When "Smack That" was dominating the radio airwaves in 2006, it was hard to imagine a world where Akon was not only seriously contemplating running for president, but being encouraged to do so. Fast forward to present day, it doesn't feel all that far-fetched of an idea, especially considering the makeup of the current administration.
However, unlike artists such as Kanye West or 50 Cent who have flirted with or poked at the subject, the prospect of a pivot into politics is not rooted in ego or humor. For Akon, it would merely be a continuation of the ways in which he hopes to use his celebrity status and business savvy to help make the world a better place. In fact, the fruit of the innovative and impactful labor is he doing in Africa may not even fully ripen in his lifetime, making his efforts all the more selfless and admirable.
Often, we urge each other to give people their roses while they are still here and Akon deserves much more than a dozen long-stemmed. Throughout the past decade, as he began his transition from a multi-platinum hitmaker to a humble business mogul, Akon's career has covered a ton of ground, both literally and figuratively. While many may recognize his silky smooth voice from his array of nostalgic ringtone-friendly singles, his philanthropy has taken centerstage, as he's building a reputation as a disruptive entrepreneur.
Since 2014, the celebrated vocalist, who was born in St. Louis and spent a significant portion of his childhood in Senegal, has been spearheading Akon Lighting Africa, a for-profit initiative dedicated to bringing affordable electricity solutions to people in Africa. Now providing electricity via solar energy to over 15 nations including his beloved Senegal, Guinea, Kenya, Sierra Leone and more; his company has gone on to create over 5,000 jobs and reach over 1 million households in Africa. Data from 2016 shows roughly 600 million people are without reliable electricity in Africa, a staggering statistic that further enforces the revolutionary aspect of the work Akon is doing.
During an interview with Forbes, Akon noted how his business is far from a charitable effort, even though it does a lot of good.
"It's definitely not a charity," he noted. "It is a for-profit company. The way I would categorize it, really, is just social entrepreneurship. We do our business in Africa that's not [just] to help people, but empower them to make their money in the process."
Elaborating on the topic, he added his belief that charitable donations don't help Africa in the long-term the way that developing and focusing on sustainability does.
"We feel like charity just doesn't work with Africa and I don't think it works anywhere in the world. If you're not empowering people or giving them jobs…you're wasting your time, you're wasting people's valuable money," Akon explained. "They're going to spend it and put their hand right back out and be in the same position in the following week or month or year."
As reported, his initiative helps negotiate public-private partnerships with local governments and banks in order to finance the project, as well as has a $1 billion credit line from international companies, notably led by Chinese firms.
"We invest our own money to get things started," he further explained to the Wall Street Journal. "We go in, plead our case to the country, put up pilots with our own dollars using sophisticated equipment and we make sure we do the installation right. It shows people that we're not coming in to pull money out of the country. We're there to provide jobs for the locals and to enable them to feed their families."
In 2018, Akon announced that he began building a new futuristic "Crypto city" in Senegal, explaining how the city will trade exclusively utilizing his own digital currency, the aptly-named AKoin. The president of Senegal, Macky Sall, gifted him a 2,000-acre plot of land to develop the forward-thinking initiative. During a panel at the Cannes Lions festival of creativity, Akon revealed his plans, noting how blockchain holds the potential to help Africans become less dependent on their governments.
"I think that blockchain and crypto could be the savior for Africa in many ways because it brings the power back to the people," he shared. "Cryptocurrency and blockchain technology offer a more secure currency that enables people in Africa to advance themselves independent of the government."
While his efforts have been met with some hesitation and criticism, with some noting how a major obstacle AKoin faces comes in regaining trust of Africans who lost savings due to online investment ventures and ponzi schemes, data shows that his endeavors are heading in the right direction. As reported, investment in cryptocurrency is growing in Africa, a trend that hopefully will encourage African leaders to embrace the evolving technology.
On top of investing in developing solar energy systems through Akon Lighting Africa and introducing AKoin, Akon has also helped raise money for Senegalese children through his Konfidence Foundation, which brings popular artists to Africa, and donates proceeds to causes such as promoting literacy and education; as well as providing clean water and meals for families during holidays.
While working with the likes of Whitney Houston, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Gwen Stefani, New Kids on the Block, Lil Wayne and more; garnering five Grammy nominations, overcoming a prison stint, balancing his career with fatherhood, and personally experiencing life without electricity as a young child are all cornerstones of his reliance; Akon's legacy glows with his unyielding dedication to being an agent for change against all odds. And that is both where the lessons lie and the difference is made. So, when Akon says he's been contemplating a career in politics, it's from a place of passion and not celebrity, and that alone should be celebrated. From his understanding of the system through personal experience to noting the best way to impart change is through direct action, maybe it's time we have a candidate whose lived in the trenches they boast about on Twitter.