Aliaune Thiam has been playing up his criminal past since he officially arrived on the music scene in 2004 as Akon.
The first single from the Atlanta rapper-singer-songwriter-producer's debut album "Trouble" was titled "Locked Up." The Atlanta-based labels with hip-hop/R&B artist T-Pain, reggae star Kardinal Offishal and pop newcomer Colby O'Donis are named Konvict Entertainment and Kon Live. And the title of his sophomore CD, which sold 3 million copies? "Konvicted."
Akon concedes this was all purposeful, "but only to remind myself of where I'd come from, what I've been through, and what I don't want to go back to."
However, earlier this year, the Smoking Gun Web site reported that the Atlanta singer had fabricated much of his claims about being a convicted felon and one-time leader of a car theft ring.
Days before the release of his new album, "Freedom," (initially titled "Aquitted), we asked Billboard magazine's Top Pop Artist of 2007 to come clean:
Q: So let's start with the big, main thing that's out there — and that the Smoking Gun reported to be false: Did you spend three years in a Georgia prison?
A: "Actually, this is what it was — and if you don't mind I'm going to start from the beginning. When I first came to Atlanta, I wanted to go to school at Clark (Atlanta University). My pop (master percussionist Mor Thiam) was working over there with the band as a consultant, and I thought I was going to play basketball.
"Anyway, I ended up hurting my knee and I was like, 'You know what? College was never for me. I want to be in the music industry.' "
Q: OK, you're going to have to fast-forward a little bit ...
A: "It's long, I know. But I wish the Smoking Gun had asked me so I could tell them this, too. I don't mind talking about my past. ... OK, I played around until about '98 before I realized, 'OK I've got to get some money. I'm broke.' That's when the hustler mentality came out in me. I got caught up in cars and this and that. Kept going in and out of jail. Three months here, six months there, two weeks here. And it was to a point where I was like, 'This really doesn't make any sense. What am I doing?' And the last stretch I did was six months in DeKalb County after I was pulled over in a stolen car."
Q: Did you steal the car?
A: "No. The majority of the time I was in jail was for theft by receiving. I was always receiving stolen cars."
Q. You do know how crazy that sounds. Were you the ring leader of a car theft ring?
A: "No. I mean, honestly, if I was, they would have had enough to make it stick. They tried to convict me as ringleader and they didn't have enough evidence. That's why I was in DeKalb for so long, I guess: They were trying to gather evidence."
Q. But in the end all of the charges were dropped. That's in line with what the Smoking Gun reported. Go ahead.
A. "Well, when I got caught in DeKalb they found out I had an outstanding case in New Jersey, so after DeKalb County I had to go deal with that. The gun (possession) charge. That worked out and I got three years' probation."
Q. After you pleaded guilty.
A. "Right. So I guess when I was being interviewed, and I would say, 'Yeah I did about a good three years,' I wasn't saying I did a three-year stretch. I was calculating the time from when I started to get in trouble to the time when I said, 'Enough is enough'. And I think that was mistranslated in the Smoking Gun article and other stories."
Q. So again, for the sake of clarity, you have never been convicted of anything.
Q. And yet, again, you call yourself Akon to remind yourself of that troubled time in and out jail.
A: [Nods again] "And to give those people hope who I met behind bars who were so talented. 'Locked Up' was like an anthem to them, before it was a hit record. I'm not trying to glorify convicts and jail life and gangsters."
Q. Most of your hits are actually partying and/or sexual in theme.
A: "I want to do something positive with my music. That's what 'Freedom' is about. But you have to get people's attention first, so they can hear you. It's sad, but like jail, the music industry is a trap, too. Like movies, positive stuff doesn't get the promotion that action movies, guns and violence gets. So I jumped the gate and gave it to 'em just like that. I did a song called 'I Wanna [Expletive] You,' and it's a success."
Q. Next thing you know, you're selling millions of records ... in the studio with Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Gwen Stefani. Buying million-dollar-plus mansions in Atlanta National. It seems like you've gotten through this knock at your "street credibility," so to speak, unscathed. Except Dec. 1 — the day before "Freedom" — a court date for throwing a teenager off the stage.
A: "And you know, I wish I could talk about that. Clear that up, too. But, the lawyers ... What I can say is I think it will be a simple process. I'm confident. I'm confident about everything these days.
"Because you know what's funny? When I was in and out of jail and decided to go full-speed at this music business thing, I came up with this plan where the top goal was to work with Michael Jackson, and retire in like 2018. Now I've already worked with Michael. And it's looking like retirement might happen earlier.
"I'll admit I may have said some things in the beginning just to get people to talk to me — just to keep people talking about me. But while I'm doing that talking I'm also promoting whatever I'm working on musically; and in the end, making more money."
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