So disrespectful: Ashanti, other Black women performers damned if they do, damned if they don’t

It’s time we call a thing a thing: Black women in music get no respect

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In the words of Iyanla Vanzant, it’s time we call a thing a thing: Black women in music get no respect.

And you don’t have to look far for receipts.

Grammy-awarded singer-songwriter Ashanti made quite a splash in headlines recently, and it’s not because of her music.

The R&B veteran recently scolded a man in the audience at a concert after he threw a wad of cash at her onstage. Dressed in a form-fitting bodysuit while giving a PG-13-rated lap dance to three male fans, the singer stopped mid-performance to inform the disrupter that she’s “not a f**king stripper.”

And now everybody seems to have an opinion about it.

While discussing the mishap on Complex’s Everyday Struggle, Ashanti got into a testy back-and-forth with host (and former rapper?) Joe Budden, who felt that because she ‘chose’ to dress like a stripper, she deserved to be treated like one.

It goes without saying that in today’s climate of high-profile men being exposed for sexual harassment and assault, telling a woman in 2017 that she deserves respect only if she dresses or plays the part — rather than simply demanding more from men to respect a woman’s agency to her own body — is not only anti-woman but ignorant AF.

While Ashanti was there to promote her new record, “Say Less,” the entire Everyday Struggle interview was overshadowed by the burden of her having to defend to one man why her body didn’t deserve to be objectified by another.

“I had on a body suit, with boots, which 90 percent of my peers wear, which we perform in. We’re there to do a show, so that’s what you wear,” she argued. “Do I want money thrown on me because I’m in a body suit? No.”

Then, just days later, Wendy Williams, who gets her share of digs for her own aesthetic as a woman, threw in her two cents on the matter.  The daytime talk show host went so far as to call Ashanti a 40-something “exotic dancer” whose music nobody cares about (for the record, Ashanti is 37). “You’ve got a beautiful body, and you’re using it to make your bones. And that is a fact, jack,” Williams quipped.

Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez, Wendy argued, can be sexy in a thong, because fans can “respect and understand the hustle” — just not if you’re Ashanti, apparently. While there may be some truth to the privileges afforded by mainstream pop stars like Bey and J.Lo, it doesn’t quite explain the hypocrisy of it all, nor does it speak to the larger narrative concerning R&B and the sad state of the Black female performer.

When one considers the state of commercial R&B and the historical neglect (and disrespect) of Black women at large, one can’t help but feel for the Ashantis of the world.

They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

To Wendy’s point, however, unless you are Beyoncé, R&B female performers are gravely ignored.

No matter how good the music, how big the voice, or how entertaining the performance, too many are unable to crawl themselves out of the pits of low commercial sales —  barely existing in the shadows of white pop singers with “soul.”

Stephanie Mills recently said it best on TV’s One’s Sister Circle: “I think they want R&B, but they don’t want it from us. They want it from Adele and Justin Timberlake and those people; they don’t want it from us. [The industry] doesn’t want to show the respect of where it comes from.

While male hip-hop and hip-hop-leaning R&B artists continue to dominate the charts, their women counterparts are fading into obscurity. R&B starlets like Fantasia, Ledisi and Jazmine Sullivan manage to maintain a presence in the industry through touring circuits and BET-sponsored shows, but none are quite able to access the stages and spaces allowed to, say, a Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande or Demi Lovato.

In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, journalist Gerrick Kennedy explored the phenomenon of Black female R&B artists struggling for attention in the marketplace. According to his reporting, “in the past 10 years, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Mariah Carey were the only black women to land a No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 and top album charts as a lead artist.”

The truth is, too many segments of this country do not want to hear from Black women unless they’re twerking in a leotard. And when she does try to give listeners and viewers substance, she’s ignored, shrugged off as ‘boring’ or seen as somehow missing the mark.

Given what we know to be true, it comes as no surprise when artists like Ashanti choose to stick to the script of “sex sells.” It’s the unbroken formula in entertainment, and it’s been fruitful for some of music’s biggest stars.

As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Rather than tearing artists like Ashanti down for using a model that has long worked in music, TV and film, and rather than dismissing R&B female singers as “flops” or “has beens,” we should support or at the very least congratulate them for the audacity to persist in the face of an industry that consistently shuts them out.

Whether Ashanti is on your personal playlist or not, one has to give her respect where respect is due. Ashanti dominated the charts in the early 2000s, spawning two No. 1’s and ten top 10 Hot 100 hits.

She was known as the “princess of hip hop and R&B.”

In a 2003 New York Times review of Beyoncé’s debut album, Dangerously In Love, Kelefa Sanneh concluded that solo Beyoncé was “no Ashanti.” While his critique was incredibly dated, given who Beyoncé has become in music and pop culture today, it’s a reminder that Ashanti once reigned supreme and dominated a space she now barely occupies.

In a recent interview with The Breakfast Club, Ashanti said things took a turn for the worse when her label, Murder Inc., got caught up in a federal money laundering case involving a NYC drug lord. The label lost its reputation and went defunct after its co-founder, Irv Gotti, and other associates, were indicted. Ashanti, still at the height of her career, was left to fend for herself.

“I was like I don’t got nothing to do with this. Why are all of these sponsors pulling out?” the singer recalled. “There were so many huge partnerships that were on the come up right around that time, and everyone is like we love you but… It was a very hard position to be in.”

Ashanti also said that despite Gotti’s legal woes casting a dark cloud over her career, she still showed up in court for support. But that support didn’t save her from her ultimate fall in music — and for no real fault of her own. It’s the ongoing American tale of Black women’s loyalty to Black men, and how they end up paying the price in the end.

But this isn’t just about Ashanti. She’s just one of countless examples of Black women in music who learned the hard way that respect is hard to come by. One day, they’re with you, and then, they’re not. Unless, of course, it comes with stipulations. Unless it comes with working twice as hard to be considered just as good. And even then when you do, it still might not be enough.

Ultimately, Ashanti has done quite well for herself. She owns her own music publishing company, Written Entertainment Inc.; stays on the road; and recently signed on as a spokesmodel for Ciroc.

While she may never again be considered in the same ranks as Beyoncé, she’ll always be a major part of modern R&B’s indelible mark in music history.

Even if said history falls on deaf ears.

Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Homepage and Opinion Editor at theGrio. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.