During Women's History Month, ERS-Plus is turning up the volume on female MCs across 50 years of Hip Hop. Up this week is the iconic MC and award-winning actress Queen Latifah. Want more Hip-Hop and R&B? Check out ERS-Plus on HD2 Radio, and online.
By Ash Jones, Staff Writer
When I think of Queen Latifah, I see the embodiment of female Hip Hop. She carries herself with fearless energy and takes on the mic as if it were her destiny to do so. Queen Latifah is deservedly on a pedestal that most female rappers look up to, and her legacy continues to carry on.
Given the name Dana Owens, Queen Latifah was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1970. At age eight, her cousin gave her the nickname Latifah meaning “delicate and sensitive” in Arabic. Though her name may be gentle, her words call for action. Queen Latifah has always proved herself as a powerhouse. When she started rapping in her late teens, her abilities shined through with full force.
Being a contralto, Latifah started as a singer in the Catholic Church. However, she soon moved away from performing sacred melodies with her choir. When Latifah was a junior in high school, she formed a female rap trio with a tight-knit group of friends. They called themselves Ladies Fresh, and her early beatboxing skills caught the attention of producers in the music industry.
Around the time she went to community college, Queen Latifah became an o.g. member of the Flavor Unit, an underground crew of Jersey MCs that made music with DJ King Gemini (aka The 45 King). He sent one of Latifah’s demos to an MTV host: Fab 5 Freddy. Then, Dante Ross, who worked closely with Fab 5 Freddy, signed Latifah and helped release her first single “Wrath of My Madness” in 1989.
That same year, Latifah released her debut album, All Hail the Queen; this full-length release would go on to sell over a million copies. It featured the hit single “Ladies First,” introducing London’s Monie Love with her frenetic spitting on the track. Thematically, the song revolved around the mistreatment of Black women in the music industry.
Latifah was always known for relaying topics of domestic abuse, racism, and sexism into her music. She wasn’t afraid to present subjects that weren’t commonly heard through a Black female perspective into mainstream consciousness.
At just nineteen years old, the course of Latifah’s life changed for the better. She took time off from school, saying she’d return if her music career didn’t work out—she hasn’t gone back to school since.
Queen Latifah's Big Break
Latifah released her sophomore effort, Nature Of A Sista, in 1991. This album showcased a different sound; solid Hip Hop lyrics flowed over elements of jazz, reggae, and more traditional rap production. Additionally, she effortlessly incorporated the emerging vibe of Hip House by blending in the uptempo dance-floor pulse of House music. The album’s featured singles included “Fly Girl,” “Latifah’s Had It Up To Here,” and “How Do I Love Thee.” Thematically diverse, Latifah covered sensuality in a way that wasn’t common for Hip Hop artists. She also showed more comfort and confidence in her singing abilities.
Already respectfully crowned, Latifah dropped Black Reign in 1993. Subsequently, the album achieved Gold status in the United States. Standout track “U.N.I.T.Y.” empowered women to not accept the disrespect of being called out of their names. Ultimately, Latifah won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance for the hit song.
Due to her stage presence and award-show success, the NFL asked her to perform God Bless America at the 1998 Super Bowl. She became one of the first rap artists to perform in football’s biggest event showcase. The Queen was no longer only royalty in the Hip Hop community; she started making waves across the country, trying her hand at other mediums such as acting, jazz singing, and producing.
When Queen Latifah made her way to the big screen, she carried her vocal skills with her. Starting with smaller supporting roles in films like Jungle Fever (1991) and Juice (1992), the Queen’s acting commanded respect in the multi-awarded adaption of Chicago (2002). Playing the exuberant role of Matron Mama Morton, she sang with an alluring charisma that wooed audiences. People weren’t expecting Latifah to have such strong vocal chops. She demonstrated her talents once again in Hairspray (2007), performing an original song for the musical’s soundtrack.
In between starring in acclaimed films, Latifah showed her versatility in music outside of Hip Hop. The 2004 release, The Dana Owens Album, spotlighted her takes on soul and jazz standards, earning Latifah a Grammy nomination along the way.
With her 2007 release Trav’lin’ Light, she let loose the richness of her lush voice. In the same year, she performed at the Hollywood Bowl alongside Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott. That year was a huge turning point for Queen Latifah, and she sealed it off by receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
A multi-talented actress, filmmaker, show host, singer, and rapper, Queen Latifah’s extensive list of accomplishments and accolades make her an astounding role model in Hip Hop. In January of 2006, she received her plaque on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, solidifying her well-deserved star status.
Who Was She Influenced By?
Becoming a rapper in the late ’80s, there’s no doubt that Queen Latifah adored the groups that wrote the blueprint for what we know as Hip Hop today. She took inspiration from groups such as Run-D.M.C, Public Enemy, and EPMD.
When she starred as Bessie Smith in HBO’s Bessie (2015), Latifah noted that the blues singer was a huge influence on her later work in the 2000s. Queen Latifah enjoys all genres, and it’s reflected in her work—reggae, jazz, and house music are all present in her discography.
Honors and Awards
- Best Rap Album at Independent Music Awards for Nature of a Sista, 1991
- Best Rap Solo Performance at The Grammy Awards for “U.N.I.T.Y,” 1995
- Best Supporting Actress nomination at The Academy Awards for Chicago, 2002
- Best Female Rap Solo Performance nomination at The Grammy Awards for “Go Head,” 2004
- Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album nomination at The Grammy Awards for Trav’lin’ Light, 2004
- Best Jazz Vocal Album at The Grammy Awards for The Dana Owens Album, 2005
- Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film nomination at The Golden Globes for Bessie, 2006
- Best Actress in a Miniseries Television or Film at The Golden Globes for Life Support, 2008
- BET Awards Icon Award, 2021
- “Ladies First”
- “Just Another Day…”
- “Latifah’s Had It Up to Here”
- “Fly Girl”
- “Dance for Me”
- “Black Hand Side”
Queen Latifah’s legacy is a queendom of artistry while staying true to her core self—a throwback to a bygone era. She sings, raps, and acts on the big and small screen, produces entertainment content, and hosts daytime television shows.
Several different demographics have seen her develop into a persona with different capacities and themes. Yet, somehow, she maintains her “just another girl around the way” identity—a person who’ll bring the disrespect if shown it and someone who’ll always have your back too.
For early fans, she will always be the Afro-centric Latifah, who declared “Ladies First.” Other people see her as the unifying no-nonsense force of “U.N.I.T.Y.” To some, she’ll always be part of their favorite TV memories as Khadijah James of Flavor Magazine (her role on Living Single) or memorable Cleo from the motion picture Set It Off (1996). Some fans may know her as a jazz singer. Lastly, a whole new audience knows Latifah as a stage and screen actor. Most recently, she is the main protagonist in the television series, The Equalizer.
Her connection and authenticity with people, specifically women, allow her the fluidity to play characters who are not originally written with a female actress in mind. Her audiences have confidence in her abilities and believe all things are possible for Latifah.
This chameleon-like variety of possibilities is her legacy. Whether she mapped out this life or not, things can start out as just another day, but when the nature of a sista is pure, we all wind up hailing the queen after it is all said and done.