His Own Akonik
“I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to find a way to make it work,” says Akon of all facets of his life. Born Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam, he is a singer, businessman, philanthropist, and one of the most influential men in the world. Like many immigrants before him, Thiam’s family moved to the United States from Senegal in search of the American dream. “He was a forward thinker,” he says of his father. “That’s probably where I got most of my thinking from.” The five-time Grammy-nominated artist spent his early childhood dividing his time between the United States and Senegal. “Coming [to the United States] was a complete culture shock,” he recalls. “We would get our water from the well, no electricity, everything was organic. So when I came here, it was like being in the future.”
After moving to Newark, New Jersey, on a permanent basis, Thiam struggled to make acquaintances in school because of the language barrier. He was fluent in French, Spanish, and his native language of Wolof, but English was still a challenge. “My mom and pop were doing well for themselves. I came from a good middle-class family,” he says. “But because it was the closest environment [to] where I came from, I ended up hanging out on the rough side of town – because those were the people I felt the most comfortable with.”
The 46-year-old star was musically inclined at an early age, as his father, Mor Thiam, was an instrumentalist in his own right. Although the music industry would later bear greater fruit, he prioritized other things in his younger years: He was the owner of a barbershop in his early twenties (during this time, he met Wyclef Jean, who at that time was one of the most popular rappers as one-third of the Fugees), and after moving to Atlanta, he would oversee an illegal car business that operated throughout the United States. He then began to dabble in the music industry as a way to turn the profits of his illegal enterprise into a profitable and legal business. Thiam eventually became the owner of a number of recording studios, which would mark the beginning of his career as Akon.
Thiam and Jean would make music, and even spent time together during the recording sessions for the Fugees’ Grammy-winning album, The Score. Just when he began to waver from his illegitimate activities, he was arrested. “I wrote ‘Locked Up’ in prison,” he says. “I would sing it every day, and the guards would even start singing it out loud, too.” It was there that took him away from the streets as he started focusing on making money legally – and the rest is history.
Now established as a mogul in the industry, Thiam has also helped orchestrate the success of the most recognizable artists, including Lady Gaga and T-Pain. “My natural ability of being a hustler kind of walked me into that arena,” he shares of his business mindset. “I realized the artist was the last to get paid so [I thought to myself,] ‘How do I get myself to be the first to get paid?’”
Moreover, he always works on bettering his beloved Senegal, as well as the rest of Africa; his latest avant-garde endeavors have cemented his legacy as a historical figure. With his Akon Lighting Africa project, he’s been on a mission to provide all of Africa with electricity through the use of solar power. (There’s also the Akon Lighting America project, building renewable-energy efforts in the U.S.) Originally an idea to help his home country escape from the poverty he had faced himself, it was dismissed by investors since they judged Thiam based on his show-biz career, questioning his ability to gather resources. Through perseverance, however, he was able to receive a billion-dollar credit line and start the project. He is also in the process of creating his own 2,000-acre city in Senegal called Akon City powered by his own cryptocurrency, Akoin. “Just imagine – if we came together, what we could do. We could own our own energy companies,” says Thiam, whose current goal is to bring similar results to East Africa.
Writer: Alain Clerine
Photographer Assistant: Alexander Garrido
Digital Technician: Mitchell Guerrero
Stylist: Sybs Speck
Men’s Grooming: Phoebe Dawson (using Hora Skin Care & Kiehl's Since 1851)
Videographer: Brandon David Roth
Editor: Eiko Watanabe
Special thanks to Benny’s Tacos & Chicken Rotisserie (@bennystacos - bennystacos.com) & EPK Media (@myepk & @epkmedia - epkmedia.com)