The R&B singer got his act together in jail, owns a diamond mine, inspires fan frenzy in Senegal, and more

By Margeaux Watson
Updated January 25, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
BGG/DALLE/Retna Ltd.

Alianue Thiam, the 27-year-old Senegalese-American R&B singer/producer known as Akon, has three hit singles, two platinum albums, and a Grammy nomination for ”Smack That,” his collaboration with Eminem. Seems he’s come a long way from writing songs in a jail cell.

1. Serving three years in prison for grand theft auto changed his life.
”That’s what created everything you’re hearing today — from my attitude to my music. All of this happened when I got locked up — and woke up.” In fact, his debut CD, 2004’s Trouble, contains several songs that he wrote while incarcerated.

2. If Eminem does a new album, Akon may be on it.
”Nobody expected Em to come back out on a cameo outside of his own camp. But I flew to Detroit to work with him [on 2006’s Eminem Presents: The Re-Up]. In the midst of it, we created ‘Smack That.’ Plus, I did another song for his next album — if he decides to come out with one. He has records on standby just in case.”

3. Jazz percussionist Mor Thiam is his dad.
”My pops performed with everybody from Freddie Hubbard to James Brown. Jazz was something he did out of love — it don’t pay, especially back then.”

4. Two years ago, Akon acquired a diamond mine in South Africa.
That’s where most of his bling comes from — including ”all that I’m wearing at the moment” — but he demurs when pressed for details. ”It’s real complicated,” he says. ”You can just know that I own it.”

5. When he was 7, his family emigrated to the U.S. from Senegal, where he’s now bigger than the Beatles.
”Yo, it’s crazy. It seems like that kind of mania don’t even exist no more. It was definitely an honor to go back and receive that kind of welcome. It encourages me to work harder. They look at me like, ‘He’s one of us. If he made it, I can probably make it too.”’