In August 2020, Aliaune Thiam—better known as Akon, the Senegalese-American R&B crooner famous for his early 2000s Top 40 hits—placed the first stone on a site where he plans to build a $6 billion city. Surrounded by government officials, Akon promised that the city, audaciously named after himself, would bring tourism and jobs to Senegal—and that it would run on Akoin, his proposed cryptocurrency. Two years later, Akon City remains just a stone and a plaque in an empty field. Its ethos is similarly vacant. The city’s official website provides few real answers about its purpose, and instead features 3D-rendered visuals of curvilinear, phallic buildings that droop and fold against a foreboding sunset. It describes Akon City, ungrammatically, as
Senegal rivalry futuristic development to become the beacon of innovation and human development by providing the best education solution, to lead the economy of the country creating the most revolutionary industry, rewarding Senegalese hard work for making Senegal the leading country in technology innovation and natural resources best used by providing the best housing with at most futuristic design comforting the daily life with mixed use of entertainment and services for all types of residential buildings (social, middle class and high end).
Akon City is far from the only planned-city proposal with mysterious funding to gain traction—and garner controversy—in the last few years. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Neom project to terraform and urbanize a 10,000-square-mile stretch of Red Sea–pinched desert was publicly unveiled in 2017, while the Peter Thiel–sponsored Praxis Society has planned to charter a crypto-backed Mediterranean city-state since at least 2016. Nonetheless, Akon City merits special consideration for how it speaks to the cultural scripts that increasingly animate capitalists of the so-called Black Global South. These crosscurrents of capital now intermingle with the imaginations of the “Fourth World”—the disenfranchised who populate developed countries.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, Akon claimed the city would be something like “a real-life Wakanda,” the fictional and futuristic ethno-state of the 2018 superhero feature Black Panther. In an attempt to channel Black Panther’s aesthetically Afrocentric spirit—while sidestepping the role that civil conflict and postcolonial strife play in its narrative—Akon said, “As you come in from America, or Europe, or anywhere in the diaspora, and you . . . want to visit Africa, we want Senegal to be your first stop.”
Tourism is one of Senegal’s largest economic sectors, making up around 10 percent of the country’s GDP. The tourism industry is a byproduct of the country’s long history of colonialism, dating back to the fifteenth century. Many visitors to Senegal are white Francophones with race- and class-conjugated connections to the region. These tourists and expatriates represent an aging economic base that many in Senegal want to move beyond. Just last year, French-owned businesses across the capital, Dakar, were apparently targeted by arsonists and looters in anti-government protests that seethed against France’s longtime extractive and lopsided economic relationship with Senegal. The Senegalese government seems eager to embrace the publicity and diversion that Akon City offers as a project of domestic investment.
Yet it is difficult to believe that Senegalese authorities completely believe in Akon City’s self-billed transformative power. It is not the first project of its kind in Africa. A continent-wide trend inaugurated in 2008 with Konza City, developed by the Kenyan government in conjunction with the consulting firm McKinsey, these “smart” cities have been pitched to a social stratum in dire need of real economic and social development. Most of these projects—which hinge on the elusive promise of contemporary technology, as if to reshape the world in Silicon Valley’s image—have failed, to varying degrees. In the two years since Akon City’s launch party, questions have likewise lingered about the project’s scope, finances, construction schedule, practicality, and promises of engagement with local people.
Some of Akon City’s most obvious hypocrisies have already been exposed, starting with the fact that no Senegalese architects or engineers have been hired to help design the city. “I want the buildings to look like real African sculptures that they make in the villages,” Akon said at the city’s groundbreaking. He has since admitted he “wanted to not overthink my project” in hiring someone from the region. Instead, he tapped Hussein Bakri, CEO and lead architect of a United Arab Emirates–based firm, to helm the design process. A Los Angeles construction company, KE International, has also reportedly been contracted. No Senegal-based partnerships have been publicly named.
Bakri has claimed the city will be built from a mix of standard and new construction materials, including a supposedly energy-generating steel alloy specifically designed for Akon City’s stylized wide windows. Local architects have raised questions about whether such construction is feasible in the region’s hot, semi-arid climate. Others have questioned whether the city will live up to its promises of sustainability, in a country considered among the most vulnerable to the ravaging effects of climate change. Above all, there is the question of whether the average Senegalese worker will be able to afford living within commuting distance of Akon City. Mean wages in Senegal hover around $140 per month.
When pressed in interviews, Akon relies on canned answers to deflect these criticisms and promote his crypto experiment. “Cryptocurrency and blockchain technology,” he said, “offer a more secure currency that enables people in Africa to advance themselves independent of the government.” He claims Akoin will not just be a currency used to pay for goods and services but a way to establish credit and borrow money; residents will be able to use Akoin to pay for public transportation, basic utilities, and taxes. Beyond that, Akon City promises few of the social services that ostensibly define an urban area. It will have a police department, probably. It will have a hospital, “eventually.” It is not even clear how Akoin will work. “I come with the concepts and let the geeks figure it out,” Akon said in 2018. (Though a white paper and flashy website were produced in 2020, it is unclear how widely adopted Akoin has been—or will be.)
Akon’s former business associate, Devyne Stephens, compared Akon City to a Ponzi scheme in an affidavit filed with the New York Supreme Court, where Stephens is currently trying to recoup $4 million he claims the singer owes him. Regardless of the intentions behind Akon’s use of crypto, his statements ultimately conjure a muddled libertarianism at odds with the needs for social development in Senegal—not to mention the supportive role the state has played in his own municipal project.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, alongside his allusions to Wakanda, Akon described his city as the product of his experience as both an African and an African American. In the shadow of the global uprising following the police murder of George Floyd, Akon said of Black Americans, “the system [in the United States] treats them unfairly in so many different ways that you can never imagine . . . they only go through it because they feel that there is no other way.” He claimed he wanted to create a place where they could connect with their displaced African heritage. His words reflect the trendy but absurd premise—and promise—that capital can transcend race by leveraging and commercializing racial difference within existing economic frameworks. Akon City isn’t the first African smart city project to invoke Wakanda to this end; a press release for a future Ethiopian smart city in Bahir Dar promised it would be “the real Wakanda.” The people behind these projects use racialized branding and throw around terms like “revolutionary” and “radical,” while leaving global hierarchies fundamentally intact.
In the past year, Akon has sought to extend his reach, this time to Uganda, in an attempt to secure land for a “satellite” Akon City 2.0. Uganda’s main opposition party has called it a “public secret” that neither Akon City nor its Ugandan counterpart will be built. At this point, it seems clear that these cities are little more than branding initiatives for a vanity project that bridges crypto laundering and racial uplift. Like other crypto schemes that promise empowerment, Akon City is baldly targeted at the indebted of the world—the most desperate, but also those who have the most to lose.
In the Western world, Akon City most crucially calls to mind the similarly vain efforts of 2004’s other breakout artist-turned-entrepreneur, Kanye West. In 2020, West began promoting Yeezy Home—supposedly affordable concrete prefab domiciles that have been partially constructed in Calabasas, California. Like Akon, West has also publicly toyed with ideas for settlements and collective living spaces.
Taken together, these projects signal the crossflow of capital and cultural ideas through the Third and Fourth Worlds. A few weeks after Akon laid the cornerstone for his namesake city, West retweeted a video of a 2016 performance with Drake, superimposed with the words “Calabasas is the new Abu Dhabi.” The name-drop of one of the world’s richest cities—where obscene wealth exists alongside serious labor and human rights abuses—was as unsurprising as it was crass. The Gulf states are loci of cultural aspiration for hustlers from both the Global South and the Western world. Busta Rhymes’s 2008 track “Arab Money” is a case in point: “I got oil well money in the desert playing golf/Dolce shorts, dashiki with a Louis scarf.”
The economic trajectories of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries in the newly developed world present easily digestible national rags-to-riches narratives. They suggest it is possible for states and personages to self-actualize their economic ambitions while eliding any whiff of class conflict. It is the American dream, internationalized. And like that dream, it neglects the role that authoritarian government, military and civil conflict, and globalization have played in their apparent economic success.
Senegal, whose history has been shaped by competing Western colonial powers during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and, later, the Scramble for Africa, sits far lower on the global economic hierarchy. And Akon has disavowed inspiration from the Gulf states, going so far as to say that what he wants to do in Africa “can’t be like Dubai.” But his choice of an architecture firm from the UAE indicates that he is tapping into the same vacuous aura of possibility. As Senegalese architect Nzinga Mboup said of the 3D renderings of Akon City in a Washington Post article, “These shapes could be anywhere: Phoenix, Dubai. Why can’t we define our own modernity?” It is a poignant question, and one that should be answered with or without Akon City.
If it is actually built, Akon City will not be for the majority in Senegal, a country that ranks among the lowest in the world in income equality and human development. It will instead be a monument to capital, excess, and waste.
S. David is a writer and editor from the U.S. capital metro area who “writes against” culture and memory at social margins. His words have appeared in Ars Technica and the Brooklyn Rail.