Akon explains why he thinks Latin music doesn't get the respect it deserves and discusses his upcoming album El Negreeto.
Akon for People Chica
Credit: Michel Oscar

Akon — Grammy-nominated artist, R&B pioneer, and philanthropist on the rise — has come a long way since releasing his breakout single “Locked Up” in 2004. He's released three studio albums, charted hits that will live forever (“I Wanna Love You” and “Lonely,” to name a couple), collaborated with musical icons, and is now working on saving the planet with his Akon Lighting Africa project.

Something else the New Jersey native can now cross off his list? Releasing a full-length album in Spanish. He emphasizes that El Negreeto, out October 4, is a real Latin album. “It's all in Spanish, and it's not just reggaeton,” he tells People CHICA. “I have some bachata on it, some merengue on there, got some mambo on there.” If you're wondering why Akon is releasing a project in Spanish, it's partly because he's a huge fan of Latin American culture and food, but also because he's always respected the work that Latinx artists put in, since long before Latin music became the powerful commercial force that it currently is in the United States.

In the past, he's collaborated with reggaeton legends like Zion on “The Way She Moves” and Tego Calderón on the “I Wanna Love You” remix, and renowned bachata group Aventura on “All Up to You” (which also featured Wisin y Yandel). This was well before Latin music had crossed over to the Anglo market as thoroughly as it has today — think J Balvin collaborating with Beyoncé or Justin Bieber's “Despacito” remix with Luis Fonsi — but Akon saw the potential. Why does he think it took so long for mainstream music culture to start paying attention to Latin artists? “I think the mainstream media didn't understand the importance of the Latin market,” he says. “They still don't get how important the Latin market is until the impact is actually felt. … What's helping now is the fact that technology is wide open. You have YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, Amazon, Pandora — all these options now to discover new music. Now, even if they wanted to be able to hold it back, they couldn't, because the music is great, the culture is so vibrant. There is no way you can go through without listening to that music in your playlist.”

The first single off El Negreeto, “Como No” featuring Becky G, is only a small preview of what Akon has in store for his fans. He has a total of four projects releasing within the next year, now that he's fully independent and not being held back by a major label. Earlier this year he founded his own label, Akonik Label Group, which he created simply because he felt it was the best way to serve his audience. In addition to El Negreeto, there's Akonda, which Akon describes as his “African, Afrobeat” record; Concrete, which has a hip-hop and R&B feel; and a reggae-inspired album coming out on his own Jamakon label.

As a 15-year music veteran, Akon knows change is inevitable, but he does feel that the industry isn't quite as original as it once was. “When someone did a record, you knew who it was,” he says of his earlier days. “Like you heard a record on the radio and before the DJ even mentioned the name, you knew it was that person because everyone had their own style … whereas today there are a lot of artists that pretty much sound very similar, so you can't really tell who's who in every song. Every song sounds like the last song that was number one.” He thinks that the difference between the music of 15 or 20 years ago and today is that contemporary artists spend too much time trying to repeat the success of what's already been done. “I'm saying it respectfully,” he says, but “it's just kind of hard to know who's who, because a lot of artists have similar styles.”

That's likely not a problem Akon will ever have, especially now that he's master of his own empire. So what's next on his to-do list? Becoming fluent in Spanish. “By the time I interview with you next year, I'll be speaking in Spanish!” he declares. “I need to make sure that by the time I come back I'll be able to sing and talk to you in Spanish fluently.”