Ashanti talks activism, droppTV, and impact of abuse survivors' anthem 'Rain on Me': 'That just gave me goose bumps'

Ashanti at the United Nations in New York City, New York, in 2019. (Photo: EuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images)
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Grammy-winning singer, activist and actress Ashanti recently partnered with droppTV, a shoppable music video-streaming startup aimed at helping COVID-impacted and Black-owned retail businesses, and she will soon release an exclusive music video, solely featuring Black-owned businesses, via this new platform. Among her video’s purchasable items will be candles from the Wife of Creation, a holistic-lifestyle business founded by her sister, Shia Douglas. It’s a special, synergistic moment for Ashanti, who describes herself as “a very family-oriented artist” and is joined by her loving “momager,” Tina Douglas, on the phone for a candid conversation with Yahoo Entertainment.

As Tina explains, Shia, who is nine years younger than Ashanti, is currently on a “healing journey with her brand.” Recently, on her 31st birthday, Shia posted a reflective Instagram clip of her life highlights and lowlights, in which she revealed that she is a domestic violence survivor; the shocking video included photos of her with a black eye and broken teeth, and implied that she had suffered a miscarriage as the result of this abuse. Shia’s post went viral, especially after Ashanti shared it with her 5.8 million Instagram followers with the emotional caption, “The next Chapter. My sister is a F***IN BEAST! One of the most resilient women I’ve been blessed enough to know. I’m honored to be your older sister…the blood in these veins will NEVER BETRAY. I love you. I’m with you.”

Shia Douglas, Tina Douglas, and Ashanti attend VH1's Annual "Dear Mama: A Love Letter To Mom" in 2019. (Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
Shia Douglas, Tina Douglas and Ashanti attend VH1’s Annual “Dear Mama: A Love Letter to Mom” in 2019. (Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

One might assume that Ashanti’s groundbreaking 2003 song about intimate partner violence, “Rain on Me,” and its harrowing, Hype Williams-directed mini-movie co-starring Larenz Tate was inspired by Shia’s real-life experience. But, Ashanti clarifies, Shia was only in junior high at the time of that song’s release. So when Ashanti spontaneously wrote the “Rain on Me” lyrics in the back of a limousine while en route to a bookstore event to promote her 2002 poetry collection, Foolish/Unfoolish: Reflections on Love, she wasn’t inspired by any one specific incident or experience. Though she says she had “definitely witnessed things like that close to me,” and Tina adds that “the whole domestic violence thing hit our whole family,” Ashanti had no idea that “Rain on Me” would one day take on such heavy, personal significance.

“It’s just so crazy how they say, ‘Be careful with what you write’ or ‘Be careful what you put out there,’ because sometimes things do come full circle,” muses Ashanti. “My sister has dealt with some unearthing of traumatic domestic abuse, and she’s such an amazing being. You know, she used such a traumatic experience to elevate and turn around and create this holistic brand that is all about woman empowerment and creating a safe place — proving your self-esteem up and being happy about your life and making a change, and having the strength to admit things and overcome things. So it’s just so weird even that people, on this day in 2020, bring up one song out of however many I’ve put out, and the one record they talk about is ‘Rain on Me.’ And the fact that I could tell you that it didn’t stem from a real experience with me back then, but it touched me and my sister and my family in a very different way [later], because of something that she ended up going through. … I just think that happened for a reason. Wow, that just gave me goose bumps a little bit, just to say that.”

This past summer, shortly after Shia’s Instagram birthday confession, Ashanti was celebrating the birthday of her sophomore album, Chapter II — and that’s when the significance of “Rain on Me” really set in for both sisters. “We both shared a very intimate moment,” recalls Ashanti. “I was posting clips and videos and stuff from the album, and I had posted the movie version, or the 11-minute version, of the ‘Rain on Me’ video. … We were watching that together, and it was very, very deep, because we both looked at it completely differently now. I didn’t know back then, when writing that record, that that was something that was going to become very near and potent in my art, or for my sister. Clearly the lyrics mean something different when you’re a teenager than when you’re an adult and you'‘e going through things. So it hits both of us very, very different. It’s weird how God works.”

Noting how unfortunately prescient “Rain on Me” was, Ashanti lightens the mood by joking, “I need to make a record about winning the Lotto now!” But more seriously, she acknowledges that both the song and the video have impacted many other abuse survivors. “You have no idea how many letters I have gotten that say, ‘Oh my gosh, watching this video saved my life. It gave me the courage to leave him.’ Or, ‘Oh my God, thank you so much. Seeing you go through that [in the video] gave me the strength.’ There were stories about someone’s daughter in the hospital that you wouldn’t even imagine,” she says. “This is back when people were really hand-writing fan mail letters to the record label. And I used to read my letters; there were boxes and boxes and boxes, hundreds of boxes, of fan mail over at the record label. Those are the type of accolades that I feel are worth it. The Grammys and American Music Awards are cool, and I’m super grateful for those, but to have a person write me and say that I helped change their life, and they don’t even know me personally? To me, that’s the real win. That’s the real award.”

Ashanti performs "Rain on Me" at the American Music Awards in 2003. (Photo: AP/Mark J. Terrill)
Ashanti performs “Rain on Me” at the American Music Awards in 2003. (AP/Mark J. Terrill)

Ashanti has continued to write about these sorts of experiences, in songs like “Scars” (which is about “more of a mental abuse thing”) and “Struggle,” because she believes “every woman on the planet has gone through some sort of betrayal from a man. … I don’t want to sound like I am bragging or whatever, but I do think the thing that makes people love my music is that it’s relatable. I write about real-life experiences and things that we all go through. … I think that’s what speaks to people.”

Ashanti personally struggled with a different sort of misogynistic abuse, when she was stalked for many years. “Clearly you’re aware of what happened to me and how [my stalker] got put in jail and came out. He ended up in the same cell block as Lil’ Wayne [at New York's Riker’s Island]. And when Wayne got out of jail, he was talking to me about this guy,” she recalls. “I was in the studio with Wayne in Miami, and he was like, ‘Turn the music down. I got to tell you this. I was in the same cell as your stalker, and none of us liked him. … When I found out he was messing with you, nobody was dealing with him. He’s crazy.’” So Ashanti is now working on a “couple projects” to help stalking survivors. And since she feels it’s important to help people in general, along with her partnership with droppTV, she continues to be an avid supporter of the Boys and Girls Club of America (“I actually did my very first talent show when I was 11 at the Boys and Girls Club,” she reminisces) and the Make-a-Wish Foundation (she’s still friends with a fan named Christina, whose wish was to meet her five years ago and is currently in remission from cancer).

Ashanti’s passion for activism was instilled at an early age by her close-knit family, because her maternal grandfather, James Davis, was a member of the 1960s civil rights movement and worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. “As far back as I can remember, my grandfather was the spearhead to integrating the schools, the police station, the fire station, where I grew up in Glen Cove [N.Y.],” she says. “He was a huge part of integrating one of the elementary schools where I grew up. My aunt, my mom’s sister, was the one little Black girl that they used to integrate one of the schools. She was maybe 6 or 7, and she had to have a police escort to walk into the elementary school. And that was all because of my grandfather. So, it runs really, really deep.”

Ashanti continues: “I of course marched along with my sister and some friends for some of the protests in Times Square, and it was weird, because there’s pictures of me kind of with my fist in the air, and I did a side-by-side with my grandfather, who was holding his shoes and his hand at the time back in the day when he marched with Martin Luther King,” Ashanti continues. “And it was just so surreal that we’re still fighting this fight, years later. It was a bittersweet moment.”

“I remember Ashanti being really upset that she wouldn’t be able to vote when she turned 18, because her birthday just made it in October,” chimes in Tina. “When she turned 18, she was so happy to able to vote, because of her grandpa. He did know John Lewis and everybody that was involved in the civil rights movement, and what happened was he came back to New York and he integrated the school. He was president of New York State NAACP. He worked at the state, championing human rights. He was so focused. And yes, my sister, she was the plaintiff in court. They won the case and she had to have police escorts. But, being the way that things go full circle, she later became the assistant principal at that school. That’s history that should be known. But the fact that we’re still having those same issues right now, and some even worse, we need to get together and do what we need to do to make things right.” (In another full-circle moment of sorts, Ashanti’s first acting gig was an extra role in Spike Lee’s biopic about another famous civil rights leader, Malcolm X.)

Ashanti admits that it can “very, very draining to wake up every day and see more issues and problems, and more Black men getting murdered and police brutality, not enough being done and not enough justice.” Lately she has been spending time either writing songs or hanging with her family, in an attempt to process it all. “Me being an artist, it’s therapeutic sometimes to sit and write, but also it becomes a little disheartening, because I can’t believe that this is still going on,” she sighs. “These are the topics at hand right now. Mental health [concerns] are at an all-time high right now. Just people suffering and dealing with the pandemic and economics failures. The people are being failed, day after day. It’s scary. But I’m grateful that I have my family, and we pray and we try to just be active as much as possible and to make change as much as possible. And we never take one day for granted.”

As for whether any of the topical music she has penned recently will be released, Ashanti isn’t sure. “A few people on my team say maybe use this time to talk about [current events] and bring light to it, but I feel like sometimes people may want to escape it, because it’s just so in-your-face and it’s so much,” she ponders. “Maybe it’s OK to touch on it, because that’s what people are going through and that’s what people can relate to, but I also feel like there should be an option of an escape [in music] as well.”

Ashanti just celebrated her own birthday — a milestone one, her 40th. And as the “Happy” singer takes stock of everything she’s learned in life, the advice she would give to her younger self, to her younger sister, or to anyone who might be struggling, is this: “Keep the faith and stay strong, even if it feels like nothing is going right. Stay determined, stay fighting and just stay positive. There are so many times in my life when I would feel low, and I’d have to be like, ‘OK, it’s not that bad. It could be worse.’ Keep going, keep going, keep going.”

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Additional reporting by Billy Johnson Jr.