Thursday, June 19, 2008

Akon's con job

The platinum-selling R&B artist has fabricated a past as ringleader of a "notorious" car theft ring who spent 4 1/2 years in jail.

In the hip-hop world, a performer's street cred can often be gauged by the number of entries on their rap sheet, the time they have spent behind bars, or the gritty details of their illicit escapades.

By any of those metrics, the chart-topping R&B singer Akon appears to have compiled an exemplary outlaw resume, one brimming with scrapes from a hard knock life.

As recounted in scores of interviews since his first album, the platinum-selling "Trouble," debuted in 2004, Akon was incarcerated for a total of four-and-a-half years, including a long stretch for his role as the "ringleader of a notorious car theft operation." Akon's gang specialized in boosting Porsches, Lamborghinis, and Mercedeses, he owned four chop shops catering to "celebrities and drug dealers," and he frequently escaped from cops in high-speed pursuits. His criminal empire collapsed, though, after underlings--who "felt like they deserved more than they were getting"--cut deals and ratted him out to law enforcement. As a result of that betrayal, Akon spent the next three years in a Georgia prison. While inside, the 150-pound inmate "fought almost every day for two years," in the process becoming a "champion" who prevailed over both big and small inmates because, "I knew where to hit you to knock you out, so I didn't fear you."

When not brutally schooling fellow convicts, Akon was writing songs, including "Locked Up," his autobiographical account of prison desolation, from dwindling commissary accounts to friends and family that no longer visited or accepted collect calls. The song, he recalled, "was like an anthem in there" and corrections officers would often ask him to sing its chorus ("I'm locked up/They won't let me out"). After his release in 2002, Akon recorded "Locked Up," adding to the song what would become his audio trademark: the clanging sound of a cell door closing. The single later became a hit, but did little to erase the memories of his time on lockdown, which "felt like 300 years, not three."

Compared to most of hip-hop's leading figures past and present--50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Diddy, Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G.--Akon, 35, seems to have logged more time behind bars and, consequently, gained a better understanding of the average convict's plight (both in and out of custody) than any of his musical peers. The New York Times has referred to him as the "prison-obsessed R&B singer" who "wants it known that crooners can evoke prison life just as effectively as rappers." In fact, the singer not only named his company Konvict Music, but he settled on "Konvicted" for the title of his second album, which sold nearly three million copies last year.

As it turns out, however, "Kontrived" might have been a more accurate choice.

Akon's ad nauseum claims about his criminal career and resulting prison time have been, to an overwhelming extent, exaggerated, embellished, or wholly fabricated. Police, court, and corrections records reveal that the entertainer has created a fictionalized backstory that serves as the narrative anchor for his recorded tales of isolation, violence, woe, and regret. 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. That 1998 New Jersey case ended with a guilty plea, for which the singer was sentenced to three years probation. Another 1998 bust, this one in suburban Atlanta, has been seized upon by Akon and transformed into the big case that purportedly sent him to prison (thanks to his snitching cohorts) for three fight-filled years. In reality, Akon was arrested for possession of a single stolen BMW and held in the DeKalb County jail for several months before prosecutors dropped all charges against him.

So there was no conviction. There was no prison term between 1999 and 2002. And he was never "facing 75 years," as the singer claimed in one videotaped interview.

Akon's invented tales appear to be part of a cynical marketing plan, but one that has met with remarkable success. Few press interviews conclude without Akon being asked about his criminal exploits and his prison days. He obliges with canned and well-rehearsed claims, false as they may be, and compares his supposed nationwide operation to those depicted in the movies "Gone in 60 Seconds" and "New Jersey Drive." And in interview after interview over the years, he always makes sure to point out the "notorious" nature of his theft ring (as if the adjective's inclusion makes him sound even more felonious). Akon repeats the phrase "notorious car theft operation" so frequently it seems like he is reading it from a sheet of talking points.

Akon's manager, Robert Carnes, declined to discuss any aspect of the criminal history of the R&B singer, who is currently touring in Africa. Carnes directed a reporter to Sharonda Smalls, Akon's publicist at Universal Motown Records. After being apprised of the nature of the story, Smalls said she would seek replies to our questions, but had not called back at press time. Darrick "Devyne" Stephens, Akon's longtime collaborator and business partner, did not return several messages left at his Atlanta office.

Akon's deceptions have gone unchallenged and unexamined by the music press, which has been happy to promote him as one of the beleaguered recording industry's few bright lights. He was named "Top Artist of 2007" by Billboard and dubbed "The Last Hit-Maker" in an April 2007 Vibe cover story. His two albums combined have sold about 10 million copies worldwide, while ring tone sales have exceeded 6.5 million downloads. He has also collaborated on songs with a wide array of musical superstars, including Gwen Stefani, Eminem, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston.

With the single exception of a Washington Post reporter who wrote last March that some of the "bullet points in Akon's biography" sounded "like the stuff of creation myth," entertainment journalists have played right into the manipulation. In a February 2007 story in Creative Loafing, Atlanta's weekly newspaper, readers were assured that "Akon doesn't need to embellish, since he's already lived an unusual and turbulent life." And an August 2007 Interview magazine story was headlined, "Akon: In a hip-hop world where everyone's always straining for street cred, here's one guy who has it."

For his part, the performer appears so confident that nobody will challenge his fables that he has recently embellished them even further. In an interview for a February 2008 episode of VH1's "Rags to Riches," the R&B performer claimed that he actually was a carjacker who "used to literally snatch cars from people. And they would be traumatized for months." He claimed to be ashamed of this behavior (which he never previously mentioned) and remarked that he could not believe he once "had the heart to do that stuff." A VH1 graphic duly noted that this wanton activity "landed him three years in prison for carjacking."

This modus operandi, of course, might seem familiar to readers of these pages. An artist inflates his criminal history to create an image of himself as a public menace who tangles with law enforcement and pays for his transgressions with a stiff prison sentence. He cleaves to these bogus biographical details in public appearances and media interviews and carefully weaves them into the art he peddles to the public. Because without the embellishments and fabrications, without the havoc and heartache, what separates him from every other wannabe clawing for commercial success? Why chance having your work judged solely on its merits when a little artistic license can make you so much more distinctive and marketable?

Akon, as it turns out, is James Frey with catchy hooks and an American Music Award.

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