If you've listened to twenty minutes of hip-hop radio in the last year, you've heard Akon singing the chorus to a song or three. He's got a voice that cuts through the noise: a smooth, slightly nasal instrument that's one part reggae rootsman, one part Muslim call to prayer, one part R. Kelly. Born Aliaune Thiam in Dakar, Senegal, in 1981, Akon moved with his family to Jersey City, New Jersey, at age seven. The road took some bad turns from there: "Locked Up," his Top Ten single from 2004, was inspired by time served in a Georgia state penitentiary for a grand theft auto charge. Now, Akon is hip-hop's preeminent R&B singer, the man who delivered the hooks to Young Jeezy's "Soul Survivor" and Obie Trice's "Snitch," among many other tunes. We spoke to him as he maneuvered his new orange Lamborghini (a gift to himself after he finished his new album, Konvicted) through downtown Atlanta.
Have you gotten pulled over by the cops yet?
When I first got this car I'd get pulled over all the time, but the Atlanta police recognized me and let me off with a warning if I gave them an autograph. Now the entire police department knows this car belongs to me and I don't get pulled over so much. You know what's crazy? They play my song "Locked Up" in their cars when they pick kids up and are taking them to jail. The police told me that the song is the police department's anthem. It doesn't get realer than that.
No way! You have quite a history with cars. What was the stolen car you were driving when you got caught?
I was driving a BMW 325, on my way to the chop shop. That's the slowest car in the whole fleet, the BMW 325. I'd been in high-speed pursuit before and always got away, but this time I didn't because the car was too slow. I didn't even want that car, it was a favor to someone else. And I wound up getting locked up for three years. I started the car-stealing hustle when I lived in Jersey, but then I brought it down to Atlanta because the entertainers were here, the athletes were here, the musicians were here, the cars that people wanted were here. I was very good at what I did.
You moved to the United States from Senegal when you were seven. What was the most difficult part of that transition?
The language barrier. Learning to speak English. Nobody in the U.S. really speaks French. Well, not in New Jersey!
Your song "I Wanna Love You" with Snoop Dogg is a hit now. Did you smoke with Snoop?
[Laughs] I'll tell you what. Snoop did a concert recently in Lagos, Nigeria. He called me up, like, "Help man, I need to get me some weed!" And I had to explain to him that in Nigeria they don't smoke weed like he's used to. In Africa the weed comes straight from the tree, then you put it on your roof to dry it before you smoke. What Snoop is used to is that American weed where they put chemicals in it, suddenly it's growing purple hairs and you take one puff and your head comes off. In Africa it's truly a mellow thing.
Who's a singer you admire that might people might not expect you to?
Phil Collins. I love Phil Collins. "In The Air Tonight" is an incredible song. I hope to work with Phil. He's got an amazing vocal tone. His vocal tone makes me cry.
In an interview you said you believe in polygamy as part of your Muslim belief system. But what's the difference between that and just being a player who likes being with different women?
[Laughs] I'm a player, that's how it is! But every woman in America's complaint about her man is always the same: other women. The situation is always, "I found numbers in his pocket," or "I know he's seeing someone else." As men, that's our situation, we're natural breeders. If women took the time to understand our behavior, it wouldn't be such a problem.
Is there a Muslim or Senegalese proverb that you choose to live by?
It's a universal proverb: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When I was stealing cars I used to think, "If I stole your car it's because you did something bad and it's coming back to you. If I can't get this car, it's because God doesn't want me to have it because this is a good person." If I wanted to steal a car and took it, no problem, I figured it was because this person who owned it had done wrong and God was letting me steal their car as retribution. That's absolutely ludicrous! It's ridiculous. [Laughs] But that's how I thought at the time.