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All Hail the Queen
Whenever the subject of childhood celebrity crushes and/or role models comes up, my choice tends to induce confusion, squinting, and the occasional outraged splutter. If all you know her for is ridiculous caricatures of black women in bland comedy films, a painfully insipid talk show, and a strange foray into jazz standards, then Queen Latifah seems like an ill-informed choice. What, strangely, people tend not to know, is that Latifah became famous because of her truly flip-floppin’ incredible, but criminally slept on, rap career.
Latifah grew up as Dana Owens in a highly religious family in Newark, New Jersey. She found the name Latifah (meaning “kind”) in an Arabic book, and the Queen part was a reference to the fact that many African-Americans are descended from royalty, serving as a badge of pride for her heritage.
Latifah first gained industry notice for her single “Princess of the Posse” in 1989, and was signed to Tommy Boy Music who released her first album All Hail the Queen when she was only 19. This was an opus of literate and socially conscious lyricism over relaxed jazzy beats, similar to that of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. She also had an incredible sense of timing and ability to spit complex and erudite rhymes at breakneck speed, and could deftly cross over into reggae, house, and party tracks.
The song “Ladies First” from this first album championed the power of women at home, work, and as creators of social change. Woke before most of us had eyes to open — challenging the patriarchy and misogyny was a cornerstone of Latifah’s work, but she also wasn’t afraid to delve into other politicised subjects such as poverty and inequality, the cycles of abuse and violence within black communities, and the commodification of a certain brand of black womanhood.
As a rapper, she was brash, confident, and unapologetic. She refused to be cast in the submissive, sexualised, or victimised role that society and the rap industry wanted her to inhabit. For instance, her song “U.N.I.T.Y.” from her third album, Black Reign, addressed catcalling, domestic violence, and the way the word “bitch” would just roll off rappers’ tongues as if it were a simple term of endearment.
So now that we have established that I possess neither the comedic film taste of an especially out of touch frat boy, nor a particular affinity for mediocre Billie Holiday covers, and that Queen Latifah is a highly gifted, badass MC, why in the gosh darn heck has she not been enshrined in the minds of hip-hop heads as a pioneer of the industry?
The most obvious answer would be her identity as a woman. Music as a commercial art form has a long history of overlooking highly talented women, because clearly womanhood means being intrinsically unable to so much as plug a cord into an amp (I wish this were an attempt at an absurd joke, but it does have an anecdotal basis). Hip-hop itself was also a particularly fraught industry for women. It very importantly gave voice to a largely disenfranchised and unheard minority, but it also brought a highly chauvinistic way of regarding women with it.
These early rappers were reaching, understandably, towards something that had before seemed fundamentally unavailable to them — a much more affluent future. In this way, beautiful women were often regarded as trophies to be attained along the way — pieces of property reflective of success. This kind of insidious misogyny is still rampant in much of the hip-hop industry today. This early era of hip-hop would have been particularly troubling to work in as a woman; with the patriarchy working outside and exerting its influence on the rap industry, combined with the marked lack of respect for women within it, the work of women MCs was swept aside for the bangers of the likes of Nas and Biggie.
However, to dismiss the bewildering under-appreciation of Latifah’s work as simply due to her being a woman would be reductive: what about the popularity of Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, or Eve, or Lil’ Kim? There is a whole range of factors that could be pointed to as the reason for this. Most obviously, these artists all came around a decade later, when rappers like Latifah and MC Lyte had already begun to pave the way for women in hip-hop. Moreover, Lauryn, Eve, and Lil’ Kim, although occasionally prone to moments of political sagacity, generally tended to deal with material that was designated as women’s territory: jealousy, revenge, love, heartbreak, and sex (almost always in relation to men). Where the political was broached, it was wrapped up in a more easily digestible personalised package.
Latifah, however, dealt with political issues on a systemic and widespread level, and she was challenging norms that the already shaky hip-hop industry was trying to build itself on. A highly intelligent woman examining gendered and racial oppression, unafraid to discuss the dark and problematic side of hip-hop that many wanted to ignore, clothed in baggy jackets, dungarees, and traditional African attire, was not something that ’90s dudes fantasised about fucking, and therefore the industry deemed her not profitable.
There were plenty of hip-hop fans who did not need their music and their masturbation material to perfectly align. However, due to the misogyny and fickle nature of the industry at large, Latifah’s message never made it to the mainstream. Further to this, she was invalidated as a voice of the ’90s feminist movement occupied by groups and figures such as Riot Grrrl and Susan Faludi, due to the movement’s inherent racial biases and unwillingness to listen to and promote the voices of women of colour.
But make no mistake: an integral part of modern and inclusive feminism, and part of the reason Beyoncé was able to stand up on a global stage with the word “feminist” emblazoned into the screen behind her — a key pop culture moment, no matter how watered down you deem Beyoncé’s feminism to be — is none other than the Queen herself.
So your homework for this week, fair Salient readers, is to scurry off to your laptops and stream, or better yet buy, some or all of Queen Latifah’s albums. You’ll be helping to even out the very skewed gender playing field of hip-hop and its prevailing narratives, while also treating your ears to a veritable rap confection.