By Jackson Ibelle
Pop and R&B singer Akon blew up following his 2004 album Trouble, which spawned hits such as Locked Up and Lonely. The Sengalese-American singer from Jersey City, New Jersey remained a force in the music industry throughout the mid to late 2000’s, topping the charts with the singles Don’t Matter and I Wanna Love You and reaching second with Smack That and Gwen Stefani’s Sweet Escape. His second album Konvicted was also nominated for three Grammy’s. Akon also maintained a presence in hip-hop culture, collaborating with countless rappers like Eminem, Lil Wayne and Jeezy. After his third album Freedom was certified platinum in 2008, it seemed certain that Akon would continue his reign as a pop superstar.
Since the release of Freedom, his least successful album, Akon’s momentum has faded. He has yet to release a fourth album and his features are few and far between. His celebrity has diminished as well, possibly on purpose as he has shot down questions about his personal life in the past in an attempt to keep it out of the spotlight. His next album Stadium has been pushed back many times with no release date in sight, and the buzz for it is minimal.
Despite this Akon is now making headlines again and not for reasons you would expect. In 2014, he announced the Akon Lighting Africa project, which was intended to provide electricity for the millions of people in Africa without access to it. In an interview with Sway In The Morning, Akon estimated that it would take 350 billion dollars to provide everyone with electricity, but that the goal was to go from country to country and slowly make a difference. He said, “This is a for profit business, but the key is to create businesses that are going to provide jobs and then actually help the people.” His bold claims did not make major news and until a few days ago the project flew mostly under the radar.
The goal of Akon Lighting Africa is to provide electricity to 600 million people in Africa without it through the starting of a Solar Academy. The Academy is located in Bamako, Mali and will employ European experts to teach African engineers and entrepreneurs how to harness solar power by building and maintaining micro-grids and solar panels. In a statement, the project said that there are 320 days of sunlight a year in Africa so solar power is the ideal way to provide electricity. Another major goal for Akon Lighting Africa is to provide sustainable jobs to the 70% of Africans who are under 35. Graduating from the Solar Academy will allow people to go into a career that will further progress their continent. Along with the singer, this project was founded by Samba Baithily and Thione Niang. The latter says that “We expect the Africans who graduate from this center to devise new, innovative, technical solutions. With this Academy, we can capitalize on Akon Lighting Africa and go further.”
The video shows the impact that this project is already beginning to have, making the effected areas safer and more accessible. Whether it’s lighting the highways at night to prevent crashes or lighting hospitals so that doctors don’t need to do their work by flashlight, the Academy is having an immediate influence.
Akon’s unique childhood could be a clue as to why he has decided to give back in such a big way. He was born in St. Louis but moved back to Senegal and grew up there until age 7 when his parents moved back to the United States, settling in New Jersey. He has said in the past that he considers his home to be in Senegal. As an adolescent in Jersey, Akon had a hard time escaping the woes of inner city living, and got into trouble on multiple occasions, even getting kicked out of one school. “When I first heard hip-hop I thought it was rubbish because I didn’t understand the concept of people talking over music,” he once said in an interview, “But as I started growing up, living a little and listening to the lyrics, I realized that I was going through a lot of stuff these rappers were talking about and I could relate.” Knowing what he does about growing up in poverty, coupled with his love for his home continent are most likely big factors in the Akon Lighting Africa project.
Although still in the early stages, this project has already proven its impact and it will be important to see where it goes in the future. Famous people often give back to charities or start foundations but rarely do you see something to this scale. Akon’s return to the headlines has been far greater than anything he could do with a microphone and here’s to hoping more celebrities follow in his footsteps!