God save the Queen: Queen Latifah and the making of a hip-hop Renaissance woman

by Molly Tie

If democracy falls and the whole world is run by a pan-national monarchy made up of musicians with regal titles, who will rule us?  I guess the contenders are King Crimson; Prince; Duke Ellington and Queens of the Stone Age. But I hope that our supreme leader will be the indomitable Queen Latifah because her career has shown she is an irrepressible badass.

Latifah has turned her hand to all sorts of things – rap music, acting, song-writing and producing – and she has been pretty successful at all these things. Understanding Latifah’s rise to fame through a notoriously macho rap music scene makes her success even more impressive and her early credibility means we can sort of forgive her for being in a film called Taxi with Jimmy Fallon. Sort of.

Queen Latifah was born Dana Elaine Owens in New Jersey in 1970. She had a fairly standard middle-class upbringing- attending Catholic school and playing in her high school basketball team due to her height.

From the age of 18, she started beat boxing for a hip-hop outfit called Ladies Fresh. She was signed to Tommy Boy Music in 1989 and released her first single Wrath of My Madness. The song showcases themes that would be present in many of her later recordings- traditional hip-hop flexing and showboating mixed with her strong female proclamations. This would recur throughout her musical career- waving the flag for female musicians and demonstrating that women can rap with the best of them.

Her first album All Hail the Queen was released the same year as her first single and the songs were very much a chronicle of the black woman’s experience from relationships; harassment in the streets and working-class struggles. Songs like Ladies First became feminist anthems with lyrics like this:

Who said the ladies couldn’t make it, you must be blind
If you don’t believe, well here, listen to this rhyme
Ladies first, there’s no time to rehearse
I’m divine and my mind expands throughout the universe
A female rapper with the message to send the
Queen Latifah is a perfect specimen.

Latifah collaborated with a who’s who of late 80s hip hop- KRS-One, De La Soul and Monie Love and her debut album was considered a commercial success.

Latifah continued to release rap and hip-hop tracks throughout the 90s but by the early 2000s, she turned her attention towards more traditional singing. As she was a big jazz fan, she began to perform more soul and jazz music and released an album of such tracks in 2004 with The Dana Owens Album. Her 2007 album Trav’lin’ Light was nominated for a 2007 Grammy. It is a testament to her standing in the music industry that moving between different genres never lost her any of her core fans or professional credibility.

Queen Latifah is probably best known now for her acting roles. She has appeared in numerous comedy films and TV programmes, most notably Hairspray (2007); 22 Jump Street (2014) and Girls Trip (2017). She can also be seen popping up in TV shows such as 30 Rock and her own Queen Latifah Show which ran for 2 seasons.

A list of Latifah’s award nominations from the early 1990s onwards could fill a small novel and she has been recognised for her talent and integrity in most areas of the arts.

She has had her fair share of controversy although never to the same extent as some of her hip hop contemporaries such as Lil Kim or Foxy Brown. In 1996 Latifah was arrested for possession of marijuana and a handgun and then in 2002 was arrested for driving under the influence. Other than that, she has managed to keep her personal life relatively low profile and as such is known for her creative output rather than any personal turmoil.

Whether or not you’re a royalist, I think this is one Queen we can all get behind.

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