There’s an abundance of “queens” in the game right now. Yes, we’re all queens and wear a personal crown, I know. That aside, “Queen” is sometimes used a little loosely for artists and entertainers. I’m not going to get into whose crown is real and whose is possibly from Party City, but there’s a sovereign monarch y’all have been neglecting. Long before fan armies and hives were out here staging coronations willy-nilly, there was Queen Latifah.
An eight-year-old Dana Owens was scrolling through a book of Arabic names with her cousin when she saw the name “Latifah,” which means delicate and sensitive, and promptly decided it was for her. When she started rapping in high school, she wanted a title fitting of the name. Latifah told CNN’s Larry King, “I didn’t want to be emcee Latifah or, you know, all these different monikers that you could have put on, but I…thought, Queen, you know my mom raised me to be a queen. Queen. Queen Latifah.”
For the last 20 years of her 30-year career, however, Latifah’s been known primarily as an actress. Much like her industry contemporary Will Smith, the rap career feels long ago and far away. There’s even a segment of fans who are more familiar with her as a singer than as a rapper. In honor of Women’s History Month (and Latifah’s recent investment into a housing initiative in Newark, New Jersey), this is VIBE’s Queen Latifah refresher course; a reminder that she was one of the first crossover female rap artists, who broke barriers and set standards for not just women in hip-hop, but black women in music to follow.
Wanna talk about consciousness? Latifah did that.
Singing and rapping? Yup, the first.
Feminism? From the door.
Owning her own entertainment company and label? Did it early.
Acting? Did it. Killed it.
Creating, producing and owning content? Mmhmm.
Brand partnerships? Check.
Beauty and wellness? Yup.
Body positivity and promoting self-esteem? Hello, “Queen.”
There ain’t a door she wasn’t the first or one of the first women in hip-hop to walk through.
The Princess of the Posse
She started as a member of New Jersey’s Flavor Unit, led by Mark the 45 King, a producer now best known for Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” Eminem’s “Stan,” and a cut called “The 900 Number,” Yo! MTV Raps’ Ed Lover’s signature song. The Flavor Unit was a crew of emcees and DJs similar to the Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, and Latifah was the stand out star.
Mark passed her demo to influencer-of-all-things-in-early-hip-hop, Fab 5 Freddy, who in turn passed it to signer-of-mad-acts-in-early-hip-hop Dantè Ross. Ross immediately gave her a deal with hip-hop and dance hub Tommy Boy Records.
Repping For The Ancestors
Queen Latifah took her chosen name seriously, and her entire brand reflected her title. In the same 1989 Yo! MTV Raps episode above, Freddy went shopping with Latifah, and she explained her style and homage. “By wearing African clothes, African accessories, not only am I supporting my African brothers and sisters who have these businesses, but it brings me closer to my ancestors…I just feel inner power.”
She named her backup dancers the Safari Sisters, and they sported the ancestral garb with a touch of military flair. They were in charge and ready to battle anyone who tried to test.
Latifah blended reggae, Jersey house music, jazz and other elements into her music, effortlessly switched up rhyme and flow styles, and shifted between rapping and singing, which became a trademark throughout her career. And she kicked global knowledge. Her Queendom was open to all.
Her music was inclusive, but she was also clear that she was talking to the black community first. The conversations about who can enjoy the culture have been ongoing for hip-hop’s entire existence. In one of her earliest on camera interviews, Latifah discussed who hip-hop is for, coincidentally with 3rd Bass’s DJ Serch, a white MC. “By bringing knowledge to our people, we’re bringing knowledge to every other people and letting them know how we live. That’s when (music) becomes universal. That’s where the teaching comes in. [The message is] directed to the black culture, but it’s something for everyone to learn. We have to help us grow first, and then and only then can we associate with every other race.”
Hip-hop was at the beginning of the conscious movement. A mix of Black Nationalism, Islam and Afrocentrism permeated the culture. Rappers started to address blackness, politics and social conditions in their lyrics, and gold chains and Dapper Dan fits were supplanted with African medallions, beads, and prints. Latifah’s other rap collective, The Native Tongues, was at the forefront of the shift. The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep, Monie Love, and Latifah rebranded hip-hop, used it to celebrate and uplift culture, and made it more eclectic and relatable for kids that didn’t relate to street stories or machismo rap.
Along with her regal demeanor, Latifah always had the spirit and energy of an elder, a sage. Media outlets called her “the Aretha Franklin of rap” when she debuted, a comparison not only because of her voluptuous build with round baby face, but because of the power and declaration in her voice and message. Over time, she earned the moniker First Lady of Hip-Hop. The Native Tongues called her “Mama Zulu” (a reference to the Universal Zulu Nation collective) even though she was still a teenager.
Latifah always represented equality and power for women. She and peers MC Lyte, Roxanne Shantè, Ms. Melodie and Salt-N-Pepa were fighting for position and respect. Hip-hop is born of the streets; it’s about boasting and braggadocio. There’s a reason why, 30 years after Lyte was the first female rapper to release a full-length album, the field still isn’t level. But from the moment the ladies hit the scene late ‘80s, stepping into a landscape dominated by LL Cool J, Public Enemy and NWA, Latifah and her peers came to play.
Like her self-ascribed Queen descriptor, Latifah’s albums announced the power and strength of black women with titles like All Hail the Queen, Nature of a Sista’ and Black Reign. She rapped about agency, visibility, confidence, self-reliance, and about not letting men play women short. I consider All Hail the Queen is the definitive Latifah album, and “Ladies First” is her definitive song.
Latifah and Monie Love were fast friends from the moment they met in 1987, and Latifah pitched the idea for the perfect collaboration. “She said she wanted to do something that was uplifting for women because it’s a male-dominated industry and hip-hop is full of male acts. [Women rappers] do exist but we’re few and far between.” Monie told Billboard. “She said, ‘I want to do something that’s going to empower women and shake the guys up a little bit. I want to call it ‘Ladies First’ because when a guy and a woman walk through the door, it’s supposed to be ladies first.’ So we built the song around that idea…We had no idea it was going to go down in history as this great woman empowerment song in hip-hop.”
The track was also a milestone moment for women in hip-hop. It was the first collaborative track with two female MCs who weren’t part of a group – and without a man on the joint hogging the light. The vision was originally for three; Latifah asked Lyte to join, but people convinced her it wasn’t a smart move, so she declined. It’s a decision Lyte still regrets. (Me too, because that would have been fire!) Latifah and Monie brought high spirited, high energy banter back and forth as they hyped each other up. Imagine, “Yes, BARS!!” but over a beat.
“Some think that we can’t flow (can’t flow)
Stereotypes, they got to go (got to go)
I’m a mess around and flip the scene into reverse
(With what?) With a little touch of ‘Ladies First’”
Latifah didn’t realize her ideology and message aligned with feminism. “(‘Ladies First’) is to tell ladies as well as men that we’re coming up, we’re standing proud and strong, and we won’t be impeded by anything,” she said in an early interview. “It’s not a feminist-type thing, ‘cause I’d never call myself a feminist. It’s just telling (women) they have to have more respect for themselves in an age where they are so exploited.” Okay, so feminism with a dash of fauxtep in the beginning. But still feminism. She became the rap mama you don’t want to show out around because you know she’s going to be disappointed (you could get loose with your rap aunties Salt-n-Pepa, though).
As hip-hop grew, the cultural misogyny grew with it. The Queen continued to serve in a mother/big sister role even to the artists in Flavor Unit, which she was then leading. She had a lyrical come-to-Jesus-meeting for black men and women about name calling, street harassment, and a lack of mutual respect. If Latifah is hip-hop’s Aretha, “U.N.I.T.Y” is her “Respect.”
The anthem is still her biggest single to date, and her signature song (along with “Ladies First”). It won the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1995, right behind Lyte’s win for “Ruffneck” in 1994.
On the few occasions opportunity presented to gather a master class of female rappers, the Queen was always on the short list.
The Vanguard of Hip-Hop In Hollywood
Queen Latifah was one of the first rappers, along with Will Smith, Ice T and Ice Cube, to make a successful leap to the screen. In ‘90, she began landing guest spots and small roles in Juice, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Jungle Fever. She was good, easy, natural. But that was due in part to the characters falling on a Queen Latifah spectrum, not that far removed from her artist persona. Just tweaked a little.
When Living Single debuted in 1993, Latifah the rapper started moving aside for Latifah the actress. The ensemble comedy about young, upwardly mobile black friends in Brooklyn was a smash hit, and part of a new era in TV programming targeting the hip-hop generation. No-nonsense but loveable Khadijah James showcased Latifah’s ease and comedic timing.
Like her smaller roles, though, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine Khadajah as the woman Latifah would have been if she’d pursued journalism instead of rapping. Living Single was so successful (it inspired one of the defining mainstream sitcoms of the decade, Friends), Latifah was at risk of losing her rap cred. Hip-hop was still a couple of years away from celebrating and embracing crossover success. With her second album, she addressed anyone who had doubts.
Her cameo looks plus the starring role in a hit series solidified the Queen as a rapper who could also act. Then, she went to an alternative universe where the Living Single crew decided to rob banks: the all-women caper movie Set It Off. From that moment, she was an actress, who also rapped. The brash, gangsta Cleo was unlike anything we’d seen Latifah embody. Not in her music, not in her acting, and not in her personal life as the sister and daughter of police officers. Of no small consequence, Cleo was gay. “Gay, gay, gay” as Latifah herself described. On-camera, not simply implied.
“There’s a lot of stuff people will question about my character,” she told the LA Times around the movie’s release. “I needed to be somebody else to show the world that I had this gift – something I can’t do if I play Queen Latifah roles all of the time. I wanted to make a statement with a character who’s really quite opposite of who I really am, and establish a different voice.”
After Set It Off, there were no more small roles for the Queen. In her career to date, Latifah has starred in more than 30 feature films, including her Oscar-nominated turn as Mama Morton in Chicago – the only female rapper to be nominated in an acting or non-acting category. In addition to starring in Living Single, her Flavor Unit Entertainment has also produced multiple TV shows, she’s starred in and co-produced critically acclaimed TV movies including HBO’s Bessie (for which she won a SAG award), and hosted a daytime TV show. Over 20 years after Living Single and Set It Off, Latifah proved she’s also still relatable as the around-the-way homegirl with the 2017 box office phenomenon Girl’s Trip.
A few years into her career, Latifah began an evolution from rapper to business (not a “business woman” but a “business”…you know the rest). After Mark the 45 King developed a serious drug habit that threatened Flavor Unit, Latifah and partner Shakim Compere took over the brand. “She was the one who became the most successful. She had the finances to incorporate the name and to build a brand around it,” former crew member Lakim Shabazz explained to Red Bull Music Academy. “We sat down as a unit and discussed this, and everyone came to the agreement that it was okay for her to do that. So she incorporated the name and they got Flavor Unit Management, and eventually they built the label and the movie company.”
Flavor Unit Management continued to represent some of the original crew like “Gangsta B*tch” rapper Apache, took on Naughty by Nature, and at various points managed OutKast, LL Cool J, Monica, Faith Evans, Total, SWV, Groove Theory, Monifah, Gina Thompson, Donell Jones and Zhané. In between her second and third albums, Latifah left Tommy Boy for Motown Records and her own Flavor Unit Records imprint. By 1993, she was the head of her own management company and label. In 1995, they branched into film and television production.
Flavor Unit Entertainment has produced several of Latiah’s film vehicles including Beauty Shop, Just Wright, Last Holiday and Bessie; and TV shows including VH1’s Single Ladies (which I’m not ashamed to say I miss). The company had brokered content deals with Centric/BETHer and Netflix in recent years for new projects. Latifah’s busy.
The Queen has been an example for entertainers-turned entrepreneurs. MC Lyte celebrated her hustle and acumen in an open letter for Billboard, “My sister, the Queen, has single-handedly changed the way every female MC looks at their business and perhaps more importantly, has no doubt changed the way the world views female MCs and their business potential.”
All That Jazz
With success comes freedom to explore and push boundaries. Latifah sang at church and at school before she started rapping, and once her career was secure, she allowed herself room to be a vocalist. She started with her acting roles, first as a jazz singer in the 1998 movie Live Out Loud.
It’s worth noting that “Lush Life” is not an easy song to sing. Sinatra left it off an album after finding it too difficult. Latifah isn’t just a hold a melody singer. She’s a forreal singer.
Four years later, she dived head first into a full-out musical playing Mama. I mentioned she was nominated for an Oscar, right?
In 2004, she released The Dana Owens Album, a collection of jazz and soul standards. The album was a fair commercial success; it cracked the top 20 of the Billboard Top 200 and almost hit the top 10 of the R&B albums chart. It also garnered a Grammy Nomination for Best Jazz Vocal. She stuck with jazz for her following album, 2007’s Travelin’ Light. This time, the LP spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz albums chart and garnered an additional Grammy nomination, for Best Traditional Pop Vocal (which is the same category Tony Bennett wins pretty much annually).
If you go see Latifah perform today, just know there’s gonna be a jazz set. Come like 30 minutes late if you’re just trying to see Queen Latifah and not Dana Owens.
I can’t think of any other hip-hop artist who completely switched up genres. This isn’t even in the same vein as Lauryn being an R&B singer. This is like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson playing two fundamentally different sports on a professional level.
Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Cover Queen
Latifah continued to prove her versatility by becoming a spokesperson for cosmetic giant CoverGirl in 2001, laying a foundation for brand ambassadors Janelle Monàe and Issa Rae to come later. In 2006, she became the brand’s first spokesperson to create their own line of products, launching the Queen Collection for women of color.
For years, the mainstream beauty industry has ignored the needs of darker-hued women, enough so that the array of shades available in Rihanna’s Fenty line was disruptive – in 2017. Latifah was proud of her representation as a CoverGirl, then an encounter with a fan convinced her the line was necessary. “The woman came up to me and was like, ‘I’m so happy for you and CoverGirl. I love that, but I wish y’all made a shade in my complexion.’ When she said that, it didn’t go past me, it stuck with me,” she told Essence. “I [thought], ‘okay, let’s go make a shade in your complexion’. I thought why am I CoverGirl if we can’t get our different shades?”
The Queen Collection is still one of CoverGirl’s best-selling lines, and one of the most popular makeup lines for women of color.
She may have done away with her trademark crown hat – she said people made too much of it, and anyone who’s been “Peace, Queen”ed excessively can probably relate – but Latifah has never been dethroned. She has consistently checked boxes and hit new benchmarks since her career began, although she’s said that wasn’t her goal.
“The goal was just to make a record, and then the goal was to do a TV show,” Latifah told Ebony magazine in 2007, “and then the goal was to make movies, and then to produce movies and produce records.” Whether intentional, guided by grace, or just by luck plus perseverance, however, Dana Owens has become one of the biggest stars not just in music, but period. She is universally respected and loved. The Queen still reigns, and we are merely her subjects.
#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the ’90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.