Paras Griffin/Getty Images Ashanti
Throughout her decades-long career, Ashanti has scored chart-topping singles, a Grammy Award and her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — but not without enduring quite a bit of music industry drama along the way.
“Honestly, I’m not sure if another artist would be able to deal with what I’ve dealt with,” the R&B icon tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, opening up about the highs and lows she’s endured since hitting the scene more than 20 years ago.
Growing up in Long Island, New York, the daughter of mom Tina Douglas (her longtime manager) and dad Ken-Kaide Douglas, Ashanti discovered her voice at age 12 by singing Mary J. Blige‘s “Reminisce” for her parents, who started taking her to local singing competitions — which she often won. After two unsuccessful record deals as a teenager, she signed to music executive Irv Gotti’s record label Murder Inc. in 2002 and quickly shot to fame with No. 1 hits like “Always on Time” and “Foolish.”
“It was a little bit of a shock from just having a regular life to boom, but it was a blessing,” says the 42-year-old singer-songwriter, whose self-titled debut album sold nearly 505,000 copies in one week upon its release in 2002. “When it did pop off for me, it really popped off.”
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Murder Inc.’s only female R&B artist at the time, Ashanti often found herself working in rooms as the only woman among male rappers and hip-hop artists. “I was always a tomboy, so I felt right at home with a bunch of big brothers,” she recalls, noting that the landscape came with its challenges, which she welcomed. “If there was a beat I wanted, and another rapper on the label wanted, we would have to battle it out, and whoever wrote the best record got the beat. So, it made me stronger.”
Throughout the early 2000s, she would also find herself compared to other women in R&B by fans and media outlets alike. While certain headlines still stick out today — “The Solo Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti,” wrote The New York Times in 2003 — Ashanti says there were never any issues between the genre’s women behind the scenes.
“Reading [that headline], I was just like, ‘What’s going on? We’re cool,'” she says. “Both of us, being young females that are following our dreams and doing what we loved, we were both happy for each other. It was never beef or tension.”
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Having her mom and close-knit collaborators like Fat Joe, Ja Rule and Gotti in her corner helped protect Ashanti from the dark sides of the music industry for a while. After a couple more albums and hit songs, however, the record label was accused of laundering drug money by federal agents in 2003 and went to trial over the matter through 2005. (Gotti, 52, and Murder Inc. co-founder, his brother Chris, were eventually acquitted of all counts.)
Throughout the trial, Ashanti looked to remain “loyal” to her “family” of colleagues and accompanied them to court — all while losing business due to her affiliation with the group. “A lot of things got pulled from under me right when I was continuing to soar,” she says.
Around the same time, Ashanti began dating rapper Nelly and ventured into acting with films including 2006’s John Tucker Must Die. Her connection to Gotti soured, which he’s since claimed was partially the result of a romantic relationship between them abruptly ending — allegations she denies, stating there was no relationship. “I had love for Irv,” she explains. “We had our situation, but I think he blew it out of proportion.”
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Murder Inc. was in flux around the release of Ashanti’s fifth album The Declaration in 2008, and she soon exited the collective. Then, she took a break from music and focused on acting, starring as Dorothy in The Wiz onstage in NYC in 2009. “It wasn’t a choice,” she says. “It was something that needed to happen because of everything that was going on.”
She then returned to music on her own terms, launched an independent label called Written Entertainment and released her sixth album, 2014’s Braveheart. Removing herself from Gotti’s “control,” she speculates, led him to continue speaking negatively about her in public — through today. “I think he began to get really bitter,” says Ashanti. “As a man, sometimes you get hurt. Usually you move on, but some guys aren’t able to.”
Braveheart debuted in the Billboard 200’s top 10 — an impressive feat for an independent artist. But behind the scenes, she faced other difficulties. Recently, she spoke in-depth about experiencing sexual harassment at the hands of a close-knit male music producer, with whom she created two songs. Initially, he offered her the tracks for free, before walking back on his word and giving her an ultimatum: shower with him or pay $40,000 for each song.
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“I really, genuinely thought he was joking. You can feel like someone’s cool, and in the back of their mind, they have an ulterior motive,” she says, hoping that sharing the story inspires other women in the music industry to remain careful before trusting collaborators. “Things like that can happen to Ashanti, so it can happen to anyone — and I’ve heard worse stories.”
Despite the hardships, Ashanti has prevailed. In recent years, she’s consistently released music (with a brand-new album in the works), acted onscreen in projects including VH1’s A New Diva’s Christmas Carol and performed her catalog to global audiences of thousands. “I just played shows in Australia, New Zealand and Dubai,” she says. “I held out the mic, and the crowd screamed ‘Foolish’ at the top of their lungs. That’s an incredible feeling after 20 years.”
She’s also working on taking her career further into her own hands with a forthcoming documentary about her life and artistry as well as a re-recorded version of her debut album — which she, rather than Murder Inc., will fully own upon its release. “Hopefully, this inspires artists to know, at the end of the day, it’s so important to own your creativity,” she says.