–women don’t listen. Women got their own mind. They do what they want and when they want to. In Africa, it’s totally different. Women will listen to you and do what you say. Women compete against men here. That’s something I had to get used to.

Marielle: How old are you?
AKON: I just don’t advertise my age because in this industry you are as young as you sound. Other than that I’d be glad to tell you how old I am. Once you let people know your age in this business, that’s when the countdown begins. Matter of fact, they’ll put your deadline on blast for you. I don’t wanna be in that box so I don’t advertise it, period.

Marielle: A very strong Hip-Hop influence is evident in your style. Your bio says this was the case in your life as well. You collaborated with several Hip-Hop artists on this project. Tell me more.
AKON: Yeah, Daddy T. and Picklehead, a group called Grady Bakers (sorry if I got this wrong) out of West Atlanta, and Styles P from The Lox out of Yonkers. Grady Bakers are signed to my production company. They’re fresh out of prison as well. I have a company called Convict Music. We’re rehabilitating a lot of prisoners who are trying to come out and change for the better. When you come out of prison and they find out you’re a convicted felon you can’t get a decent job. A lot of times people want to change but they can’t cause society won’t let them do it. What they end up doing is what got them into prison in the first place in order to survive. So we started Convict Music for a lot of kids that come out. I saw a lot of talented brothers when I was in there, and thought they would be huge if they came out and got on. So we’re not dealing with knuckleheads, we’re dealing with cats who want to come out and change. As far as Styles P, when we were getting ready to put out “Locked Up” it was ironic that he was locked up and just getting out of jail. This record came out of my real life experience and is personal to me. I wasn’t trying to just put a big name on it so it would sell. All of the songs are written in diary form because I made them for my own personal listening. So I heard that he liked the record and wanted to be on it. I thought that it would be good to look at the situation from a Hip-Hop standpoint as well as an R&B standpoint. Had he not gotten locked up, he probably would not have been on this record.

Marielle: I hear a serious Reggae influence on your sound, and was reminded of Bob Marley a lot because your voice sounds a lot like his. Is there any Reggae influence in your opinion?
AKON: There’s as much Reggae influence as Hip-Hop. I wanted to have the whole record sound like something I wanted to hear. So there’s different types of music on there.

Marielle: So do you consider this Street R&B?
AKON: You can call it Street R&B if you want to. It’s really all reality music. This is stuff I actually grew up dealing with. I don’t like to do songs all about relationships and love. That’s for other people to do. I pretty much like to sing about things I see. I think music has more substance when you talk about the truth.


Interview to Akon

Interview by Theresa C

TOTP: OK, first item on our list. The walkman. Too old for old skool?
Akon: No a walkman is still new school. It's just the ones with the tape decks that are too old! I used to have one, but I don't even remember what I used to listen to on it, it's been so long.

TOTP: Do you have an iPod?
Akon: Yes! Now that's new school! Man, I've got everybody. From Eminem to 50 Cent to myself...who else I got on there? I got, uh, Mary J Blige on there. I got Maroon 5 on there, Bob Marley, Lauren Hill, who else...uh...man, there's just so many!

TOTP: So is old skool better in this instance?
Akon: Technology-wise, I would definitely go new school, music-wise I would probably put more old skool stuff on there though.

TOTP: OK, so what about those old-style Run DMC beatboxes...
Akon: Ah! Them boomboxes!

TOTP: Well, do you prefer a boombox, or do you prefer a new stereo with surround sound and all that stuff?
Akon: That's a tough question! Honestly? The boomboxes sound better though. Those are still rough, still rough and grimy sounding. I think I would definitely go for the boombox, yeah.

TOTP: And what was the coolest mode of transport in your neck of the woods? BMX? Skateboard? Roller-skates?
Akon: Me, I was more of a BMX rider. Scraped my knees so many times in the old days. Knees and elbows. I never broke any bones, I was lucky.

TOTP: OK, so now to fashion. did you have any massive fashion faux-pas?
Akon: Woowww. Everybody had them Hammer pants. I had 'em myself. I wore 'em to school. I ain't even gonna front! Everybody!

TOTP: Ever worn anything you've really regretted?
Akon: Them Hammer pants! Cos I had them in EVERY colour to match EVERY pair of Jordans. Man them Hammers pants had Jersey City on lock. EVERYBODY had them Hammer pants on!

TOTP: So, bringing you up to date. What about the P Diddy white suit? Would we ever catch you wearing one?
Akon: Yeah, you'd catch me wearing suits the whole time. Just not when I'm in my artist mode. Probably when I'm in my executive mode, coming out of a building or something, you'd catch me in a suit.

TOTP: What about to an awards ceremony?
Akon: For that you could catch me in either or. That's depending on how I'm feeling that day.

TOTP: OK, are they old skool or new school?
Akon: Those, those don't play out. That could be any school. Suits don't ever play out.

TOTP: Now let's talk about your feet. What's your favourite trainers at the moment?
Akon: Adidas. You see this? [shows impressive trainers] Adidas and Pumas.

TOTP: How about those original Air Jordans? Are they old skool?
Akon: I like Jordans. That's for when I'm on the court. If it was just for regular wear, it'd be old skool. Y'know, shell-toes, or Pumas or something like that.

TOTP: So, now to old skool accessories. Did Flavor Flav ever inspire you to wear a massive clock around your neck?
Akon: FLAVOR FLAAAAV! No, he never inspired me to do that. I like how he did it though. He wore that better than anybody. Flav knew what time it was!

TOTP: Do you think the clock should make a return?
Akon: Definitely. That's Flav, Flav ain't the same without the clock. Y'know what I mean? You could just get a smaller clock. Either that or get him a new wristwatch, he'd be alright. But he need that time.

TOTP: And finally the hair. Are 'Soul Glo' hairstyles old skool, or just old?
Akon: OLD. They just old.

TOTP: Would we ever catch you...?

TOTP: C'mon, never say never...
Akon: Nah, man. You might catch me in a movie with a wig, pretending to be from the '70s. But not in real life.

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