Singer Akon: 'We are natural soldiers'
Senegalese-American rapper and songwriter Akon called for greater African unity when he arrived in his home country to perform at the world's biggest celebration of black arts and culture.
The six-time Grammy nominated singer, who recently released a single on which he collaborated with the late Michael Jackson, performed at the final concert of the World Festival of Black Arts in St Louis, 265 kilometres from the capital, Dakar, last week.
Hundreds of artists, singers and intellectuals from Africa and its diaspora came to Senegal for the three-week festival, themed on an African Renaissance, with many preaching greater unity on the continent.
"Things like this actually create the environment for us to move together as one people." Akon, whose real name is Alioune Thiam, said of the festival.
"The more we realise what we can do together as a unit, the farther we will get as an African nation.
"The one thing we always lack is unity, we always stay segregated. Even though Africa is one of the biggest continents, we never stay together as a people," he said.
The third festival of its kind to celebrate black identity, with the first edition hosted in Dakar in 1966, has been widely criticised for its expense, reported to be around 30 billion CFA francs (Dh224 million).
State-of-the-art stages and expositions was set up around the capital, with brightly lit Christmas decorations twinkling downtown as power cuts surge in the suburbs of the poor west African nation.
Asked by journalists how much he was paid to perform, Akon said he was giving the concert for free and the government had only paid the travel and hotel costs for him and his 32-member crew.
"The kind of money I am actually paid for a concert is nothing Senegal would really be able to afford. It's about uplifting the people.
"If I can get the economy up to where it needs to go in Senegal, then I can do freakin' shows here all the time and get paid what I am worth," he said.
Akon was born in the United States but spent his childhood in Senegal and later settled back in the United States before shooting to stardom with his debut album, Trouble, in 2004.
He has collaborated with Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Eminem and Whitney Houston.
While the dusty, traffic-snarled African city of Dakar is far from the sparkling life of celebrity he lives in America, he said it was where he feels most at home.
"Normally when I am here it's a matter of coming home. This is something that we always make time for somehow," he said.
"All my in-laws are still here, my grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces cousins, everybody is still here. In the next few years when I decide to retire, this is where I will make my home at the end of the day."
The star is massively popular in Dakar, where tireless partygoers throb to his songs in nightclubs, mixed in between traditional mbalax and the strains of Youssou N'Dour.
"When I am normally here I travel at night because during the daytime it is hard to get around when I am recognised because of the love people have for me which I appreciate more than anything," he said.
While artists and presidents call for a United States of Africa, with Libya's maverick leader Muammar Al Gaddafi urging a unity government with one African army, Akon said it was conflict on the continent that was "hindering us tremendously".
"We are natural soldiers, Africans have always been fighters, but we have to find a way a non-violent way to... get our point across to each other," he said.