Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Ashanti has a lot to be proud about these days. The record label she owns, Written Entertainment, released her fifth studio album, Braveheart, this past spring. It was her first album in six years (and also her first album since leaving Murder Inc.). Braveheart landed at number 10 on Billboard’s top 200 list, making it her fifth consecutive top 10 album.
The 34-year-old Long Island native also recently had her first NASCAR experience. The stock car racing business isn’t closely associated with R&B music or Black people in general, but as of late, the company’s been reaching out to widen and diversify its fan base. Ashanti sang the national anthem at an event and even rode shotgun in the pace car.
In addition to riding in racecars and putting out her first album on her own label, Ashanti’s been keeping up with her acting career. Having played Dorothy on stage in The Wiz in 2009 and a recurring role on Lifetime’s Army Wives series, Ashanti just finished filming the musical Stuck for release next year. Her co-stars include Breaking Bad alum Giancarlo Esposito.
EBONY.com chatted with Ashanti about her multi-pronged career, her current dating life, and whether or not she’d be willing to work with her famous ex, Nelly.
EBONY: You just released a video for your song “Early in the Morning” featuring French Montana. You were serving up the sex appeal with those outfits. How do you prepare for shoots like that?
Ashanti: Thank you! How do I prepare? I get in good with the director. “Get all the good angles.” [laughs] No, but seriously, that was a very stressful video to make. I was in the middle of shooting a movie. I had a 4 a.m. call to be on set for the film and we were supposed to wrap at 4 p.m. But then my scenes got pushed back and we wrapped at like eight or nine and so, I went straight to the video shoot and I was still late.
I learned the dance routine right before we shot the video. I had what they call the Poetic Justice braids that Janet Jackson wore in the movie. I had those for the movie I was filming, so I had eight people in my head taking out the braids. I had to take them out so I could get all the different hairstyles I needed to get for the video. It was crazy. I funded everything, so I was like, “Let’s go. We on the clock.” [laughs]
EBONY: Speaking of being a sexy woman in charge, there’s been some public debate about that recently. Annie Lennox has done a couple interviews condemning Beyoncé specifically, but really women entertainers in general, about being too overtly sexual: “Twerking is not feminism.” Do you think it’s possible to be a feminist, or at least pro-woman, and have provocative dance moves or clothing?
Ashanti: If you are confident in being who you are as a woman, then yes. It’s about respecting yourself. If you believe strongly in who you are, you can do it. You can be sexy and be sensual and be pro-woman and be a boss and be a feminist. There is a difference between being provocative and trashy.
EBONY: Are you working on Written Entertainment as something that is only an incubator for your creative endeavors, or do you want other artists there?
Ashanti: I’m working on an amazing situation that I’m really excited about, but I can’t really talk about it right now. I definitely want to have a platform for my music. I want to try something first. I want to make sure that my situation is solidified, so that if I sign other people, I can make good on that. I don’t want to let artists down. And I’ve been let down as an artist, so I don’t want to do that.
EBONY: As a songwriter, what song or verse are you most proud of? I don’t mean just on the current album, but of all time.
Ashanti: I like “Freedom” and “Bonafide Survivor,” but there’s another one too. [Starts singing softly.] There was a verse I wrote for the Collectables album. [Sings some more.] Ugh! What is the song? Wait, wait. It’s the “Still Down Remix” from the Collectables album. That’s what that is. That was hot. I remember listening to that again and being like, “That’s a hard verse!” Those are real records that I really go through and that I’ve gone through and the betrayal and coming out of it and all of that.
EBONY: Speaking of betrayal and dating and starting over, are you dating anyone right now?
Ashanti: Hmmmm. How should I answer that? [Long pause] I’m having fun. I’ll say that. And I can say that I had no idea how many guys had a so-called crush on me. My phone stays lit. (Laughs) That’s all I have to say about that.
EBONY: Fair enough. You mentioned working on a movie. What was it like working on Stuck with vets like Giancarlo Esposito and the rest of the cast?
Ashanti: So, we’re stuck in the subway in New York City underground. It’s like six different people of all different ethnicities and backgrounds. So a lot of prejudice, tension and frustration come out. It’s based on a musical stage play, so it has all the elements of that. It has heart and merit. As far as the actors, like Giancarlo Esposito and Amy Madigan, I was basically just a sponge to them. I wanted to soak up all of the talent and energy they had to offer.
EBONY: I know you had your first NASCAR experience recently. What did you think when they first called you about that? Were you nervous?
Ashanti: When they called me, my first thought was, “Can I get one of those suits?” [Laughs] It was really cool. I’m not a racecar driver, but I do drive fast. I wanted to see the cars and see the race. I got to see the pit stop and how they do everything in like 11 seconds. That was crazy. It was good to see all of the energy and work that goes into that. Oh, and then the reason I was there was to sing the national anthem. It was cool. I had a lot of fun.
EBONY: You have Braveheart out right now, but I’m told that you have another album coming out this month.
Ashanti: Yes, I have a Christmas album [Christmas with Ashanti] coming out at the end of the month. I have a really good relationship with Target, so they’ll be putting it out. You can get the album there and on iTunes. I did a Christmas EP last year [Ashanti’s Christmas] to go along with a Christmas movie I did on Lifetime. It did really well and Target liked it too, so we added on a few new tracks and we’re putting out a whole Christmas album. What’s really cool about this is that I have my whole family singing on here. It’s the first time we’ve all been on a record like that. It was fun hanging with them in the studio. My dad, my mother, my sister and my cousin Lenny are all on it.
EBONY: You’ve been very open about the fact that this album is based on your actual experiences in life and love, so of course people think of your famous ex Nelly when they hear these tracks. Any chance that you would have Nelly in the video for “Scars” or any other track off the album?
Ashanti: [Long pause] Hmmmm. If I did, he’d have to pay me. [Laughs] No, I’m kidding. I don’t think so. It’s depends on what would drive controversy in a good way. I would have to get something out of it.
EBONY: A click is a click. Any other projects you’d like to mention?
Ashanti: Oh, yes. I have a Lifetime movie coming out in November. It’s called Mutant World. I play this mutant preacher. I ride a Harley and I kill people. I’m like chopping people’s heads off and stuff. It’s scary.
EBONY: Talk about variety. You have a long and diverse career. Why do you think you’re still here and successful?
Ashanti: It’s important to be invested in your fans. I’m super grateful for a fan base that is invested in me. I’ve always been true to who I am. I think from the moment I hit the scene, I’ve given a down to earth, approachable person, around-the-way girl type of vibe and I’ve remained that. It’s a lot of hard work going through everything I’ve been through. Being signed to a label that was being indicted. That job went away and Irv [Gotti] went away. To still be here and be relevant and have fans that have stood by is a great feeling. I’m very humbled and grateful.