Akon's Forgotten Empire Expands East

Akon looks to West Africa to rebuild his forgotten musical empire.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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If there is an Illuminati, and if that Illuminati is indeed desegregated, best believe that Akon is the blackest knight at that illicit roundtable. Like Usher, like Jay Z, like Dr. Dre, and recently T.I., Akon’s gone on to puppeteer the discovery and ascent of a yet larger star and several lesser successors—the most profitable sort of retirement that the industry affords an aging musician. Usher’s launching a solo comeback that’s not captivating. Jay Z’s got his own insular empire of U.S. rap talent and athlete management, and vanity labels are all the rage. But Akon's business goals are longer-term and longer reaching, with international investments that have shored up his music industry influence worldwide. There’s a reason why, as of 2012, you’re more likely to read about Akon in Forbes than at Pitchfork or XXL.

Akon’s global influence is fitting, given that he’s been a jet-setter since birth. The famously Senegalese singer was, in fact, born in St. Louis, though he spent many childhood summers and holidays with family back in Dakar. He briefly lived with his father, jazz percussionist and professor, in Miami, where Akon, then a fifth grader, pretended to be an African prince who spoke no English. His family was comfortably middle class, though he did hustle his way through various school systems and police precincts in Miami, New Jersey, and Atlanta. When SRC Records founder and former CEO Steve Rifkind first heard Akon's demo in 2003, Rifkind immediately flew to Atlanta and offered Akon a recording contract. A year later, SRC released Akon's debut single, "Locked Up," the No. 8 Billboard hit that drove worldwide sales of Akon's debut album, Trouble. All Akon's subsequent projects would be released under his own imprint, Konvict Music, which Akon founded with A&R Melvin Brown in 2005.

As a hitmakers’ factory during the urban Auto-Tune boom of 2006-2007, Akon’s Konvict Muzik had a rather brief run in the U.S. market. The label’s marquee projects were Akon’s second (and biggest) solo album, Konvicted, all of T-Pain’s albums to date, and the watery, prototypical catalog of reigning Bronx rap prince French Montana. While Konvict Muzik peaked in 2007, it still exists, and in fact T-Pain’s due to drop his latest project for the label any day now. Akon is reportedly working on his own latest solo project, Stadium Music, his fourth studio album and first since 2008. Still, "I'm a businessman first," he said in 2010 when announcing that Konvict Muzik had signed French Montana.

By the time French, citing album delays and creative differences, departed Konvict Muzik for a joint Bad Boy/Maybach Music Group venture in 2011, Akon had pulled his private financing of Lady Gaga's early stardom, and he’d started to recruit from developing markets to rebuild Konvict Muzik’s roster. That year alone saw Konvict Entertainment signing the Nigerian R&B duo P-Square, Dominican merengue singer Omega El Fuerte, as well as Nigerian Afrobeats singers Wizkid and Tuface. Coincidentally in 2011, Kanye West signed Nigerian pop singer D’Banj and producer Don Jazzy to G.O.O.D. Music. As of this year, D’Banj has nothing but a remix to show for that particular partnership; and Don Jazzy left G.O.O.D. Music in March 2012, less than a year into his recording contract, possibly due to his and D'Banj's acrimonious creative split. Now D'Banj is working with Akon.

Konvict Muzik hasn't dropped a major new project since 2011, when T-Pain's fourth album, Revolver, sold a predictively underwhelming 34,000 copies in its first week out. Three years later, Konvict Muzik's U.S. footprint is minimal. It's web properties no longer function. Clicking around, you might initially guess that Konvict Muzik and its roster chief had gone the way of countless vanity labels, from platinum-certified dominance to the graveyard. While the label's marquee star, T-Pain, has languished in the U.S. market since Revolver's commercial failure and rap-singer Future's ascent, Akon's been signing his way through Nigeria and Ghana these past couple years, on tour and in concert with young, native singers like the aforementioned P-Square and Wizkid as well as Davido and D'banj, with their massive teen fanbases. Even artists who haven't (yet) signed to Konvict Muzik, such as Ghanan rapper Sarkodie, have had to tame feverish media speculation that Akon's co-sign is pending. 

Despite U.S. hip-hop’s mutual dancehall influences, Afrobeats still seems (literally) a world apart from our native tongue, even though P-Square sings in English. Afrobeats is Eastern Hemisphere hip-hop driven by reggae cadences, patois, and the immediate need to love and dance. Mags and websites have written much about the genre these past few years—whether pop has uprooted the genre, whether Auto-Tune is too many degrees removed from Fela Kuti to claim a common heritage, etc.—and the easiest consensus is that Afrobeats is world music’s new, lucrative frontier. Akon's international savvy may well beat domestic moguls like Puffy and Jay Z to the figurative punch. As U.S. music sales collapse infinitesimally, remember that Dr. Dre, hip-hop’s first billionaire, doesn’t make or sell records in 2014; he markets headphones.

While several veteran entertainers of the past decade have backed and eventually profited from their (white) successors, few have colonized new territory in doing so. At this stage of his career, Akon is something of a crypto-political tycoon of West Africa, a prominence that’s inspired much conspiracy-mongering among international media and ill-advised punditry from Akon himself. If ever the developing market’s been a wise investment, that time would be now, while the kids are young and the Afrobeats are still hot. Suge Knight ain’t got shit on ya boy.

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