With a childhood that boasted several musical influences within his own home, to a somewhat tumultuous teenage life that led to some time in prison, and now becoming a Grammy-nominated music maven, Akon is the quintessential artist-turned-mogul. His business acumen equals or more likely surpasses, his accomplishments in the music industry.
As he continues to light up arenas globally with his myriad of hits, the Senegalese icon has successfully illuminated Africa with his business venture, Akon Lighting Africa. The company was formed in 2014 with the goal of providing electricity by solar energy in the motherland. Akon now has his sights set on Akon Lighting America via stage and through his flourishing company.
The affluent entrepreneur talked with Radio Facts about the business of music, running a successful organization, and the trials and tribulations of using his music platform to build an empire outside of the studio and stage.
So you are working on a new project, Akon Lighting America, tell me exactly how that works?
AKON: Akon Lighting America is a for-profit business and I created it because of the success that we had in Africa and ultimately we were able to branch off in the US and we aligned the company with the UN’s sustainable development goals and ultimately what we're doing is creating the solution for the traditional energy consumption to be converted over to renewable energy.
So we're coming in, playing our part, after putting together you can say a solar initiative on our end for solar rooftops, solar grids throughout the cities, and so on and so forth. Our main base is in North Carolina, but we have projects in Texas and in Arizona as we speak now.
Okay, so I know you're starting in January. What’s the first city you are going to work with?
The first city is inTexas and what we are doing is we are acquiring smaller solar companies to create this one big entourage. We also teamed up with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for Arizona.
Okay, tell me, I was watching an interview that you did, I can't remember the host's name, but it was in Africa, I believe, and it seems that she was questioning – you just mentioned that it's a for-profit company – are there actually people who have an issue with you profiting from this?
I do not think there is an issue with me profiting from it, but it was always being promoted as a non-profit organization, so I just want to make the correction. I think that what made it more a non-profit concept in people's eyes was the fact that the need was so vast.
And ultimately whenever you are talking about Africa, people always think need and aid. And in this situation that wasn't the case. I was trying to allow people to understand that what I'm doing in Africa has nothing to do with aid.
It was a huge need and a huge opportunity, so we want to provide that need for electricity in specific areas because of the fact that the lack of electricity was creating a decline in infrastructure and also development.
So, when you were performing some years back, was this always in the back of your mind? How did you come up with this concept?
The concept actually came to fruition when I was doing a concert in Sierra Leone. We were in the stadium, fully packed out, sold out for the whole weekend, and the first day of the show right at the beginning of the third song of the night, the electricity goes out.
So it created this huge riot and because of that. The electricity never even came back on, so the whole weekend was damaged and the festival and everything was damaged because of that. So that's the trigger, okay something had to be done about it because that wasn't the first time this happened. And then even while we were there where we were staying every hour, every other hour electricity will go out for hours at a time and then turn back on.
So I knew that was already a big problem, but then when I went back sometime later], the same situation but in the rural areas there was no electricity at all. That's when I was like, “okay, we need to do something about this in general.”
So we started donating solar lights and home systems to rural areas in Africa and that led into a for-profit business that ended up becoming a utility company providing energy throughout the continent.
Okay, so now the situation in America you have, you said you're going to be serving like underserved, or I guess underprivileged, areas and you're working with the different cities and states. What about homeowners who can't afford solar energy because it's very expensive?
Well, believe it or not, our mission is to decrease your energy bill and provide energy solutions for those who cannot afford energy in those areas because solar, as you can see, you could drop the price down by almost 75% of what you're paying right now on your energy bills because of that.
Utilities are killing you. When you talk about fans, irons, refrigerators, and with what they're charging per kilowatt and what it's costing them to be able to provide you that energy, itis way too high. But solar, as you know, is coming directly from the sun, what is the infrastructure that needs to be set up?
There's no extra cost, it's all human nature that's providing the energy to you so we can afford to drop that price all the way down. So, what you are really paying for is the equipment and installation cost, which we finance so that throughout the time that you – pretty much you can say subsidize what you are actually making and be able to afford it.
And we feel like this going to be the future for it.
Are you getting any pushback from the energy providers?
No, actually we have been trying to get in a lot of support because they are in a position where they actually have to conform to renewable sources of energy themselves, especially with all the climate change and the issues that are happening that they have to – a percentage of their business has to conform to renewable energy. Because we are the only African American company in America doing it on a level, and also have to comply according to the laws of the – you can say diversity and inclusion, it helps them in a big way; it does two things in a positive way. First, it helps to meet the diversity and inclusion laws within the business sector, and also, it also helps them to conform to a more renewable state a lot quicker than normal as well too.
So, we serve a double purpose. That is why I feel this is a perfect and great business for the United States.
This must be eating up an incredible amount of your time, How do you balance this and still do your music at the same time?
Well, that was the beauty – because that was the challenge at first, trying to figure out that balance and how do I do it because lots of companies do require a lot of your time and you have to physically be there. So now that we are in a position as we were launching these projects, including setting it all up, we are also creating teams that can now take it over and be able to manage the company while I am doing music because the music pretty much opened up the doors of opportunity.
So now we are in the position where the teams are now taking it forward. I have a CEO that handles the company domestically and runs it like a well-oiled machine, while I can focus on my music and everything else I want to do.
Do you have a hand in, as far as the people you pick for your team or do you have somebody do that as well?
Yes, so the actual staff I don’t get involved in that because I have to get involved in picking the person that I trust to put that kind of staff together. So he is the only person that I report to and then between him and the accountants – the CEO and the accountant and obviously my attorneys – those are the four people that I pretty much report to and have a conversation relating to basic day-to-day operation on how things are moving.
And then from there he pretty much handles it and gives us a report on unintelligible].
What was your training ground for business? Did you do anything…with music with the major labels? Were you doing things on your own then, or were you just kind of watching? How did you actually kind of learn the concepts? Trial and error?
That is a very interesting question because I was always pretty much basically an independent distributor. A lot of it was done by myself and the team that I put around me. And me being attached to Steve Rifkind, who also was pretty much an independent distributor,…when I was assigned to him I learned a lot on an independent level of how to be independent – or to move on a level, how just…to have certain people around you and staff and people that can take on a lot of that low – kind of how to delegate responsibilities.
So that kind of helped a lot as far as drawing me to who I was, but then once I became a label myself, that taught me a whole nother level of organization and networking and delegating certain responsibilities according to a certain level.
So I always felt like as you start getting some more corporate, you start structuring more corporate, and we start to realize that a lot can be done if you hire professional people. You may have to pay a little bit more, but you'll get a lot more in general when you have got people that know what they're doing…handling it.
What would you say are two of the greatest lessons that you have learned in business?
The greatest lesson that I have learned is trust. That is probably the top because I used to make decisions according to trust like I would trust someone and be like, “okay, you are going to be the one that will do it.”
What I will do is take notice of the criteria and compare it with their strong points…and what their specialties will be and how they benefit my overall company. Now I will never go into a business thinking partnership without that full 1-to-10 like due diligence on the person, what their background is, where they come from, what are their strengths and weaknesses and like their experiences.
I need to know all of that now leading into it because before it was more so I went with my feeling and my gut, which works up to a certain extent when we are trying to measure character. But when you are measuring a skill set you have to know what that person’s background looks, like what’s that person’s resume and how it matches up to their skill level and, at the end of the day, what their track record is of success. That makes a world of a difference as to how much time you actually have to put into a business that you want to be able to run on its own.
Do you have another lesson? Then I will have another question for you.
The second lesson is patience. Patience is key because sometimes when we start things and we want it to pick up a lot quicker and they are meant to pick up, there are going to be a lot of things that you are going to learn on the way; there are going to be a lot of things that you are going to adjust as you are going and you cannot expect it to be perfect and you can never predict anything.
Just put the team together, create a perfect plan and then just allow things to happen and adjust as you go. If you try to predict things to happen the way you want it to happen, it never really turns out that way. You learn really quick how fast it doesn't turn out that way and how quick you have to adjust right away.
So, if you walk into it, be prepared to adjust. Things happen a lot easier because you already have a system. You can plan a predictable situation, but you should already be set up for unpredictable situations because, in business, everything is going to be unpredictable; nothing is ever going to happen the way you expect it to happen.
There's always going to be that one piece that goes off the rails or something that happens that throws the whole plan in a different direction. So, you have to always be prepared for that. So, when you walk in it prepared for it, it just makes life a lot easier because you're already moving and adjusting to the demand.
Is it better to find people who can lead you or people you can lead?
I think it is a mixture of both. And what I mean by that is that you always want to surround people with people that are smarter than you and that is the same with the first question that you asked – people that know things that you don’t know.
But at the same time, you also have to have people around you that you can lead but it is not a matter of leadership. In a case like this], it is a matter of really putting people around you that believe in your vision because, if they believe in your vision, then you can just instruct them on how you see it to be and they can tell you how best to achieve whatever that goal is.
So it's a combination of both without leading people but just being more so guiding because leading and guiding are two different things. You can guide them towards a passion that you all…believe in because, if they believe in your passion, the guidance is a lot easier.
Then it makes it easy. But when you have to lead people, then you have to tell them what to do and when to do it and how to do it and it just becomes exhausting. It's like you want people that kind of already know what they're doing but can also show you a better way of doing it because they have been inexperienced in these kinds of situations and causes before.
So now you have to apply what that vision is that they believe in along with what you believe in and together you guys find the best route to get there.
Absolutely. You want people who aren't afraid to tell you what they think.
One thousand percent. But you have to be the kind of person to respect what they are bringing to the table because sometimes people think, okay you have got a bunch of yes men around you.
Why do you think from your experience working in the music industry that more artists don't see the advantage of using the leverage of a career to graduate into something else like entrepreneurship or branding?
The thing is, for a lot of artists coming from a passionate window, they do not really come into it from a business opportunity window. And when people come into the music business, the only thing they know and feel in their heart is the music. What they fail to realize is they call it music business for a reason.
Because the business is what drives the music, the music is what attracts the business. So, if you are not a businessman or you don’t come in with an entrepreneurial spirit from the gate, your longevity and your sustainability in this music business is going to be really, really short.
And that is only because business is what creates that longevity and create that sustainability because, when you combine the business properly with the music, you can continue to create. As a matter of fact, you put yourself in a more comfortable position to create in a way that you are not worried about all the things that come with it financially.
So music now becomes a hobby to you and you now can do it with free spirit where you do not have to worry about if this record going to work or if this record is going to chart – it really doesn’t matter because you are doing it from the bottom and anything you do from the bottom, the audience always feels it, they relate to it and naturally it goes where it needs to go, which is always to the top.
I think when we put the music first it definitely creates the tempo for where the business needs to be and normally, when you have successful music going and you put successful businessmen around you and you yourself have the business acumen, then success will come out of that.
I was telling someone the other day that I get press releases every day from people being promoted around the industry and beyond and out of a hundred percent, maybe one and a half percent are black men, maybe. So in a lot of ways being entrepreneurs could be our saving grace. What do you think black male entrepreneurs really need to have in mind when we go into business or when trying to climb the ladder at a corporation?
It all depends actually on what he wants out of it. Like if you are coming into the business to be promoted, to be the head of a company, but you cannot help the company that you are going into and as your goal you state, “I am going I want to be the head of the company,” then there are two things that need to happen. One is you have to understand what your strategy is to get into the head person position and being that head person. Two, who represents you makes a huge difference in the music industry, especially from a legal standpoint because one thing I realize with the music business is the guy that is getting promoted from the mailroom to the vice president to eventually the president and then becoming chairman, it stems from who represents them legally.
If you have got the right lawyer that knows what you deliver and how much income you actually provide for that company, they fight for you from a legal standpoint to go in there and say, ‘Listen, my guy has been working for the last five years and he's generated this amount of money for this company, what's the next step? Where are we going from here?'
And that relationship between your attorney and the person that's in that building always dictates how far you go because sometimes, as men, as black people, we come into everything with passion. We don't think that far ahead, we're not realizing the business – when they say it's all in who you know, it's the truth.
Everybody that I know personally that became CEO of companies…who started from the mailroom and became A&R and head of A&R urban from urban to all formats, this is all them putting in the work. You have got to put in that work and then you have the right attorney to represent you that understands how the game is being played and then they slowly climb you up that ladder. But that loyalty to that person shows your character and allows them to know that, okay, this is someone we can't forget because he is one of us.
You…know these wars, these financial war deals and this and that and they see that you are not loyal to anybody but the dollars, that changes how they promote you as well too. They have got to want to know that you're in this for the long haul, you are going to help build the company with us and we can trust you to know that you are going to fight for us in our best interest moving forward.
Now if you go in there as a renegade and you just want to say, “I'm going to be the biggest competitor ever and I'm just going in to be the next Universal, I am going in to be the next Sony or the next Motown” or whatever the case may be, okay now that you got to be the most creative businessman in the world that knows finances because, with that, now you have got to be the guy that brings the talent around you, that can create a future market shift yourself that says that you're a big player.
Then, in the mix of that, you have got to have the right financial experience to know how to put the financial guys around you to raise that money and that capital to create the business you are trying to create and then hire all the right people.
That's very interesting. So then, with all that in mind, it seems like you're suggesting that we educate ourselves first before going in. Any ideas on how to do that?
Well, listening. The problem is a lot of people go into the business thinking they already know how it works you cannot tell them nothing. You have to be humble enough to learn. You have to be humble enough to receive the information and most of all when you can’t do it or you don’t know how to do it, you have to be able to ask how to ask questions.
Don’t let your pride get in the way of – because most people don’t know because they don’t want people to think they don’t know or they think that this nigger is stupid. They don't really know what is going on, they feel dumb when they feel they have to ask you.
But that's what it takes – education. You have to understand that when you don’t know, you simply ask. It makes people want to educate you more, makes those guys that have been in the game forever want to put you under their wing and teach you the ropes because they see that your humility plays in the role of a leader.
So you have to ask these questions, you have to want to know more, you have to want to understand it and you have to be in a position where you are willing to play that game and understand what those roles are and allow those guys to lead you. A lot of times we just don’t allow people to lead us because in our minds we are leaders.
So how has your experience working with solar power changed what you do with the music industry now?
I mean, it has changed in a big way because through the solar stuff, I have been engaged in areas of music that as a corporate executives who has been engaged in the music side forever, I just never knew it because I just never was on that plateau in that realm, but now because of the lighting aspect of it, I am learning more about finances and I am learning more about hedge funds and all these corporate investment groups that come from Wall Street and how they split their money and figure out how they get other donors into your company and help you build that from a different portfolio standpoint.
So, I am learning business more than how I learned it from music business because, in the music business, I was more focused on music royalties and streaming and the direct money that comes to the artist, which I was. But now I'm looking at it from a standpoint of enterprise on how that money is received and how that money is managed around me to build out and create portfolios that people want to be a part of from a corporate standpoint.
So, the lighting side has shown me that side of it. So, I apply that to the music aspect of how it all plays.
So have you ever thought to yourself that the situation in Sierra Leone was actually something negative that turned out to be positive?
I think the negative aspect of it was that it took me away from music. You know in the music business you have got to be very relevant and you cannot go too long without them feeling your energy and I think that part of it at a time I thought was negative. But I am starting to realize that, because of the day and age, with digital platforms and new streaming platforms it really helps to get to really get back in the fan's faces much quicker than before because you now have access to billions of people with the push of one button.
I am now coming in a lot more educated than I had been from a business standpoint which will also help me on a big scale in the future.
The initiative that you're working on right now with Akon Lighting America. I was reading someplace that…you're looking at 2030 as a deadline for having everything completed?
No, that is like an estimated timeframe to have things moving and running. I don’t think the completion – we don’t really have a deadline because we will always be building on it. We are actually moving and running and we are actually in progress, it is moving by 2030. The year 2030 is around a good time where we project and know that, okay, at least we got the ball rolling.
What other things do you have planned now that you have got this going?
Outside of that, we have got “Akoin” which is my cryptocurrency that we are building for Africa which I am super excited about because that also helps my overall legacy play for re-building Africa and the infrastructure that creates the opportunity for the young entrepreneurs in Africa.
So, I always thought that Africa needed that one thing that brought all Africans together and what better way to bring all Africa together than through money, through currency.
I am glad you made the time to talk to Radio Facts readers.
My pleasure Kevin, my pleasure.