When we think of the beauty standards placed on women in the music industry, it’s irrefutable that size is at the forefront of those expectations. It’s no secret that the entertainment world shuns bigger, curvier women. But beyond that, there’s a whole host of other physical shortcomings – “defects” – that can mark a female artist as something less than ideal. Barbara Streisand, one of music’s fiercest and most legendary talents, still bears the brunt of jokes pointing fun at her nose. Kelly Rowland, a striking beauty, has always played second to her “prettier,” lighter-skinned cousin. In 2007, comedian Sarah Silverman got heat when she remarked of singer Amy Winehouse, “She is Jewish, right? If she isn’t, someone should tell her face.” For any woman in the business of marketing herself, it begs the question: “What else is wrong with me?” I met with one of LA’s most unique, up-and-coming performers to try and get some answers.
Rukiya Ashanti greeted me in the parking garage of her valley apartment building. For a long moment, she held onto me as we hugged. She took me in – inhaling me. While it’s important she knew that the night belonged to her, in that moment I was her flower. She was fascinated with me. “It’s so good to see you,” she mused. She smelled amazing – like lavender, or sandalwood, or maybe both. Her skin was vibrant and dewy. I showed her the bottle of wine I’d brought, and she escorted me through the complex and up to her dining room table.
Hailing from the south side of Chicago, Rukiya made her way to Los Angeles in 2006 after feeling a spiritual conviction to relocate. “The calling was ‘come meet the natives.’” I asked her what that meant, but she was not quite sure herself. “I thought we were going to move out as a family when I was like 18, but that didn’t happen. My parents divorced when I was in college.”
After her own failed relationship left her alone in a new city, she ended up in film school. “The true beginning of my LA life was 2009. Film school helped me get through cause I was heartbroken. I was like, ‘What do I focus on so I don’t fall apart?’ All of that was like me learning and becoming alive again.”
As artists, we often don’t realize that we’ve ignored our creativity until something brings it back out of us. I asked her where music fit into her life during this period. “It was in everything I was doing. I [already] went to school for theater–I did a bunch of musicals. I built sets, broke down sets, directed short plays…There was a time before even leaving Chicago, I was around a bunch of like, rappers and hip-hop heads. They had the MPCs in front of me, and I was trying to make a beat, and then they’d start making fun of me. Instead of being encouraged in this little fragile moment, I was dissed. And I was always too sensitive for Chicago anyway. It’s all about how hard core you are, how quick you can come with an insult back.” And with that, it became clear. Rukiya’s story was all about vulnerability – never letting anyone see it and always maintaining the appearance of strength.
As we approached the topic of body image, the walls came down. Rukiya allowed me to see a part of her I imagined very few people had. As her eyes fall to the ground, that cloud of female empowerment cleared away from her like smoke. She told me about the lump. After it appeared following a medical procedure several years ago, it only further solidified some painful insecurities about her femininity. “I grew [some] fatty fluid, like a ball, near my reproductive area. Because of that one thing… it means I won’t be in certain shots. I won’t wear certain things. I won’t be the woman I’m supposed to be.”
I was shocked to learn that it was the latest in a history of physical attributes that had left her questioning her womanliness. “It started with a little kid calling me a wolverine in grammar school, and boys going, ‘Oh she’s cute, but she’s got a mustache’, and boys that I liked. And that would be it. That would be the thing that made them go, ‘I am not going to go anywhere near her’ because of the [facial] hair. I’ve fluctuated in weight several times, but it was always about the hair. When I was eight years old in Chicago, you’d have these old drunk guys on the street and they’d all look down at [me], ‘Oh you’re a pretty girl, a hairy one.’ I had a rough day [once], and I’m probably living in Hollywood at the time, I got a bunch of crazy different patterns of clothing on. I got a hat on. I got something tied around my waist. I have a dude come over to me…” she sighed, “He wants to flirt with me, but the question he asks me is, ‘Are you a man?’ and I go, ‘No.’ But that’s not the first time I’ve been asked that.”
As I listened to Rukiya, someone I’ve always held in my mind as a fierce womanly figure, I’m surprised that so much of her self-doubt was wrapped up in the fear that she somehow came across as… masculine. But that’s the thing about body image; there’s always something to hate about yourself. There’s always something that can be inherently “wrong” with you. And in an industry that promotes the ideal woman not only as svelte, but toned, delicate, and perfectly smooth – there’s just no way to win.
The R.A.W. Experience, as Rukiya would come to be known, started to take shape around 2011. After finishing film school, she’d found a local group of musicians that held regular performances at an art gallery in North Hollywood. The collective of artists known as NoHo2 were an eclectic group – hosting drum circles, painting circles, and everything in between. This was a safe place completely devoid of judgment, and it was Rukiya’s experimentation there that would not only lead to meeting her husband, Dan, but also to her freedom as a performer. “So many good experiences, so many funny moments, a lot of music though… I would even pop on stage every once in awhile, drunkenly though. So that was like my subconscious going like, ‘You really want to be on stage don’t you.’” What started as small cameos and surprise guest spots would eventually lead to the formation of her own band and her own full performances. And it wasn’t long before she took her show to other venues – booking nights at local spots like The Federal Bar and The Mint on a regular basis, with a sound that ranged from The Isley Brothers to Bjork.
While it’s clear that The R.A.W. Experience, a.k.a. Rukiya Ashanti, has reached a certain level of self-acceptance, she’s still very much in a place of transition – a place of healing. “Love helps a lot. I’m definitely happier and more stable than I’ve ever been. I’m more happy and more stable in myself and in a relationship, so the combination has allowed me comfort to be sad, or uncomfortable, or weird, or really dorky, or super insecure. I’m going though these things I wouldn’t even let myself go through before.”
When I asked where she ultimately wanted to end up in her career, she gave a pretty beautiful response: “Through music and other avenues I’ve raised enough money, enough fundage, enough donations to create Kids Emporium. Without describing it too much, it is a place that will be in several major cities that will connect the family through fun, recreation, and education. And it will also be hubs that can house and protect thousands to millions of people. Since 2007 I’ve had that vision. To get to that point, I have to be a certain kind of person.” But what Rukiya might not know, and what I think she’s coming to know, is what a truly unique, beautiful, inspiring, and feminine person she already is.
The R.A.W Experience live in Long Beach:
Hear excerpts on Soundcloud:
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