Story Maurice G. Garland /// Photography Scott Council
The beautiful thing about this long, winding road we call life is that you can always bust a U-turn. Before Aliaune “Akon” Thiam was a world-renowned pop star making hits with Snoop Dogg and writing songs for Gwen Stefani, he was in Jersey City popping steering columns and making “The Sweet Escape” in someone else’s ride. Drawn to the glitz, glamour and, er, sitting ducks, he moved his hustle down south to Atlanta. But his operation came to a screeching halt when he was busted and sent to prison. When he got out, all of his cars had been seized. This is when Akon switched lanes to pursue a career in music.
Since touching down in 2004 with his debut single, “Locked Up,” Akon’s ride to international superstardom has been fast and smooth, just like his fleet of whips. While you won’t hear him namedrop his vehicles in his songs or place them in his videos, he has plenty worth bragging about—a Ferrari, Range Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Chevy Suburban, two Bimmers and two Lamborghinis. With his second album, Konvicted, approaching triple-platinum and his Konvict Music label enjoying T-Pain’s breakthrough success, the only crime Akon can be accused of now is running stop signs on his way to the top—but even those won’t stick.
You are the prime ambassador for your home country of Senegal. What does that even mean?
It means I have diplomatic immunity. Basically, cops can’t pull me over or bother me. It’s on my license. So if I’m speeding and they’re behind me, they can’t pull me over. The ones who do decide to stop me, all they can say is, “I’m sorry.” Most of the time I just tell them that no apology is needed.
Damn, a true license to ill! Would you say that you abuse that privilege on the streets, or do you really need it?
A lot of times, I’m speeding because I really, really have to get somewhere. I am doing a thousand things, so I have places that I need to be, and I want to be on time. Now, yes, sometimes I speed because I like to. But the majority of the time, it’s because I really need to be somewhere.
We imagine that your previous line of work required a heavy foot, too.
Even before I had the diplomatic immunity, I was speeding. Back when I was running the streets, I was always in car chases, so I had to speed to get away.
Not that we’re condoning criminal activity, but what’s the best car to dust the cops in?
Out of all my experiences, I’d have to choose BMWs. They are the best-handling cars on the road. Lambos and Ferraris are good, too, because they hit the corners faster. But if you lose control, they don’t protect you from impact. If you hit a wall or pole or something, you’re probably dead. BMWs have metal bars from bumper to bumper, so if you hit something, you’ll live—and probably get arrested, unfortunately [laughs]. But it’s BMW, hands down, the power steering is crazy, too. If you do any crime, I recommend BMWs.
Being from Jersey, we know you’ve got things to say about their infamous “car trade” industry. What were the easy targets?
Most of the American cars are. Me and my crew mostly went after cars that we could just stick screwdrivers in and start. After a while, we just started getting copies of keys made. Most of the time, we’d steal the keys before the car. But you can’t really do that anymore; the cars are a lot smarter now (see above).
So what was the first car you actually bought?
A Saab, that was around ’96 or ’97. I actually saved my money and got it myself. Oh, my goodness, that car made me the man. Thinking back, it was probably wrong for me to have that car so young. I didn’t know how to act. I also consider my white BMW 745 to be a first, too. It was my first official car bought with legal cash.
You have a handful of cars, but when does the need become a want?
Really, after one or two, it becomes a want. All of my first cars were sports cars. When I started making movies, I needed an SUV. And when I started traveling a lot, I got a Suburban.
How would you describe the car culture in Atlanta? Does it strike you as a bit Mr. Me-Too?
Atlanta has a lot of copy cats. When I was pushing black whips with black alloy wheels, they was still sitting high on chrome 24s. When I was in sports cars, I’d do a gray-on-gray combo. I don’t want to take all of the credit, but they weren’t doing it like that until I did it. Atlanta still has a nice car culture, but Miami comes before them. When I first came to Atlanta, they were on old-schools hard, Regals and shit. But when we came through, niggas weren’t doing it like us before. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. It’s a shame now, though, because there are a lot more copy cats.
Is there much of a difference in your car taste between running the streets and being a pop star?
I had an image before music. I always had fun, but I don’t go out of my way to let people know what I got. That’s wasted energy. You shouldn’t try to keep up with the Joneses either. You got people spending $100,000 on a ride but ain’t got a house, that’s ignorance. They say you got to look like money to make money, but people take that the wrong way. If you’re doing business, you can’t have people visit you if you got a Porsche parked in the projects or a Lambo in an apartment complex. That makes you look stupid.
You don’t put a lot of cars in your videos. Is that by choice?
Yes, it’s by choice. I mean, that’s what everybody is doing. Every video got them riding in expensive cars, and they’re renting. That’s the worst feeling in the world, being the shit for half a day, and not being shit the other half. Even after my photo shoot, I was like, “Damn, what if I didn’t have these cars in real life?” I don’t like the feeling of fooling myself; I hate not being able to provide. I try to manage everything, from my money to my expenses. I try to present myself as normal as possible. If you come out as a normal person, you’ll always be able to maintain a certain amount of respect. Instead of coming out flashy, hitting hard times and having niggas looking at you like, “Damn, you fell off.”
Your father, Mor Thiam, was a jazz drummer. Older jazz players were known for being fly. What was his car game like?
My pops, man, it was crazy. He is the reason I have so much love for cars. He’s had every Mercedes you can name: If it came out, he got it. But he never had five of them at the same time. He’d just keep trading the one he was driving for the new one.
What is the car scene like in Senegal? Are Mercedes the thing to have over there?
The car game ain’t up to par over there. Only the rich have nice vehicles. They ship theirs in. For instance, I’m going back home, so I’m shipping my Lambo over there because they don’t have a Lamborghini dealership. The only people you’ll really see pushing fly shit is rich kids from London or France.
As a musician, do you invest a lot in your car’s beat?
I used to, but now I just go with the factory sound. I used to overdo it to the point where I had to wear headphones in my car. But now I’m trying to preserve my hearing because I’m always in loud-ass studios. Plus, these new cars have all this new technology, so having crazy sound systems can affect the rest of the car’s performance.
So it seems like every entertainer is trying to get their own rim line. Should we be expecting Akon to delve into the industry?
Yeah, but I want my own car line. I’m talking to Ferrari about designing my own car. It’s going to be the fastest sports car out.
Word, you’d better hope nobody jacks it. Karma’s a bitch!