Akon explains what’s wrong with people like Akon
OPINION: When Akon explained the difference between African artists and Black Americans, he exposed a deep-seated rift created by people like Akon.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio
Recently, the popular musician Akon ignited a not-so-deep-seated controversy with a statement that appeared to insinuate that African entertainers were inherently better than Black American entertainers.
“We’re a little different when it comes to stage presence,” the deacon-voiced entertainer explained in an interview. “Now, in America, them niggas gon’ be wobbling, pants hanging down, bored as hell half to sleep because they’re high as hell. But look at these YouTube clips from these kids from Uganda…For us, it comes natural.”
The clip ignited controversy and exposed a not-so-deep-seated rift that demands a more nuanced discussion than 240 characters will allow.
Who is Akon?
According to A&E, Akon is “a Senegalese American singer, songwriter and record producer.”
Born to a Senegalese jazz musician father and a mother who was a dancer, Akon’s musical career exploded with the 2004 sem-autobiographical smash hit “Locked Up.” His recording resume includes three platinum albums, five Grammy nominations and producing hits for Snoop Dogg, Michael Jackson, and … Actually, I’m not technically required to mention any names after those two. As a record executive, Akon is responsible for signing such acts as Lady Gaga, T-Pain and French Montana.
That’s pretty good for an immigrant from Africa.
Actually, Akon was born in St. Louis, raised in New Jersey and attended college in Atlanta.
If Akon were white, he would be considered an American singer, songwriter and record producer. He was born in the United States, which technically and legally means Akon is an American citizen. He was educated in the United States and lived in the U.S. for most of his life. But Akon is not white so, according to the rules that white people made up, he is not afforded the same nationality as first-generation white Americans like Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney and Larry King.
So, despite growing up in New Jersey and living in America, he considers himself to be an “African.” To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to identify with his parent’s homeland. He actually lived there as a child. Even if he is not the same kind of African as Elon Musk, Charlize Theron or Steve Nash, these national and racial designations were created long before Akon began rap-singing. More importantly, they are not mutually exclusive. Akon is African. And he is African-American. And he is an American.
So how why was his statement so controversial?
Well, here’s the thing:
Many people who heard Akon’s statement felt that his shady remark was part of an ongoing rap beef that extends outside of hip-hop. Akon’s casual diss reflected a sentiment shared by many Africans, that Africans are superior to Black Americans. Typified by the use of the word “Akata,” the derision echoes white supremacist narratives, namely that Black Americans are uneducated, lazy, ghetto and uncultured.
Conversely, some Africans, as well as people who hail from Caribbean countries, believe Black Americans share a similar prejudice against Black immigrants. Everyone defines their identity in different terms. These arbitrary geopolitical cultural and historical lines of demarcation inform how we view ourselves and each other.
How we define our identity is an interesting and complex conundrum that depends on one’s individual perspective, our understanding of history and our collective and individual worldviews. All of this is complicated by our understanding of history (or the lack thereof). and the lies we have been told.
But didn’t you once say that “every good lie is seasoned with a little bit of truth to make it easy to swallow?
Yes, I did.
The world’s perception of Black America is shaped by white-controlled media. Hip-hop, jazz, blues and every other form of popular American music and culture were created by Black Americans, but it was commodified, monetized and exported to the world by white people. Before we complain that hip-hop creates a negative image of Black people, we should ask who sits at the helm of multibillion-dollar media companies that intentionally overlook smart, creative artists who are better at rapping and instead, invest millions of corporate dollars in uneducated 19-year-old drug dealers.
When hip-hop was an underground art form, there was a Poor Righteous Teacher for every Ni**a With Attitude and a “U.N.I.T.Y.” for every “Murda Was the Case.” Viewed collectively, these artistic expressions reflect a diverse variety of lived experiences but, it is white culture that determines a hit. And, because white people’s perception of Black people is informed by white supremacy, corporate profiteers curate a commercially successful, one-dimensional view of Black Americans.
And, if we’re being honest, the same is true about many people’s perception of Africa. The white world would still be in the dark ages if Africans hadn’t taught them medicine, mathematics or quite literally, the scientific method. But if you grew up reading National Geographic, the New York Times or a sixth-grade social studies book, you might think that Africa was still “uncivilized.” Every Black American has heard how they’d still be walking around naked among the giraffes if white people hadn’t used their shackles and slave ships to rescue us from Africa.
Yet, for some reason, many of us are willing to consume, digest and regurgitate this white supremacist narrative as if it were true. By buying into these reductive stereotypes, we fuel the animosity that furthers the negative perception that created these reductive stereotypes. It’s like a snake eating its tail.
In reality, what the world knows as “da culture” is just a handful of interconnected media conglomerate services sifting through a diverse, representative assortment of Black art, breaking off the most provocative parts and selling it as our whole selves. Akon is the perfect example of how this capitalization of Black culture demonizes Black people while profiting off this white supremacist construct. When Akon threw shade at Black American artists, he wasn’t just perpetuating a racist stereotype that white people made up. But he was not talking about Black Americans.
Akon was talking about white people’s version of Black Americans.
So this is white people’s fault?
Well, in this particular case, Akon was amplifying a racist stereotype that Akon made up.
The artist that Akon described is a very good description of an artist named Akon. His record label is “Konvict Music.” His second album was called “Konvicted.” He became famous for a song called “Locked Up.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a debut single about “heading uptown to re-up” and coming “back with a couple keys” if that’s his experience when he “fu**ed around and got locked up.” Finding success after spending time in prison is a great example of an immigrant working his way to the top to achieve the American dream. As he once explained: “It just so happens that I ended up being a convict.” There’s only one problem with Akon’s American dream:
It is a lie.
“Akon’s ad [nauseam] claims about his criminal career and resulting prison time have been, to an overwhelming extent, exaggerated, embellished, or wholly fabricated,” reported the Smoking Gun. “Akon has overdubbed his biography with the kind of grit and menace that he apparently believes music consumers desire from their hip-hop stars. While the performer’s rap sheet does include a half-dozen arrests, Akon has only been convicted of one felony, for gun possession… for which the singer was sentenced to three years probation.”
He admitted to selling a false image of a felonious thug who made his money leading a criminal enterprise. He didn’t just sell the caricature, he profited from it. It turns out, this self-styled superior “African” based his entire career on the most negative image of Black Americans.
Akon was not talking about Black Americans.
Akon was talking about white people’s version of Black Americans.
The real Akon was born in America to parents who made a living combining African music with music created by Black Americans. He was educated in American schools and attended a historically black college founded to serve Black American freedmen. He was signed by a white record executive (Steve Rifkind) who made millions selling music created by Black Americans after his father Jules Rifkind made millions selling music created by Black Americans.
When he was describing Black Americans, he was selling a version of a portrait that he helped create. Akon didn’t just profit off the culture, he monetized it and sold it to the world. Even when Ye and Candace Owens throw Black people under the bus, at least they use white people’s buses. But Akon is better than that. He ain’t like the rest of you shiftless negroes. He built his own bus and drove it himself.
Do you think Akon really believes what he said?
What Akon believes is less important than what Akon says.
Does it matter if white supremacists truly believe they are superior if they spread the ideology? Who cares what’s in a racist’s heart? By perpetuating a hyper-racist caricature of the worst kind of Black person and selling it to white people, Akon confirms the biased, preconceived ideations of Blackness. He is no different from the white vultures who launder their intergenerational wealth through Black culture. Even worse, Akon is being accused of using that blood money to steal more money while fueling this division.
However, the most interesting part of Akon’s casual confirmation of white supremacist rhetoric was not his public display of ignorance or his meritless display of cultural succubus sociology, or his willingness to denigrate the creators of the culture that feeds his family and made him a star. The worst part of all was how he casually weaponized the language of Black Americans and used it to describe the lazy, boring, inferior saggy pants-wearers who created the art that his superior kinsmen somehow improved.
“Them niggas…” said Akon.
Us niggas. We niggas. “Them niggas.”
But, as a famous musician once said: “People reacted to me in an ignorant way because they didn’t know my culture.”
Who said that?
A Black, African and American musician named Aliaume Damala Badara Akon Thiam.
You probably don’t know him, though.
He’s a little different.
Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2023.
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