Story by Todd Williams
Photos by Michael Melendy for Steed Media Service
Aaaaah, the early 2000s. The turn of the century was an interesting time for popular music; and amid the wreckage of the late ’90s teen pop resurgence, several high-profile young women had risen to become the Madonnas, Janets and Mariahs of the 21st century.
Those post-adolescent pop starlets had begun their careers riding the Pro-Tooled gleam of shiny and shallow pop hooks and harmlessly sexy imagery; but by 2001, that first class of millennium-era mall queens were each going through changes: Beyoncé was beginning to outgrow her Destiny’s Child cohorts; Christina was Xperimenting with her regrettable ‘Xtina’ persona; Pink had all-of-a-sudden become a respectable artist; and Britney appeared to be the heir-apparent to the Material Girl.
Though her debut album was released in 2001, the sexy 20-year-old had appeared on several chart-toppers for label mate Ja Rule and hip-hop heavyweight Fat Joe, but her debut album hit the industry like an atomic bomb. Her combination of pop-star sexiness and girl-next-door approachability proved to be the perfect mix: her debut album sold an astonishing 6.5 million copies worldwide, and her follow-up, the aptly titled Chapter II, sold an impressive three million copies worldwide. She was instantly the Princess of R&B – despite her detractors, who were never louder than when she was given the Aretha Franklin Entertainer of the Year Award at the 2002 Lady of Soul Awards. Many critics felt the more established Mary J. Blige or soulful newcomer Indie.Arie were more deserving of the honor. Nonetheless, she outlasted the controversy, but much like her contemporaries, Ashanti soon proved restless. After a memorable turn on “American Dreams” as Dionne Warwick, Ashanti decided to stretch her wings as an actress; but the starlet understood the stigma attached to becoming the stereotypical ‘singer/actress.’
“What was different with me [was that] I waited a while before I did my first film,” explains the songstress, calm amidst the buzz of a long day of photo shoots and TV appearances. “From the time I came out in ’01-’02, [I] had been getting scripts for everything. Ashanti loved the attention, but played her hand patiently and thoughtfully. With the then-recent disaster that was Mariah Carey’s Glitter still fresh in the public’s collective consciousness, that was probably the smartest move the aspiring actress could’ve made.
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“I wasn’t ready,” she explains, alluding to her hesitation in tackling the big screen. “I felt like I wanted to be prepared before I tapped into that world.”
But, eager to prove herself as more than just a famous face to slap onto a marquee, the New York native made sure to put in her time. “I would go in [for auditions] and I would read and I would do the call backs like everyone else,” she says with her trademark robust laugh. “I stayed away from singing roles and things like that [and] it wasn’t just a free ‘hey, let’s have Ashanti in this’ – I went through the motions like everyone else and I think it paid off. [It] showed that I was serious.”
So Ashanti’s first major role in a motion picture was that of Kyra, a high school basketball star’s strong-willed girlfriend, opposite Samuel L. Jackson in the 2005 sports drama, Coach Carter. She followed that up with a comedic turn in the teen-friendly revenge flick John Tucker Must Die in 2006. “It was a very conscious decision to make sure that whatever [films] I did first, second, or even third, I didn’t want to carry an entire film on my shoulders, because I didn’t think I was ready,” Ashanti shares. “That’s a lot of weight – especially for someone new to step into.”
The R&B star handled herself well on-screen, deftly moving from the stirring drama of Coach Carter to the lighthearted John Tucker. But, she was still eager to explore more of herself as an actress. A unique opportunity presented itself in the role of Nurse Betty, a tough-but-nurturing medical caregiver in Resident Evil: Extinction, the third installment of the popular Resident Evil franchise. Not many would’ve predicted that the pretty songbird would jump at the chance to play a brassy, sassy, zombie-killing nurse, but Ashanti, once again, wanted to keep fans on their toes. “I think the key to growth is versatility and I think this is a great way to show versatility,” she says. “I’ve never done a film like this and played a character like this.” “[Betty] is hard-core, but very feminine and maternal,” she goes on to say about her character. “A lot of the female characters in the film are very hard and very aggressive; but Betty displays both [sides] – she was a nurse and wanted to patch up the wounded and take care of the kids. She wasn’t so harsh and robotic.”
Working in a film as stunt-heavy as RE was a daunting task in and of itself, but Ashanti was no lightweight – she proved she could stand with franchise veterans Milla Jovovich and Mike Epps in the film’s more physically demanding scenes. “When I first found out that I got the part, the director was trying to test if I was athletic – if I could handle it,” she says, grinning; before adding confidently, “I did things in high school like running track, cheerleading, baseball, softball – so everybody was on the same page.”
She did learn some things from co-star and action veteran Jovovich, most notably how to maintain physical form for the stunts. “We saw each other after the set and after wrap-up times, we went out a couple of times; I would see her in the gym,” Ashanti recalls. “We were in there pumping iron!”
With one more film role added to her already impressive résumé, Ashanti has shown herself capable of handling an assortment of demanding film roles. But abandoning the studio is not in her near-term future; she’s currently working on her long-awaited follow-up to 2004’s Concrete Rose. After being shepherded through most of her early career by music impresario Irv Gotti, her fourth album will be a watershed moment in her career as she takes the creative reins into her own hands. “With this [album], there [are] different producers that I’ve never worked with before,” she reveals. “I’ve explored different things lyrically and vocally – just showing growth because it has been three years.”
On film, her frequent changes have yielded an impressive and varied body of work, but recording is an altogether different matter. In an age where artists are encouraged to ‘play it safe’ – continue manufacturing the same sounds and styles that made them stars in the first place – shifting gears after a long hiatus is no easy trick. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to have a ‘lane’ so to speak,” she says, pausing thoughtfully. “I think it’s very important to stay true to that, but in order to grow you’ve got to bring a little bit of change to that, try something different and bring a little different flavor to the table. With this one, it [has] a lot more depth because [of the] gap between Concrete Rose and now.”
Recognizing that a lot happens to a young woman between 23 and 26, Ashanti’s growth is natural and expected, but she maintains that the key to her appeal is an ability to relate to her fans – and she has no intention of betraying that. “Real life inspires me-just things that people go through, things that I’ve gone through. When people are able to relate to [you], that’s one of the best things to have because whatever you put out is going to [relate to] what people go through and how they live and [how] they love. That’s where your support comes from,” she says.
How Ashanti herself lives and loves has been the subject of much scrutiny in recent years. Her low-key, high-profile romance with multiplatinum superstar St. Lunatic Nelly has made them one of hip-hop’s most talked about couples, and with a courtship that has lasted several years, rumors and speculation have run rampant regarding whether or not the photogenic twosome will be exchanging vows anytime soon. Loving in the public eye is never easy, as the seemingly endless flurry of celebrity divorces proves, but Ashanti has learned to deal with the prodding of the paparazzi. “It’s a part of [fame],” she says matter-of-factly. “You have to be an extremely tough person to be able to deal with it and it comes with the territory. I’ve learned to understand and accept it – [it] may not be right, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not reality. You just understand that it is what it is, and it’s a part of life and life isn’t going to be sweet all the time, but you have to be a strong enough person to keep it pushing and point out the positive things and be thankful. I’m just thankful to be able to do what I love and to get the love.” And Ashanti’s learned how to dodge sketchy questions: when asked about her ubiquitous paramour and the prospect of nuptials, she is playfully vague. “I’m not married, but I plan to be one day,” she says coyly. “Ain’t no date set!”
After a string of platinum albums, a trio of hit films, and a forthcoming project that may prove to be the opening salvo of a remarkable second act, Ashanti’s savvy has proven to be a gift. She knew enough to wait for the right films, the right time to make her return to recording, and the right time to (perhaps?) say ‘I do.’ When you’ve accomplished that much by the ripe old age of 26, and to have done it her way, it’s almost quaint to hear Ashanti express genuine love for her fans’ continued support of her. That love remains her biggest motivator. “To have people appreciate a record or to have someone say, ‘Thank you for writing ‘Rain On Me’ – it helped me to leave my boyfriend because he was beating me’ – that makes me proud,” she says. “To [hear] ‘Wow, she did her thing in Coach Carter, I didn’t know she had talent like that,’ that’s a proud moment for me.” And those moments are all the gratification the zombie-killing Princess of R&B needs. “I’m humble pie,” she says, laughing. “When you give me my kudos, I’m good!”