Akon hasn’t done it all. But you get the distinct feeling he’s on the right path.
The five-time Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter, producer, actor, and philanthropist is the archetype of the Renaissance Man. Everything he touches seems to turn to gold — or platinum. And in his latest incarnation, as the Akoin crypto-evangelist looking to create an entire city in Senegal as a model for African financial empowerment, he is taking on the biggest challenge of his life.
The Senegalese-American artist has found enormous success in his musical career, selling more than 35 million albums worldwide. The smash single “Locked Up,” released in 2003 on his debut album Trouble, has made a comeback during the current global lockdown experience.
Akon has collaborated with many of the biggest names in the history of music, including icons like Michael Jackson, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Lady GaGa. His phenomenal success in the music industry has acted as a springboard to other ventures, expanding his influence to philanthropy, social action, and crypto-entrepreneurship on a grand scale.
We are givers, first and foremost
Akon reflects on his family’s influence in helping him find his calling, describing his upbringing as the main factor in the development of his character. “My parents were always very giving people.” Giving, he says, “is something that people do every week automatically.”
“Even in our everyday normal lives, we’re just givers. We just don’t know how to not give.” He says this generosity stems back to the common struggle of growing up in an impoverished environment.
“When you grow under a specific type of struggle and you know what that feels like, you just don’t want others to feel that. You don’t want others to go through that process.”
This has motivated Akon to respond proactively. “If you’re in a position where you can dilute a lot of the struggle from people, I think it’s just something you naturally take on; a responsibility for them.”
Akon credits his spirituality as the greatest driving force in the roles he has chosen in life. “My dad always made sure we kept God first in everything that we did.” His grandparents instilled this priority in the family, he says. “Living in Senegal, a very spiritual country, we’re surrounded by our spirituality every single day.” God’s blessing, he explains, has allowed him to be in a position to have a great impact. “I always try to put God first in everything that I’m doing.”
Akon is optimistic about how he can change the future for the better, but he wasn’t always so confident. “Early in my life, this is something I thought could never be possible. I never thought that big.” When he became an artist and began traveling the world, he explains that he began to see the impact he could have on people. Akon was struck with a feeling of empowerment.
“Now I aim for the stars. If I reach the sky, I’m happy.”
One step ahead of the tech
“I was more of a hustler, an entrepreneur, before I even got into music. I always looked at music as a vehicle to open doors for bigger business. That concept always rolled with me.” Akon says this entrepreneurial spirit carried over into the crypto world, where it created even greater opportunities.
It’s a case of greater risk resulting in greater reward, he says. “I was always the guy willing to take risks.” Akon explains he has consistently anticipated, and positioned himself, ahead of the trends. The one who gets in first gets to maximize the opportunity.
It turns out that his creative strengths, while most often associated with his musical talent, enhance his ability to attack entrepreneurial problems with novel ideas. “A lot of my thought process, even as an artist, was trying to work my way into the future and get ahead of technology before it actually flooded the market.
The trick, Akon says, was to understand new technologies before others saw them coming. As the age of flip-phones neared its end, he employed this foresight and his influence in the music industry to begin selling cellphone ringtones, which played snippets of his singles — for a fee.
“While everyone was selling singles and albums, I was more focused on the ringtone aspect of it.” Akon took an analytical approach to the growing trend. “I looked at the ratio: a ringtone plays for 15 seconds for $4.99 and you’ve got a full single that plays for a full four minutes for $1.99… It made a lot more sense to focus on the ringtone!”
The burgeoning ringtone market became a significant source of revenue for Akon and, in an instance of the tech-creative symbiosis that pervades his work, promoted singles as they were released to the market. To this day, Akon is recognized by the Guinness World Book of Records as the top-selling artist of master ringtones.
This success piqued Akon’s interest in “looking at everything from a digital standpoint” he says, as he saw the future becoming dominated by digitization. Akon envisioned this trend carrying over from the musical side of his experience to modern digital currencies. It was something, he says, he kept in the back of his head, until crypto became the new topic of conversation in his circles.
The lightbulb moment
The problem, Akon says, boils down to inefficiencies and inequalities created by the modern fiat currency system, especially in Africa. Currencies cannot be trusted across the continent, because they cannot be utilized outside local economies. “When you left the country, that currency didn’t have any value whatsoever. That was another thing that really bothered me.”
The lightbulb moment for Akon was more literal than for some polymaths. It happened on a flight from Senegal to France after working on Akon Lighting Africa, a program that provides solar-powered lighting solutions in African countries.
“I had a pocket full of CFA, which is our local currency. I was rushed to the airport and didn’t get a chance to transfer it while I was at the airport, so I was like, I’ll just wait until I get to France and I’ll trade it over.”
Akon arrived in France with his CFA cash “which is the money the French actually created for us to trade in, right?” He approached the currency trading podium to exchange his money for Euros, but was turned away. “They told me, ‘Well, I’m sorry we can’t trade that.’ And I said, ‘Why?’”
“Well, it doesn’t have any value.”
Akon was incredulous. This money, a French currency made for the people of Senegal, was not worth anything in France. He was told he would have to wait to trade it once he returned to Senegal.
“And at that moment, I was like, okay. Something has to be done about this. This is just bullshit. I’m not standing for this. We have to have our own currency.”
“That was a moment that made me fully engaged.”
Innovation to drive freedom
More important to Akon than material wealth, he explains, are the principles of access, control, and transparency in society. Looking at the situation in Africa, he says, economies often lack those qualities, which was the main reason he created the Akoin cryptocurrency.
“Transparency was a huge challenge there,” he says, noting that governments frequently withheld information from citizens. “Reason being, there was a lot of corruption going on and they wanted to hide the fact they were corrupt.”
The innovation of digital ledger technology and its immutable, transparent, and decentralized qualities seemed a perfect fit for the problem to Akon. “I understood that if we could get transparency activated within the community, it would completely delete the corruption itself.”
Cryptocurrency “not only creates a dashboard that allows you to use it everywhere around the world, but it also plays the exact role that it needs to play within the African community, that allows it to be transparent and open. It gives you a currency that can be trusted by the people because it’s more controlled by the people.”
The novice crypto-entrepreneur met with Brock Pierce, a fellow artist-turned-entrepreneur around 2010. Pierce educated him on Bitcoin and blockchain technologies long before they became mainstream topics of conversation, and connected Akon with others who would help him “pull all this together,” he says. Jon Karas, now president and co-founder of Akoin, had teamed up with Akon in previous business endeavors and offered to help him get the ball rolling. Akon explains, “he was looking to do some crazy innovative stuff with me.”
Akon’s goal was to develop a new currency, dubbed Akoin, which he hopes will become “the African coin.” Karas offered his support, finding the right partners and the workforce to create the new currency platform.
Bright lights, smart city: building in Senegal
Akon is now busily closing out partnerships for the building of the digital currency-driven Akon City in Senegal. The city will operate with the Akoin currency as its transparent trading mechanism. Financing, construction and independent contractors are all getting set to go, with construction due to begin in January 2021.
This is not a part-time role. With Akon City, he says:
“Everything runs and moves through me to an extent. It’s taking up all my time. That’s why you guys haven’t got any new music yet. It’s all I’m doing.”
Akon hopes to ignite ideas about what tomorrow’s Africa will look like. With many countries around the world facing similar challenges, he says Africa is the perfect case-study for the innovations.
“More than anything, it was a dream of mine to have my own city and be able to put myself in a position where I can create environments that I always wanted to be in myself.” Akon envisions a fully transformed society with education and health care systems that would “create opportunities for people that most countries take for-granted.” The goal then, he says, is to create better living conditions, with safer and more transparent systems that allow people to live more comfortably. “I think with Akon City, we can accomplish that.”
Akon is especially grateful for his supporters and for the team that continues to work with him in the building process. “The team we put together is sacrificing a lot. Until we launch this thing and it actually starts creating revenue, these guys are all donating their time, efforts and knowledge just to help me fulfill my dream. I want this thing to be super-successful, so I can pay that back.”
From Mandela and Marley to Martin and Malcolm
Akon feels strongly about giving full credit to those who came before us in history: freedom fighters who tried to make a difference.
“The Mandelas… the Bob Marleys… There have been people fighting for us all the way from the Martin Luther Kings to the Malcolm X’s.” These people propelled society forward, he says, shedding light on issues that weren’t being addressed openly. “They were very young when they created these heavy movements, and they sacrificed more than they should have.”
Akon urges, “If we don’t follow in their steps, to bring their fights to the forefront or to try to help continue on where they left, then a lot of their efforts were in vain. That’s in every sector, every nationality, every group of people; we all have people like that who fought for us.”
He recognizes his far-reaching influence comes with great responsibility. “When you are put in a position where millions of people listen to what you have to say or they’re impacted by things that you do, I don’t think it’s a choice that you make any more. It’s bigger than you at that point.
Now, you just have to fulfill a responsibility, paying back the blessings that were given to you.”