One day after we interviewed r&b singer Ashanti about her latest gig as Dorothy in NY City Center Encores! production of The Wiz, Irv Gotti–the chart-topping producer who’s credited for her multi-platinum success–announced plans to drop the “Princess of The Inc.” off his label, claiming lack of chemistry but more significantly, communication. For fans who’ve been following the 28-year-old artist’s career, this move came as no surprise. Tensions between the two were obvious with the production and release of last year’s The Declaration, Ashanti’s first album that was produced sans Gotti. “She’s having her little Janet Jackson Control moment. Every artist has their moment when they feel they need to take over their own music and this is hers,” Gotti was quoted as saying.
Although the album may have been a personal victory for the headstrong singer, it was a commercial disappointment. But Ashanti’s not wasting any time. Besides memorizing lines and stepping into those famous silver heels for The Wiz, she’s also in the midst of recording a new album (the night before this interview, she left the studio at 3:30am). Just like Janet, Ashanti might be in an evolutionary phase, as her ex-producer says. But, speaking over the phone recently, she sounded upbeat when talking about her career’s newest phase.
You seem to have a serious connection with The Wizard of Oz. First, with The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, then the one-night only Broadway performance of The Yellow Brick Road Not Taken, the charity production of Wicked, and now The Wiz. What attracts you to the land of Oz?
I’m looking for the Oz’s powers! [laughing] No, but seriously, it’s just an amazing opportunity. First, to have done something with the Muppets, which was like a wave effect through children, was great. I was so lucky to do it. And when The Wiz came along, it was like “Wow!”–how ironic, but it was a great opportunity for a debut.
How do you feel about playing Dorothy this summer?
It’s a great, great feeling. The Wiz is so historic and prestigious, and to come behind Ms. Diana Ross is a little bit of pressure! But in a good way. My family grew up watching it, and it definitely hits home.
Who’s playing Toto?
You know what’s so funny? I had requested for my puppy to be Toto because I have a Teacup Yorkie named Mimi! [laughing] But it probably wouldn’t be a good idea because she would be running around on stage and following me, not listening to anyone else. But I know she’s going to be jealous–that I know!
You were one of the first major r&b stars of the 21st century. What do you think of the artists–the Beyonces, Ciaras, and Rihannas–currently dominating the genre?
I think it’s great. Girl power! Anytime a young female is successful in doing what she loves, I’m all for it.
Rihanna’s been in the news lately for other reasons besides music.
All I can say is that I wasn’t there. I wish both of them the best. Only they know what happened, and they have to go through it–and that’s about it.
Your latest album, The Declaration, was a personal success for you since you gained so much artistic control. But commercially, it hasn’t been nearly as successful as your previous records. What do you attribute that to?
Obviously, the industry has changed in the past five years. My last album came out in ’04 and things changed internally, label-wise, and it’s very political in this industry. And sometimes you have to just do what you have to do. I love the album. I think the reviews have been the best reviews on any album that I ever put out so it goes to show you it is what it is and it happens. Obviously, it’s not as successful as we all wanted it to be, but I gained a lot of respect from a lot people who’ve said “Wow, the album is hot, and you did it by yourself.” I mean the biggest artists and biggest acts haven’t been selling nearly as much as they used to, too, so everyone is suffering from this recession–it’s hitting everyone.
Last but not least: How are you and Nelly doing?
Nelly’s good! [pauses, then laughs] I just think when you have a career, you have to have balance. You have to have time to put into very different areas [laughing hysterically]. Oh gosh! He’s good, I’m good.
The Wiz runs from June 12 – July 5. Tickets and more info are available at City Center.