‘The last car I stole was in 1998,’ says Akon – real name Alioune Badara Thiam – slowly and with a slight chuckle at the end. ‘It was a red BMW 3-Series and it was real easy to steal, but that was the one I got caught in. I think I was profiled because I was driving a nice car in a white neighbourhood – so they pulled me over as they thought I was suspicious. And they were actually right. Of course I ran – I ran for about an hour and a half, but then I ran out of gas and hit a mailbox.’
Welcome, then, to the pivotal point in Akon’s life. The point where his attempt to live the alternate American dream hit the wall. The point where a young Akon spent three years in jail for his part in a car-theft ring. And the point where Akon knew he had to make a life-changing decision.
‘Every day I wake up and I’m thankful for my time in prison, you don’t even know how much it changed my life man,’ he says from New York as he’s about to board a flight to Miami for a video shoot. ‘It definitely gave me the choice between that life and the path that I’m on now. It was absolutely clear cut that I had to make a choice between right and wrong.’ And while some might argue he encountered some grey territory when he recorded ‘Lonely’, a truly nauseauting song that spawned a million ire-baiting ring tones, there’s no denying that he’s been a reformed character ever since.
Last night he performed at the Nickelodeon Kids awards at the behest of his children and he’s just started a charity foundation where he gives money to educational projects in Africa. He’s also a passionate political advocate. ‘It’s Obama all the way, all the way,’ enthuses Akon. ‘There’s a lot of support for McCain too, as there are a lot of die-hard Bush supporters, but we don’t want a third Republican term – he’s going to come in with the same policies as Bush so there has to be change. Whenever I wave my US passport you always get a funny look, I know we’re not that well liked around the world.’
But despite this reformed character, question marks still remain over Akon. Google him and you’ll get a dozen conflicting stories, rumours and downright libellous comments. There’s no doubt that the myth of Akon contributes to some of his charm, but some of the issues need tackling. Firstly, Akon was charged with throwing a man off-stage at one gig in Fishkill New York last year. True?
‘Kinda,’ he admits. ‘I had to go to court for it but it was taken completely out of context. The way the graphic was shown in court made it out to be really bad but it wasn’t like that in real life. It was a fraternity prank – he was pledging to his group and he had to get thrown off stage by a famous person to get into the group. And I volunteered. But yeah, look what happened. I had to do community service, go to schools and talk to kids. It was all staged but of course it came back differently. It helps to know what you can and can’t do, and what practical jokes you can get away with. Not everyone is as smart as we are, some people need to loosen up a bit.’
Strange, but according to the US courts it is true that they let him off with community service. The other odd thing about Akon is that he’s ageless. Not in some musically transcendent way, but we literally don’t know how old he is. Carefully considered media portrayal or a web of lies? The former, apparently.
‘I’ve never lied about my age, I just never told nobody my age,’ he says like a true politician. ‘I’d rather not tell you about it rather than lie – that’s why no-one knows. Especially in the music industry, once you tell people how old you are, then the countdown to the end of your career starts. You’ve got 10 years at the top, if that. I’ve got another five years left but I’m already prepared for it, I’ve already got my exit strategy. I’m going to retire, I’m going to head to my beach and sip piña coladas.’
Akon, it seems, is not only a far-from pristine pop star, but also a clever and calculating man. When we ask him about how much money he has he candidly admits ‘it’s a lot man’ and that he checks his bank account on a daily basis. He’s aware of the damage internet rumours can do to his career, but says he doesn’t check the news for stories about himself anymore. And he’s also aware that if he hadn’t made that decision when he was incarcerated, he wouldn’t be making the headlines – good or bad – nowadays.
‘It was a hard choice to make; everyone is attracted to fast cars, women and money and they want it now, you know. They don’t want to work hard for it and watch it grow. Getting locked up definitely taught me patience – if you want to do something, you’ve got to properly structure that thing and do it properly. If something is too good to be true, then a lot of the time it is.’
The rest of the line up
Who is he…
A portly Puerto Rican, Fat Joe is fat and phat. And called Joe.
Little known fact…
He, along with the rest of the hip hop world (or so it seems), has been involved in a feud with 50 Cent about who started getting jiggy first. Or something equally playground-tastic.
Go see him if you…
Like your hip hop with a gangster-led edge and bolshy beats.
Avoid if you…
Want a happy-clappy hip hop set.
Heavyweight thug rap.
Who are they…
Two classically trained musicians who believe that America’s urban youth deserves exposure to the arts beyond High School Musical.
Little know fact…
Let’s face it: pretty much all the facts about Black Violin are little known, so let’s start with the basics: they’re two 26-year-old black violinists called Kev Marcus and Wil B.
Go see them if…
You like Alicia Keys and her brand of coffee table soul.
You have a Tupperware approach to music – everything in its compartment – and the idea of crossover brings you out in hives.
Brahms with beats.
Urban Desert Festival, Dubai Festival City, April 18. Tickets Dhs200-450 from www.timeouttickets.com or call 04 339 0550 for more information.