Ashanti Clocks In Hours by Influencing and Inspiring Others to Be Wise When It Comes to Sex
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Annie Tritt
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he elevator doors open. There’s Ashanti and her mother, Tina. They just stepped off an opposing elevator. I introduce myself and we proceed together down the hall to her publicist’s office. It’s noon and we’re both on time, here on the sixth floor of the Pacific Design Center, an architectural gem known as the Blue Whale, in the heart of West Hollywood, California.
“I don’t even have my heels on yet,” exclaims Ashanti, thinking she might be able to prep before we meet.
Once in the office, Maureen, her topnotch PR, ushers us to a private room. After offering us bottled water, Maureen and Tina, Ashanti’s manager, who calls herself “MOMager,” and could easily be mistaken for Ashanti’s sister, exit. As Ashanti slips on her basic semi-spikey black shiny heels and fusses with her hair, which is tightly swept back into a long, flowing ponytail, we briefly chat about several of her projects reminiscing about the music video “Foolish.” “Terrence Howard was hilarious!” she shares, chuckling. “After we finished that scene in bed where I’m straddling him, he gets outta bed, pulls his pants up, and says (to the crew), ‘Yep. Ashanti’s pregnant, guys. I just want you all to know.’ I was dying with laughter all the time during the shoot. He even played his guitar on the set.”
Ashanti is releasing two films this year, Stuck, a drama set in the New York subway, and Mothers and Daughters, a drama for which she not only served as executive producer but composed the musical score as well. She appears alongside Susan Sarandon, Sharon Stone, and Courtney Cox.
Ashanti’s known for dodging personal questions, but this afternoon she’s candid and forthcoming, opening up about the impact the epidemic has had on her.
The singer first heard about AIDS at the age of fourteen, when a family member was stricken with it. To respect those still living, Ashanti is private about revealing the identity. “It…was…really…tragic,” her voice lowers while her sparkling ebony eyes roll upward and her head nods gently back and forth. “It came out of nowhere.” The person who contracted the virus didn’t tell anyone and infected someone else.”
While studying dance as a teen at the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Jamaica, New York, several of Ashanti’s teachers died from AIDS-related causes. “I was really affected by their deaths,” she tells me, sitting next to her on a light tan leather couch, dressed in fire engine red stylish slacks, sleeveless form-fitting charcoal grey and white herringbone pattern midriff, and accessorized with skinny gigantic hoop earrings. “It’s always hard to see someone you know and care about die, especially from a disease that is shunned upon because of lack of awareness.” Her phone rings, with descending glissando tones. She switches it off. Ashanti’s screensaver is a picture of herself and her grandmother smelling an arrangement of orchids, her grandmother’s favorite flower.
Raised in a loving home in Glen Cove, New York, Ashanti Shequoiya Douglas and her sister, Kenashia, have musical parents. Her mother, who’s like a best friend, is a former dance instructor and her father, Kenkaide, was a singer. They’ve been married for nearly forty years. Ashanti was named after the Ashanti Empire in Ghana, a nation where women were powerful.
Ashanti started dance classes at the age of two (“They had to be potty trained in order to dance—and she was!” Tina later related). Around twelve years of age, Ashanti was doing chores around the house when the music she was listening to became too loud. Her mom told her to turn it down. Tina didn’t realize that Ashanti had headphones on and the strong and soulful voice that she heard was Ashanti singing along with the music. The girl had talent! Tina morphed into a stage mom and entered her daughter into talent shows, where Ashanti took first place. The future pop star’s career was launched and Tina became her manager.
At fourteen, Ashanti landed her first record contract. Dividing her time between recording sessions and high school, she was an honor student and a track star. After graduation in 1998, Virginia’s Hampton University offered her a track scholarship. It was a thorny decision but Ashanti chose a music career instead of academia.
In 2002 she released her debut album, Ashanti, having written all twelve tracks. Three of those album’s songs “Foolish,” “Always On Time,” and “What’s Luv” made the Top 10 all in one week. This was a record breaker. Ashanti became the first female artist to have three singles simultaneously and it sold more than 500,000 copies its first week. This landed her in the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest-selling debut album from a female artist. Ashanti was critically acclaimed and it received a Grammy for Best Contemporary R&B Album. Around this time, she wrote JLo’s number-one hit, “Ain’t It Funny.” Ashanti’s latest album, Braveheart, was released in 2014. Right now, she’s back in the studio recording a new album for release later this year, on her own label, Written Entertainment.
After the esteem of her eponymous album, her career snowballed. Ashanti branched out into film (Bride and Prejudice, Coach Carter, John Tucker Must Die, and Resident Evil: Extinction), TV (Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Las Vegas, Law & Order: SVU and Army Wives), and stage (playing Dorothy in The Wiz for New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center).
Her career has propelled her around the globe, even to Africa. During her last visit, the Ebola epidemic was raging. She’s hesitant to talk about it. Ten years ago a drunk driver killed her cousin who also was her assistant. “It’s funny, I never talk about this,” she notes mournfully. “It took a long time before I could even think about her being murdered.” She takes time to recompose. Ashanti comments on how strange it is when you’re an artist that those in charge take you to the rich part of town, so she didn’t see much of the AIDS outbreak. But driving to her destination, she passed impoverished areas. “It was tough taking all this devastation in,” she recounts earnestly, briefly glancing at the floor. “It felt like there’s no middle class. You’re either really, really rich or you’re struggling. It was also difficult to determine if someone was affected by HIV versus someone affected by the Ebola virus versus someone affected by pure poverty and neglect.” She playfully twists on her ponytail then continues. “It was just very hard to see the country in such conditions. Some workers were saying more women had AIDS than anyone else in the country. It was very distressing.”
Ashanti attributes her success to her parents, and her backbone buoyancy to her grandfather, Tina’s dad. While growing up, her grandfather, James Davis, a civil rights activist, cared for Ashanti while her parents worked. As president of the Glen Cove NAACP, he integrated the firehouse and the police station, he created public housing, and he started a daycare center where Ashanti once worked. The man marched in Selma and was friends with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
“My grandfather is like Big Time,” she grins proudly, raising her fist in the air. “He was really cool and had a huge influence on my entire family. They named a street after him in Glen Cove, near the church that I still attend.”
He died right before Ashanti’s first solo appearance in 2000, the Teen Choice Awards, where she and Ja Rule performed “Always On Time.” (Fortunately, he got to listen to one of her songs on the radio from his hospital bed beforehand.) “I wasn’t going to do the performance that night. I said, ‘I’m not doing it!’” Her family boosted that her grandfather would want her to do it. “It was hard but I got through it.” She takes a deep breath. “My grandfather was one of my best friends. He was my buddy.”
Ashanti’s demanding schedule requires fortitude. “You have to have a certain discipline,” she points out. “You have to know and understand the bigger picture. People have worked hard to get you this gig; people are depending on you. So just because you’re going through something, you have to suck it up and be professional.
“Trust me! There’s many times—Oh. My. Gosh.—where your head is not there, your heart is somewhere else, you’re dealing with drama, but you have to perform or you have to appear on The Today Show, so you smile and you turn it on.”
She goes on. “If you’re going to perform for a crowd, all’s they know is that they paid their money a month ago and are coming to watch a great show. They don’t care if one of your dancers got the flu and couldn’t make the flight or you fractured your toe on the way or that your luggage was stolen. No one wants to hear a story.” Ashanti takes a sip of water. “Recently I was in Australia and I didn’t have all the equipment I needed right before the show. Something didn’t work. But that doesn’t matter. What matters are those fans, some who traveled from New Zealand, some who drove two hours.
“Some people are cut for it and some are not,” she remarks. “I have what’s called a really mean or a really good poker face. I could be dealing with death but nobody’ll know. For me, that’s a tool—and it’s a blessing.” Her face softens into a smile. Ashanti has the elegance of Iman and the strength of Cleopatra.
Her fame is another blessing. “I’ve been fortunate to live my dream and I’ve been given a platform to reach millions of people,” she says about her humanitarianism. “To me it only makes sense to give back. When there’s an occasion to help someone and change their life, it may not seem important to you, but it could be something gigantic for them. It’s part of the formula of life,” she resolves.
Ashanti has many passions and sets the bar high for others. She’s long been an advocate for HIV awareness and helps to decrease the ignorance, by working with several organizations that include Broadway Cares. The songwriter has also committed to such causes as domestic violence, the LGBT community, empowering women, cancer, sickle cell, and heart health. Ashanti has helped raise funds for building homes for those in need and she aided in the Tsunami and for Katrina victims. Charities she’s connected with include Make a Wish Foundation, Partnership for a Healthier America, Boys and Girls Club of America, ACT, and Jumpstart.
“No matter what function I attend or perform, all through my career, AIDS ways heavily on my mind and I take that opportunity to raise awareness whenever I can,” she offers firmly with fervent pathos.
Late last year, Ashanti teamed up with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) initiative, where Ashanti’s single, Let’s Go, encourages people to drink more water daily for the Drink Up campaign: #DrinkUpAshanti.
Ashanti has recorded several public service announcements, one for domestic violence that appeared on thousands of film screens. Another one for the Southeast Asia tsunami, in which she also helped raise funds for the disaster. Several years ago she did a Wrap It Up: HIV Prevention spot for the BET channel. In 2008, when Lawrence King, an eighth grader in Oxnard, California, was murdered for being gay, Ashanti taped a PSA for the LGBT community addressing discrimination. In 2011, she shot a PSA on education, with Denzel Washington, directed by Ron Howard.
Ashanti is eager to do another PSA for the HIV community. “It’s got to be visual—drastic and dramatic,” she persists with gusto, donning the director hat, her hands all a flutter. “Something happening to a newborn baby and it wasn’t her fault. Then you see the mom crying.” Ashanti sits back, brainstorming ways to get people to learn more about prevention. “Social media is a gift and a curse,” she laments. “It’s awesome when it’s used in a positive way. But nowadays, people’s attention span is very short…,” exclaims the recipient of the Aretha Franklin Entertainer of the Year award in an exhaustive dismissive tone.
Ashanti dated Nelly for nearly a decade, but it ended in 2012. Currently, she’s “been dating someone for a good amount of time.” That’s all she’ll reveal. Though she admits to always using condoms, Ashanti empathizes that it can be challenging to ask the person you’re dating about STI’s. “Sometimes it’s hard when you’re starting out with someone. You wonder how to approach the subject,” she grumbles. “Let me make it clear, though, just because a person doesn’t look like they have a disease, they may. But you have to bring it up!” Ashanti crosses her legs. Her high-heeled foot bobs up and down.
“When I’m in a position like that I’m the best about being sarcastic to make my point. I’m a strong woman.” Out of the blue, she feigns a new voice and imagines a scenario of confronting a guy. “‘…This isn’t gonna fly! We’re going to do what I wanna do. If not, you can go about your business.’ Don’t let a person dictate what’s going to happen in your life,” she roils with emotion. Ashanti thinks. “You could remark in an off the cuff humorous way, ‘Say, when was your last blood test?!’” Ashanti momentarily stares off into space then puts the back of her hands gently over her eyes.
“However, I realize there are women who have no self esteem. I watch those Lifetime movies-of-the-week…,” quips Ashanti, brusquely with a wave of her hand. “Some girls will do whatever it takes to be accepted. It makes me sad.”
She pauses, then in a crescendo of emotion she pounds her fist into her palm and declares, “Speaking
your mind is where it’s at! My heroes are those people who get the message out about HIV despite risking public ridicule,” Ashanti says, recognizing Elton John and Magic Johnson as two examples. “I remember a model was asked to do a billboard for AIDS, but he was skeptical that people would think he was HIV-positive. He ended up doing it, they cut him a great check. It was posted on Sunset Boulevard in L.A., a huge billboard. People did think he had AIDS, but he cleared it up saying, ‘That’s the point.’ Even though more people were interested in whether he had AIDS, they got the message.”
Ashanti leans in, resting her forearms over her knees and looks directly at me. “If there’s one thing I want to get across in this interview today, this is it,” the artist asserts with force. She clears her throat, straightens up, and presents as though she might be speaking at the podium of a high school auditorium. “People need to understand that the disease does not discriminate. Anyone can get it. That needs to be drilled. If you think you’re not part of a certain group that won’t get HIV, you’re fooling yourself. And if you have it, and don’t get tested,”—she breaks for effect—you’re…spreading…it! That’s ignorance!” Ashanti’s face is awash in disgust.
After a moment of silence, Ashanti bestows her gratitude for the interview, gives a hug, and bids farewell. Her last harrowing words echo as I depart down the corridor back to the elevator. Passing a large window that boasts a captivating view of the Hollywood Hills, I espy the iconic nightclubs, House of Blues and Troubadour, a launching pad for many famous artists.
There’s also the Roxy, where Ashanti has performed. Exemplifying integrity and responsibility, with her charismatic spirit and timely compassion, Ashanti will continue to appear all around the world for a wide range of causes.
Grateful to Jennifer Eagle for her keen eye and intuitive nature. Kudos to Angela Fairhurst of Fairhurst Productions for making all this happen!
Black Jumper: Barbara Bui/Halter Jumper; Oscar Tiye/ Sandals; Helen Ficalora/ Disc necklace; H&M/ earrings and rings
Cover Jacket: Zara/Belted Jacket; Oscar Tiye/ Sandals; Helen Ficalora/ Disc necklace; H&M/ earrings and rings
Bomber Jacket: Zara/ Bomber Jacket ; Fashion Nova/ Bodysuit; Rag and Bone/ Jeans ; H&M/ Jewelry
For more about the work of photographer Annie Tritt, log on to: www.annietritt.com.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U. He interviewed actors Teddy and Milissa Sears for the April cover story.