Douglas was born on October 13, 1980, in Glen Cove, New York. Her mother, Tina Douglas, is African American and a former dance teacher, her father, Ken-Kaide Thomas Douglas, is also African American and a former singer. Her mother named her after the Ashanti Empire in Ghana; in this nation, women had power and influence, and Tina wanted Ashanti to follow that model. Her grandfather, James, was a civil rights activist who was associated with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
Ashanti’s mother discovered her full singing potential when she overheard Ashanti singing Mary J. Blige’s “Reminisce” at age 12. While attending high school, she began to write songs. As a teenager, she performed in a local talent show and at several small festivals. She got her first taste of acting as a child extra in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and in Ted Demme’s Who’s the Man?. She also had a couple of minor appearances in music videos, such as KRS-One’s “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” as well as 8-Off’s “Ghetto Girl”.
Ashanti struggled to find success as a singer after being courted by several record labels, including Bad Boy and Jive. Despite this, she continued to perform in and around New York and began hanging out at the Murder Inc. recording studio, hoping for a big break.