Ashanti Reflects on Early Passion for Singing and 20 Years Since Breakthrough Single ‘Foolish’
That Ashanti’s name, referencing the Ashanti empire of Ghana, means “woman of strength” should come as no surprise to anyone who’s worked with the singer-songwriter.
With a career spanning more than two decades, and numerous hit singles and films under her belt, she’s more than lived up to it. Which is why on April 7, Ashanti will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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While fans may argue that this accolade is long overdue, Ashanti believes the honor arrives right on time. That’s because 2022 is shaping up to parallel Ashanti’s 2002 as the singer sets out on a slate of projects. On top of her star ceremony, Ashanti is preparing to release a book, film a documentary, and produce and star in a feature film.
She also plans to put out new music, and recently announced a partnership with EQ Exchange, a Web3 company dedicated to the musician-fan relationship that utilizes blockchain technology. Serving as a co-founder, Ashanti is the first Black woman to hold the title at a Web3 company.
Silicon Valley is a long way from Glen Cove, N.Y., where Ashanti grew up, applying the “woman of strength” credo from a young age, both in school, where she ran track, and at home, where she acted as a ringleader in a neighborhood full of boys.
“Every girl wanted the ‘My Little Pony’ Big Wheel, I wanted the’ Transformers’ Big Wheel,” Ashanti tells Variety. “I made the boys play with my Barbies, they made me play kickball and baseball in the streets. I had a really cool active childhood and I remember it being very diverse.”
In addition to sports, Ashanti loved music. She sang in church choirs, at family barbecues and at house parties, but she didn’t consider a career in music until after performing in her first talent show at the age of 12.
Still, she admits that she never “woke up and said ‘Hey! I want to be a singer.’” As the story goes: Ashanti was cleaning the house one day, and her mother told her not to listen to the radio or watch TV, so as not to distract from her chores. To entertain herself, Ashanti began singing “Reminisce” from Mary J. Blige’s “What’s the 411?” album.
As Ashanti recalls: “I’m vacuuming and my mom comes downstairs … stomping and yelling, like, ‘I thought I told you not to listen to the radio!’ And I’m, like, ‘That wasn’t the radio, I was just singing.’ And then she was, like, ‘Wait, that was you?’ and it kind of turned into something else.”
Ashanti and her mother, Tina Douglas, would later pay a visit to Bad Boy Records to meet with Puff Daddy. At the time, they didn’t have enough money to cut a demo, so Ashanti handed him a headshot and sang live. Before Ashanti and Puff discussed a deal, she exchanged pleasantries with the rapper Notorious B.I.G.
“Biggie signed an autograph for me,” Ashanti says. “I was so hyped. He was the first person to call me ‘Shorty.’”
Ashanti would end up signing her first deal with Jive Records. She was 14 years old and the label wanted to fashion her into a pop star, a la Britney Spears. The material didn’t connect with Ashanti, and she asked to be let go from Jive.
“When you’re 14, you want to show off in front of your friends, and you want to be proud of everything,” Ashanti says. “And my friends would come over, and I’d be a little embarrassed to play my songs. So I told my mom, ‘I don’t think I want to do this.’ I don’t know if I would have been bold enough to just say ‘Oh, I’ll get another deal.’”
Ashanti would later move to Atlanta, where she heard Ja Rule on the radio.
“It was a culture shock coming from New York and moving to Atlanta, the music was very different, especially in the ’90s,” Ashanti says. “When I heard [Jay-Z’s] ‘Can I Get A…’ I heard Ja’s voice, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I remember immediately liking his voice.”
A few years later, Ashanti would meet Ja Rule at the Def Jam and Murder Inc. offices. At the time, Murder Inc. co-founder Irv Gotti was mostly interested in working with rap artists. Ashanti’s sound was R&B, and she found her place among the roster’s acts as a collaborator and featured vocalist.
In 2001, she appeared on Ja Rule’s “Always on Time,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100, becoming a breakthrough hit for both artists. She also appeared on the chart-topping remix of Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real,” alongside Ja Rule, though she remained uncredited for her contributions to the remix’s chorus.
The following year, Ashanti would appear on Fat Joe’s “What’s Luv?” from his album “Jealous Ones Still Envy (J.O.S.E.).” Featuring an interpolation of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” “What’s Luv?” would peak at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song, however, almost didn’t go to Ashanti. As she only learned two years ago, the original plan was to have Ashanti record reference vocals for the hook, later to be replaced by Lopez’s. But when Fat Joe heard Ashanti’s vocals on the track, he insisted on keeping them.
“Sometimes you’re never gonna be able to duplicate greatness,” Fat Joe says. “When I heard [‘What’s Luv?’], I was just like, ‘Yo, this girl sounds amazing, dawg.’”
Ashanti would continue to contribute guest vocals to other artists’ projects, but most frequently, she’d appear alongside her Murder Inc. labelmate Ja Rule. With songs including “Down 4 U” and “Mesmerize,” the two quickly became a household name in the intersection of hip-hop and R&B.
“It’s just really organic,” says Ja Rule of the pair’s chemistry. “It fits. It works. I think we look like, together on screen, what people would deem as Black excellence.”
In 2002, Ashanti would release her first solo single, “Foolish,” from her self-titled debut album. Containing a prominent sample of DeBarge’s “Stay With Me,” “Foolish” sat at No. 1 on the Hot 100 for 10 weeks, and sold more than 2 million copies.
“I really didn’t understand what all of this success meant,” Ashanti says. “When the numbers were coming in, and we were No. 1 on Billboard, that’s all I knew. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I would be like, ‘OK, is this a good thing?’ or ‘Oh, I just sold 1 million records, is that a good number?’ I genuinely didn’t know. I think that I was happy. But I couldn’t truly appreciate it, because I didn’t know how amazing it was until a little bit later.”
That album was certified gold in its first week out and earned Ashanti three Grammy nominations, including for new artist.
In the years that followed, Ashanti put her screen skills to the test, starting with the video for 2003’s “Rain on Me.” Enlisting the help of Hype Williams to direct and actor Larenz Tate to co-star, she filmed three versions of the video, one of which was a 10-minute mini-movie depicting Tate as an abusive boyfriend. Their goal was to raise awareness of domestic violence, and a partnership with the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund to help distribute the film, helped give voice to the message.
Other acting opportunities came calling and Ashanti later appeared in such movies as “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz,” “Coach Carter” and “John Tucker Must Die.” In her most recent film role, Ashanti stars in Netflix original “Honey Girls” as a pop star named Fancy G who hosts a singing contest for teenage girls.
Says Ashanti: “It was cool to portray a female figure that younger girls and teenagers connect with, and to show women camaraderie, empowerment and inspiring young girls to follow their dreams.”
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