When I first embarked on my own blogging enterprises a little over a year ago (shameless plug: www.theladiesfirst.blogspot.com!), I brainstormed what I wanted my blog to represent. Fun, fresh, understated yet unmistakable femininity, and freedom of creative expression were definitely what dreamed of contributing to the online community. So when it came time to name my blog, I was at a loss for a few days. I thought about everything that had influenced me growing up–movies, music, pop culture in general. A lot of potential ideas were tossed around, but I finally settled on a name that came from the song “Ladies First”. The early 90s hit is all about a woman being the prototype when it comes to doing things right, with intelligence and grace. And I think there’s no better way to summarize the fem-cee behind the hit, Queen Latifah, whose power and musical positivity over the course of her 22-year career has changed the way women are received in the hip hop community, for the better.
Born Dana Owens in Newark, NJ in 1970, Queen Latifah grew up singing in the Baptist church, but as she got older, she found more of a home in the world of hip hop. In high school, the 5’10″ Latifah began beatboxing for a crew of girls that called themselves Ladies Fresh. This was good practice, but no indication of the Queen’s full abilities. She began writing and perfecting her own rhymes. She must have been getting ready for what was to come, because when a demo recording of Latifah’s “Princess of the Posse” landed in YO! MTV Raps host Fab Five Freddy’s hands, she was quickly inked to a contract with Tommy Boy Records.
In 1989, when she was only 19 years old, Latifah’s first album All Hail the Queen was released to huge critical acclaim. The album also put Queen Latifah on the rap game’s radar with the classic “Ladies First”. The single, a collaboration with her fellow Native Tongues posse member MC Monie Love, spoke to the ferocity and power of women in the game. The song boasted some of the most lyrically sophisticated and influential rhymes, announcing to the male-dominated industry that “A Woman Can Bear You/Break You/Take You”. The song helped the album peak at #6 on Billboard’s Top Albums. With production from the likes of KRS-One and Prince Paul, it was evident that Queen Latifah had definitely earned the respect she deserved as a female rapper. And instead of resting on her rap laurels, the Queen formed Flavor Unit Entertainment, a management/production company that put on some of your favorite pioneers in the game, including Naughty by Nature. Keeping with the whole busy trend, she released her second album on Tommy Boy records, Nature of a Sista in 91.
However, it was not the chart topping success that her last album was, and when her contract expired, she was dropped by Tommy Boy. This seeming failure marked the beginning of a rough time for Latifah– she was victim of a carjacking, and her brother Lance lost his life in a tragic motorcycle accident. Years later, The Queen opened up about dealing with the tragedy: “I don’t know if I ever recovered completely. I know I don’t hurt as bad as I used to hurt. You can’t replace a person, especially someone with a big presence like my brother. We were best friends, there were no secrets between us.” (http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/music/musicnews/Queen+Latifah-58085.html). She has also gone on record to say that her music helped her through that rough time, and after re-signing with Motown Records and working on new material, she released Black Reign in ’93. The album was a smash, mostly because of the signature song U.N.I.T.Y. A firm slap in the face to disrespectful and abusive dudes, the song is an anthem for women everywhere and a SERIOUS life-long inspiration of mine. Lyrics like “You put your hands on me again I’ll put your ass in handcuffs” reminded women everywhere to stand up for themselves, and guys everywhere that the Queen was still in the house!
While her rap rebound was on the come up, Latifah began the second phase of her career, which would soon make her a household name–acting. Starting with smaller guest starring and supporting roles in films like Jungle Fever, House Party 2 and Juice, the Queen made memorable early on-screen impressions. Who could forget her guest-starring turn as Hillary’s bitchy celebrity boss on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?! CLASSIC. The small roles paid off, because Latifah soon landed her own sitcom, Living Single, the hilarious thorn in my productive side. Seriously, yo, it seems like ANYTIME I try to get something really important done, a Living Single marathon/DVD box set pops up and derails my plans with hours of laughs. *Sigh* It’s becoming a real problem! But I digress… on the show, which centered on the lives of six friends living in Brooklyn, Latifah played Khadijah James, a hard-working editor/publish of the fictional urban independent magazine Flavor. Portraying a strong, intelligent woman was something Latifah had no problem doing, and she received the NAACP Image Award for her work on the show in 1998. After the end of Living Single, the Queen got her mini-Oprah on and hosted her own talk show–The Queen Latifah Show, and continued to act. Her breakout role, in terms of boosting her star power and making her a certified Hollywood celeb, was her work as Matron “Mama” Morton in the 2002 Oscar-sweeping musical Chicago. Latifah managed to steal the spotlight even amongst a cast of heavyweights like Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger and Catherina Zeta Jones, and was nominated herself for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year. Even though she didn’t win, the nomination marked a serious turning point in her career. These days, The Queen is a bone fide star, she commands anywhere from $10 to $15 million per flick, and has carried hits such as The Perfect Holiday and the upcoming Just Wright.
Now a Cover Girl spokeswoman, sometimes-face of Weight Watchers, and that mysterious Voice-Over in the Pizza Hut campaign on TV– the Queen is a certifiable part of American culture. Sure, she’s in a bit more (OK, a LOT more) of a commercial place now than she was when she started, but at least she’s done it her way. When hip hop, or the world at large, gets too out of check, Dana Owens–The Queen– is right there, quietly but powerfully reminding us that the Ladies really are First!
Especially Queenly Facts
*Queen Latifah played power forward on her basketball team all through high school– and won two championships! You go girl!
*She played two VERY different guest starring characters on The Fresh Prince: One, Marissa Redmond (Hillary’s stuck-up boss) and the other, DeDe (Will’s tomboy crush)
*”Latifah” is Arabic for sensitive and delicate– a cousin gave her the nickname when she was 10.
*One upon a time, even this Queen flipped burgers at Burger King.
Queen Latifah feat. Monie Love– “Ladies First”
Queen Latifah– U.N.I.T.Y.
Queen Latifah as Matron “Mama” Morton in Chicago
Queen Latifah– THE LETTER O!!