Akon has seen the light—and in more ways than one. For starters, the hit-making musician has always been quite the philanthropist. With his latest collaboration, he’s hoping to bring electricity to one million households across the continent of Africa by the end of 2014. It’s a heady notion, considering that the Grammy-nominated artist understands firsthand the harsh realities of living without the bare basics.
The entertainer (who spent much of his upbringing in Senegal) has launched an initiative called Akon Lighting Africa. He says that over two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is without electricity, and that more than 85 percent of those living in rural areas lack access.
So far he’s met with heads of state in Senegal, Mali, Guinea Conakry, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo and the Ivory Coast, and says that he really wants to give the gift of light—and electricity—to the children of the Motherland.
As far as his music is concerned, Akon plans to start giving it away for free. Yep, you read that correctly. Free. Akon’s theory is simple: give away the urban-flavored music and the big pop hits will pay the bills. He explains both his efforts to EBONY.com.
EBONY: Out the gate you’ve always had some charity efforts going in Africa.
Akon: You know how you just feel something just needs to be done? That’s how it was, where something just needs to be done. And I saw a great philanthropic opportunity because so many people needed light there.
EBONY: I know you spend a lot of time in Africa. Was this something that you experienced and saw firsthand? How did this lighting project come together?
Akon: My early years as a child, I grew up in Africa, and we didn’t have electricity in the area where I grew up at all. It was kerosene and candles until I came to the U.S. It pains me a little to go back to Africa, and in those same areas, the same situations exists, where it still hasn’t been developed and there’s no electricity grid there. So it was definitely time to do something about it.
EBONY: How big of an effort is this? Put it into context.
Akon: It’s bigger than major. That’s why we’re making sure that it’s a private/public partnership, with the public along with the government. Because it’s going to take both to actually go in and make this thing move the way it needs to move.
EBONY: How is it that a guy who grows up in Africa without electricity develops an ear for music, which we in contemporary times think needs electricity to make and hear?
Akon: I think what was fortunate for me was, I started with the percussion. I’m a percussionist first, which is the drum. You don’t need electricity for drums. You got the rhythm off top with no light, no nothing. All you need is two pair of hands. So that’s how I got started into music.
EBONY: How often do you go back? This doesn’t seem like a vanity project.
Akon: Oh yeah. This is priority over music right now. Definitely. This is something that I’m more than hands-on with. This is something that I won’t stop until I accomplish it. I always set the standards pretty high, hoping that [if] we can even accomplish five percent of it, then we’ve really made a huge, huge difference.
EBONY: You said this is taking precedence over music right now. Does that mean you’re not in the studio at all creating?
Akon: Well, the thing is I’ve already created… I got three, four albums done, ready to go. So I’ve got plenty of time to focus on this.
EBONY: We’ll be hearing some new Akon music on the radio this summer then?
Akon: I will be putting out a couple urban mixtapes that I’m just going to give away for free. I think more so the approach I’m taking now, when it comes to urban entertainment, I don’t want to have to sell my people music anymore. I’m going to do great music and call it a mixtape. That way, I can just be able to give it to them for free. And then big pop records and all that, I’ll put on iTunes.
EBONY: Why the switch?
Akon: I realized throughout my whole career, my biggest records were actually the records that didn’t sell, which were all my urban records. It’s like, “OK, we really don’t buy ’em.” We like to go online, download it or get the mixtape or just share copies. So I felt that’s probably the best route for that, because it helps for marketing, it helps for touring and, more than anything, it helps for your branding.
So I felt like that was the route to go for my urban side of music. Pop side, I can go anywhere internationally. It fits with the merchandising plays, it works with the corporate plays, as far as brand partnerships, and it definitely sells. So when you add the two together, they actually work hand in hand.
EBONY: Any interesting collaborations that you can name off that will be a part of that mixtape?
Akon: All the biggest names in urban music are probably going to be somehow attached somewhere in one of the mixtapes, because I’m pretty much attached to everybody anyway. Right before I release it, I put out a nice little listening party. And those normally will be the times when they’ll be like, “Oh, I want to jump on this record. Oh, I want to jump on that record.” That’s how it normally works.