The bustling atmosphere of a busy airport terminal on a Thursday night isn’t the most ideal backdrop to have an intimate conversation, but when you’re scheduled to interview a UK-bound Ashanti for a cover story, you take what you can get. I was in my teens when the Glen Cove native dropped her debut self-titled disc in the early 2000s and I was instantly a fan. The chart-topping CD became the soundtrack to my adolescent life and the score to the summer, reaching gold-selling status in its first week of release.
Foolish, Happy, Baby… I was just a young woman then— not all the way sure what it meant to be foolish over a man, but her lyrics rolled off my juvenile tongue with ease. They’d eventually make sense when I matured, because her music, like passed-down beauty secrets from our grandmothers, is timeless. Suddenly, her lyrics and tumultuous relationship tales told in song made more sense, and her music — 20 years later — hit even harder than the first note teasing: “I don’t remember feeling like this.”
Ashanti is settling into a lounge at JFK when she comes to the phone laughing and apologizing for well… laughing. Her publicist and I want in the joke and we eventually learn it had to do with an iPhone autocorrect gone wrong by her mother/momager, Tina Douglas. She finally gathers herself and hones in on the call after apologizing once more. It’s only moments before she’s distracted again…this time looking for her iPhone charger, which is later located by a lounge attendee, who had “put it up.” Our conversation finally gets underway.
The 41-year-old songstress is on her way to London for a four-date performance before returning to Atlanta where she’ll be the first act to revive our concert franchise InterludesLIVE this month. All of which follow a momentous start to the year. In March, she became the first Black woman artist to be a co-founder of a Web3 company. And just a month later, she cemented her career with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The perfect culmination to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her debut album.
20 years ago, Ashanti couldn’t imagine the stratospheric levels of success and fame she’d amass over a two-decade career. “I had no idea. You just go into the studio as a young girl writing these records from my heart to millions of people.”
Ashanti would capture the attention of Murder Inc. and rising rap star Ja Rule. Together, they’d create timeless music at the “intersection of hip-hop and R&B” — forging an undeniable new sound that personified thug love. From Always On Time to a personal favorite, Down 4 U, Ashanti and Ja Rule were unstoppable. When she wasn’t working on her own music and blessing Ja’s tracks with infectious hooks, she was humbly providing lyrics and background vocals for J. Lo’s Billboard-topping anthems. As the story goes, Ashanti’s vocals appeared on the reference track for Fat Joe’s What’s Luv, but were supposed to be replaced by J. Lo. However, Fat Joe insisted her voice remain on the hit song that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
“It always feels good to get recognition,” she says about finally receiving her flowers for contributing to those classic tunes. “I was always really proud that I had the opportunity to do what I did. And have people recognize it and look at how I handled the situation. It’s always good to get love from the people, regardless of whatever the situation is.”
Quite humble for a superstar who has sold millions of records over her illustrious career. “Humble” is a word that seems to orbit the Grammy Award-winning singer turned actress. In fact, she is often told she’s “too humble.” It’s a familiar feeling for Black women. Taking up too much space versus just being happy to be there. Either way, Ashanti is grateful to be recognized for her musical contributions even if it’s years later.
”I’ve always been a very humble person growing up. For me, it’s not really different, I got more money and that’s kind of it – we still do the same thing. I still walk around with a fuzzy ponytail, big pajamas,” she jokes. It’s easy to remain gracious when you’re surrounded by family (her mother and sister Shia are never too far away) and fans who keep you grounded.
Ashanti doesn’t mind being recognized as she’s cruising around the airport on an electric cart. “Go around one more time,” she softly commands when she realizes her flight isn’t boarding yet. “I would rather people want to take pictures than not care,” she responds when I ask if flying commercial is ever overwhelming. It’s exactly the response I’d expect from someone who appreciates her fans like family.
“My fans are very smart. They get it, they get me. They understand the music, they appreciate the lyrics, and appreciate the fact that I’m a female in a very male-dominated world that holds my own as far as writing records and competing. I’ll see comments or DMs and there are fan pages there. They’re so talented with the edits and the visuals that they put together. They’ll find stuff from high school about me and compare it to now. They’ll put interviews together seamlessly to make everything makes sense. I feel like they genuinely get me and I feel like that’s what makes them a fan. And that’s what makes them connect when you’re able to write a record that really brings certain emotions out. That’s what allows you to connect.”
The Age Of Social Media
Connecting and distributing content directly to fans has become much easier in the age of social media. But it can be a “gift and a curse,” according to Ashanti.
I think it’s beautiful to be able to communicate with your fans, be direct and allow them to peek and see your journey and your personal space. From hosting and posting from different islands and being able to speak directly to them about what’s going on with you and tell them to thank you for the love and support and show them your appreciation. But there are also people who are not gonna like you and have things to say and kind of felt facing, create viral moments for themselves — rumors or negative things. And that’s just facts.”
Ashanti is no stranger to harsh criticism throughout her career. She’s developed a thick skin of armor and equanimity to the bullsh*t. She’s learned, “You’re not gonna make everyone happy. Not everyone is gonna love you or, be into your music. I’ll just rock with a few million that do.”
She has mastered protecting her energy, something she speaks often about. “I think it’s really important. This industry is really corrupt. It’s really cutthroat. There could be some dark moments. So I think it’s really important to protect because that can prove who you are.”
One of the very reasons she keeps her private life so private. “I just feel like it’s really important to keep certain things private, to yourself for yourself. As an artist, we give so much to the public and so much to the world, there have to be some things that are just for you. I just find that it’s better that way to take a lot of people out of your business because sometimes people want to infiltrate for the wrong reasons.”
Imperfection Makes Perfect
If you search the term #bodygoals, Ashanti’s curvy frame is an exemplary depiction of a naturally thick body. “I’m proud to have a natural body,” she says. The entertainer admits she was always active in high school, participating in sports like track, cheerleading, and baseball.
“I’ve always been a person to take care of myself inside and out. I think it’s important that we show it’s okay to not be perfect and to still embrace being natural. And maybe you don’t have the biggest booty or the biggest boobs, but it’s yours. And it’s natural. And when you are natural, you’re proud because you, you work for it. You work out, you eat right, you diet, or not even diet, you try to be healthy.”
While Ashanti is considered one of the ultimate curvy queens, even she felt out of place when she moved to Atlanta.
“When I moved to Atlanta, I was considered super skinny. I’m sure every woman has gone through being different or looking different or being compared. For me, I’ve always been happy and proud.” What would she tell herself 20 years ago? “It’s okay to be a little scared. Things definitely not gonna be perfect. And stay strong regardless.”
We take a trip down memory lane for a minute, reflecting on the bodies of work she is most proud about. “I always loved Rescue. It’s such a different record. I kind of wrote it like a freestyle. It’s sexy. I always loved it. I love the storytelling and the harmonies.”
Similarly, she reflected on stepping out of her comfort zone while shooting the visuals for Rain On Me with Larenz Tate as her leading man. “I’d never done anything like that before,” she recalls. “But he’s so cool. We went out on maybe two dates. We weren’t messing around or anything but just warmed up to each other before shooting. That’s my bro. Obviously, I had been a fan already. He’s very humble. And he just made me super comfortable. We were laughing a lot. I was actually chewing gum in the window.”
She shares a chuckle when she reflects on the jokes about her gratuitous use of the word “baby” in her beloved ballad Baby. “Ed Lover used to be like ‘Here she go again with the baby baby. Oh baby this, Oh baby that.’ Then, one time I heard him talking about me. He’s like, ‘Ashanti is a genius, I ain’t go lie because she says that word and it stays in your head all day and you want to hear the record. That was a compliment.”
HelloBeautiful’s InterludesLIVE airs July 17th on TV One. In addition to her expanding acting career, Ashanti is releasing her NFT and children’s book on June 12.
“I can’t wait for kids to read it. I can’t wait for parents to read it to their children, especially those with unique names. This is the first time, I’ve got to the airport today, I met another woman named Ashanti. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I’m just excited for people to see the book, read the book, understand a little bit about my journey.”
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