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Akon: Inside the Mind of a Hip-Hop Mogul

Words by A.R. Shaw
images by Hannibal Matthews for steed media service

On a Monday night in late June, more than 50 journalists, bloggers, photographers and industry tastemakers crammed themselves inside a small room at Doppler Studios in north Atlanta. Shortly after 9:30 p.m., Akon made his way to the sound board with Konvict Muzik’s new artists Money Jay, Billy Blue, Verse Simmonds and Young Swift in tow.

Much like a seasoned salesman introducing a new product, Akon presented each artist and demonstrated his support by dancing, rapping and singing along to their music as if he were listening to the greatest songs ever recorded. Soon, the entire room bounced or nodded their heads along with Akon and his crew as their unreleased songs blasted from speakers.

The listening event may have ended an hour later, but this was only the beginning: Akon plans to introduce Konvict Muzik’s new artists in similar fashion in several major cities around the country. Such are the priorities for an accomplished recording artist who has transitioned superbly into a mega mogul.

The legend that is Akon achieved heights that would seem unfathomable for a guy who had little interest in making music six years prior to releasing his first major hit, “Locked Up.”

He has since released three platinum albums (Trouble, Konvicted, Freedom) and owns two clothing lines (Konvict Apparel, Aliaune Clothing) and two record labels (the aforementioned Konvict Muzik and Kon Live). Kon Live is home to the nation’s biggest pop star today, Lady Gaga.

Akon once joked that he could retire after signing Lady Gaga. However, he understands that his success means very little if he fails to provide an opportunity for other aspiring artists and entrepreneurs. Akon opens up to rolling out about the future of Konvict Muzik, the gift of Lady Gaga and balancing life as a performer and businessman.

BET Awards weekend will be big for you and Konvict Muzik. What do you guys have planned?
During BET Awards weekend, I’m doing an event with the Hittmenn DJs. We’re promoting Verse Simmonds, Money Jay, YB the Wacks and Young Swift. We’re looking to introduce the young regime that we have coming out. The Hittmenn are everywhere. We try to support whenever we can. I decided to take the initiative to do it for the BET Awards weekend.

Breaking new artists can be tough. What methods do you use to make music fans aware of your new artists?
We keep the same format. While some people are doing things differently, we haven’t changed how we break artists. We have street teams active, and we keep a connection with the deejays so that they get the exclusives on what we’re doing. Outside of mixtapes there are also a few blogs, and we use other creative ways to get in front of people. Also, we partner with different brands. While they are trying to get accustomed to the hip-hop audience, we’re trying to use their money to make ourselves more familiar to a bigger audience.

What does each artist from Konvict Muzik bring to the table talent-wise?
Every artist has their own style. Money Jay is from Decatur, Ga. He represents the South. Ya Boy is from the West Coast, and he has his own West Coast movement. He represents a new generation of West Coast music. We have Verse Simmonds who comes from the islands, but he also has an R&B style that brings an international feel to it. Young Swift represents the young[er] generation of hip-hop. He’s growing into becoming the next Jay-Z. He has the talent to take it to the next level.

How does Lady Gaga fit into the equation?
Lady Gaga is on the Kon Live side. That is the pop and international side of the label. She represents the future. She’s a gift, and you can’t describe what that is. It came at the perfect time. She defines where music should be going. She’s creative, daring, and that’s something missing in the business. Everybody is so safe and wants to do the things that have been done before. She does what she feels and creates things that are cutting edge.

What do you remember most about meeting her for the first time?
It was a shock when I first met her. I was like, “Wow, what the heck is that?” But I realized what she was about, and I understand her type of music.

Do you still give her pointers when it comes to music?
When it comes to Gaga, I sit back, and let her do it. She’s [spread] her wings and can be as creative as she likes. I don’t have to be anywhere in the picture. She’s on automatic right now. Whatever she says, happens. My only job is to make sure it gets done.

Beyond music, why is it important for you to strive to become a great entrepreneur?
We want to show people that you can be a creative, black entrepreneur who is young and understands what business is. Sometimes, they stereotype us and try to put us in an ignorant box. They don’t realize how much hip-hop has brought to corporate America. Our marketing skills are amazing, and they’re paying us for it. We have to be in a position to apply that same gift to ourselves and generate income from it.

What can be expected from your clothing lines?
My Aliaune clothing line is upscale. All of the suits that you see me in are from that line. The Konvict brand was music-based and for fans who believed in the movement. Aliaune is more upscale and fashion forward. You can get it at Macy’s and other clothing boutiques around the country.

The last time we talked, you were focusing on building a school in Africa. How has the Konfidence Foundation changed lives?
We’re continuing to build schools and hospitals. We’re also branching out to wherever help is needed. There are floods and natural disasters … going on that we are helping with. The main objective is always about the children and ways to make their lives better. Every once in a while, we will help other areas in need, such as when natural disasters have hit.

What has been the biggest accomplishment of your foundation?
The biggest thing that we have done is building that school. We have more kids in that community who can go there and receive an education. Now, we’re getting supplies such as computers, books and other [learning tools] that were never there. Some of the schools over there have leaks in the ceilings. On rainy days, they would have to be in there trying to learn with water dropping on their desks. The environment wasn’t that comfortable, now there is a more comfortable environment for them.

You have established a respectable family in music, but you also have a family at home. How did fatherhood change your life?
Being a father changed my life because I know I’m not working for myself anymore. Everything I do now is for the kids. Children are everything. You have to understand that the responsibility is something special. Outside of supplying money, you have to be there and encourage them.

What are you currently working on when it comes to your music?
I’m currently in the studio with Alicia Keys. I’m working on projects for myself and doing some projects with No Doubt. My new album, Stadium, will be coming out in September. It’s a worldwide record, and I’m excited about it. This album brings everything together. It’s more of a touring album with high-energy records for concerts and tours. The next album, I’m bringing it back to how I started from the beginning.

You once joked about retiring after signing Lady Gaga. But when you do actually walk away from music, what do you want your legacy to be?
I want people to look at the accomplishments and what we brought to the business. That’s all you can ask for and hope you leave a legacy because you’re only remembered for what you bring. That’s why I try to break as many acts as possible and be involved in new and innovative stuff that’s coming out, because people want to know what you have done for the game. From the time you begin until the end, what was your contribution? I’m trying to create things that we can leave behind for the next generation.

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