‘The first song I recorded was about 15. That was the age when I decided to really pick up the pen. I wanted people to feel my intensity through my words, when I wrote that song, I didn’t want to just set myself apart from the other girls, but from Hip-Hop. I wanted to write about my determination to be successful.’

Nick Donnelly, a music video director from the UK who has worked in New York City with Hip-Hop legends such as Method Man and Ruff Ryders, spoke to ASHEN, for Generation W as we discuss the first live music show in New York City for the British platform GW on 3rd October at Rockwood Music Hall. The upcoming show is the first public event collaboration between Generation W and Ashen, after the two worked together during an online concert series in 2020 when Generation W worked with 50 female led artists from across 20 countries. In this interview the Queens New York native discussed the weight that title carries and her ambitions to represent a new generation.

Ashen: I’ve been out to London about three times, and all three times it was raining.

GW: What brought you out to London?
Ashen: Family. I have a whole family tree expanding out there. A lot of cousins…..

GW: Were you born in New York?
Ashen: Yes, born and raised in Queens, New York, in 1998.

GW: So by 1998, a lot of Hip-Hop artists from Queens were already international names right?
Ashen: Obviously there are so many Hip-Hop legends from Queens; Nas, 50 Cent, Nicki Minaj… But me personally, I find more opportunities in other parts of the city but Queens is working on more to help us artists in the city, it’s just other parts of New York currently have more opportunities.

GW: Were your family into Hip-Hop?
Ashen: My family grew up on Reggae and Dancehall, I’m born into a Jamaican family, so discovering Hip-Hop was for me. I had to go out and find that.

GW: At school in Queens everyone must have been into Hip-Hop?
Ashen: School was Hip-Hop central, banging onto the tables making beats, freestyling, clapping our hands walking down the hallways, playing the latest music off of our phones. I am one of the few people in my family that went to school in New York, my Mum and Dad went to school in Jamaica so me going to school in New York guaranteed to me that Hip-Hop would be a big part of my life growing up.

GW: When did you write your first rhymes?
Ashen: I always loved poetry. I was writing rhymes in elementary school but I wrote my first song when I was about 14 or 15, the first song I recorded was about 15. That was the age when I decided to really pick up the pen. I wanted people to feel my intensity through my words, when I wrote that song, I didn’t want to just set myself apart from the other girls, but from Hip-Hop. I wanted to write about my determination to be successful.

GW: In New York in the 90s there were radio stations, magazines, independent record labels. Is all that stuff still going and accessible to you?
Ashen: We still have Hot 97.

GW: Can you get on Hot 97 being unsigned?
Ashen: Being signed would be great for my career but I don’t want to rush into the wrong thing. Being independent taught me a lot that I would not have gotten to learn if I put it into the hands of someone else.

GW: Being independent in New York must be overwhelming at time, with such big businesses operating there. Is there still an independent scene there that feels confident?
Ashen: I would say yes, a lot of us are being found online or by attending networking events. I’m an in person networker. New York Fashion Week just happened and I met a lot of cool people, not just musicians but all sorts of creatives. We all need a team around us.

GW: How inspired are you right now to make music?
Ashen: I’m right now about 50-50. I’m more involved in my life right now, I haven’t been in the studio in a while but I have a lot of material in the vault that I could drop new music but I’ve been focused on other things. I plan on going back into the studio soon.

GW: When you go into the studio, what is your process? Do you make music for you, or make music because you think it will be popular?
Ashen: I make music based off my own thoughts but when I release it, so many people agree and can relate, so I make music for us.

GW: Is the community in New York different right now than what people around the world might think it’s like?
Ashen: I think it’s exactly what people would expect. This really is the city that never sleeps. Whatever you are looking for in New York, you will find. Being born and raised here we do have a different perception of our environment, we don’t just see what is in the media, we are living it.

GW: Queens was obviously quite dangerous at the end of the 20th Century. Does is still feel that way?
Ashen: I don’t think Queens or Brooklyn feel as dangerous as they once were. There is more diversity, there is more love but there is danger in every city. If you go out looking for trouble you will find it. Whatever you put out in New York is exactly what you will find.

GW: What were the hardest moments in your life that made you who you are?
Ashen: Going to school in Queens wasn’t easy. Even as recent as yesterday I saw a bunch of girls ganging up on one girl, I saw myself in her. People will try and test you when you are alone, and the majority of my life I have been alone, I didn’t have siblings I could talk to, I didn’t have a dad I could call, my mum was busy working all the time. I think growing up in a Jamaican household I wasn’t born hip to the hip-hop culture to start. I had to figure things out myself.

GW: Did you find yourself relating to male or female rappers first?
Ashen: I discovered male rappers first. I always admired masculinity, and then when I heard about female rappers, I felt more valid in what I chose to do. If you dissect Hip-Hop it’s very masculine, it’s very action based.

GW: As well as those artists though that played into the male fantasy, you would have rappers like Lauryn Hill also though.
Ashen: Yes of course! I’m always reversing back to her music whenever I need inspiration and motivation. I would say though out of all artists that inspired me the most, it wasn’t an East Coast artist it was Kendrick Lamar that inspired me more than anything.

GW: Do people in New York City consider themselves still ‘New York first’ or are people more international now? Before you were born there was the East Coast, West Coast controversy of competition that became violent with how proud people were to just be ‘of New York’
Ashen: I want to be known worldwide.

GW: There is that expectation now I suppose that every MC from New York is to be global. We know this is where Hip-Hop started, we know it’s what people want to hear, but now rather than 100s of artists becoming global from New York, there are just a handful coming through. But why would you change your formula of being real as an artist when you know that’s what is what people want from New York?
Ashen: Word!

GW: We connected in 2020 through lockdown, how was that time for you?
Ashen: I was so excited when you all reached out to me. I was motivated to work harder during the pandemic because everything was so frozen. I got a lot of reality checks in this time and it tested me on how serious I really was about my career. I do bel
I’m tapped in on the aims of Generation W, I’m all for what you are doing, I’ve done all the reading, I know it’s the type of movement I’m into.