Long before Akon was a five-time Grammy nominee or a platinum-certified musician, he was a teenager living in Jersey City, N.J., where life was no walk in the park.
“There was a lot of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in that area, I was pretty much the only African,” Akon said. “We used to always get into so much trouble.”
So when Akon found himself in trouble with other kids in the area, a man named Mario Costa had an unorthodox way of solving the problem.
“Mario was very instrumental for me in my earlier career,” Akon said.
Costa, the owner of the Ringside Lounge, a restaurant located beside a building where former boxer Mike Tyson once trained, would organize a boxing match for the disgruntled youths.
“Mario would gather us all up with the two or three parties … and put us in the ring and we would all put on our gloves and duke it out,” Akon said. “That’s where we all solved our problems in the hood. It is not like we would go grab a gun and go shoot this cat. If I had a problem with you I would meet you at the Ringside.”
Without Costa, Akon says things could have easily turned deadly.
“He is definitely a blessing for us because I know without that situation bullets would have been flying without thinking about it,” Akon said.
Since his days in New Jersey, Akon has gone from the streets to become one of the biggest names in music, having worked with the likes of Michael Jackson, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg and T-Pain.
“I think Mario saved a lot of us… I probably would have been dead or locked up easily.”
On Friday (Sept. 18), the Akon, who was named one of Forbes 40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa in 2011, will be performing at Diana Krall Plaza along with Karl Wolf and BAE.
Akon is currently on tour across Canada promoting his upcoming album, Stadium, which is his first since 2008.
“If I had to make a choice between doing a promo run in New York and in Canada, Canada will always be the first choice because the people here are more diverse and open to international music,” he said.
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Akon will release the first part of Stadium via an application.
“An app was the best way to release a five-part album at the same time simultaneously to where the fans would now get rewarded for what they do most, which is support me and listen to my music,” Akon said.
By listening to music on the app, fans can collect ‘Akoins’ which can be used to unlock the other albums.
“The way I set it up on the app is the more you listen, the more opportunities you get to gain Akoins to be able to unlock the other albums,” he said.
Stadium features music in a wide variety of genres including hip-hop, pop and house.
“I wanted to create a series of albums that would pretty much highlight every genre that I was successful in,” Akon said.
Akon was born in Missouri and lived in West Africa and New Jersey.
“Growing up in Africa I didn’t have electricity as a child,” he said.
Last year, Akon along with Thione Niang and Samba Bathily, co-created Akon Lighting Africa, a project that aims to bring electricity to over 600 million people in Africa.
“When I came back to [Africa] after the success I realized the same neighbourhood, which I came up under was still in the same situation. Still no lights, still no clean water something had to be done about it,” Akon said.
So far the project is in more than 10 African nations and will be expanding next year to include an additional 13 nations.
“I couldn’t believe no one ever took the steps to actually do it, because not only is it a great business for electricity in all parts of Africa, but it is so necessary for the people to even survive and build infrastructure,” Akon said.
As part of the Akon Lighting Africa project, the Smack That singer has created the Solar Academy, a Mali-based school that will provide valuable training in the areas of technology and engineering to locals.
“All of the contracts that we sign in all of the countries are going to need a lot of manpower. So the best way was to get Africans who know their territory better than anybody, train them to be able to maintain the equipment and install it at the same time,” Akon said. “Not only will they be doing some creative and productive work for their community, but they will also be raising money to be able to communicate and be in a position to feed their families.”
Akon performs on Friday night. The show includes a beer garden and begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45-$55. For more information and ticket purchases, please call 250-754-6751 or visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1472349453081121/.For additional information on the Akon Lighting Africa project, please visit www.akonlightingafrica.com.