American rapper At a time when rappers were writing lyrics that denigrated women and glorified the use of drugs and the gang lifestyle, Latifah introduced a positive message for women and for African Americans into rap music.
Born: March 18, 1970; Newark, New Jersey
Born to Rita Bray and Lancelot Owens, Queen Latifah (lah-TEE-fah) was given the name Dana Elaine at birth. As a young child, she loved to sing, and her parents were supportive of all her achievements, both musical and nonmusical. Her parents provided private school education for her and her brother Winki, and they taught their children that they had descended from African royalty. Like many AfricanAmericans in the 1970’s, she adopted a Muslim name in 1978, calling herself Queen Latifah, to honor her ethnic identity and her royal lineage. In the small Newark apartmentwhere her family lived, Latifah danced to the sounds of the Jackson Five, the Delfonics, and Jamaican reggae in her room.
Many of the artists who influenced her songwriting career sang about personal and social justice issues. By the time she was playing basketball and performing music at Irvington High School, she had established herself as a high achiever who studied hard to maintain good grades. Issues such as the social struggle in South Africa and racism and drug abuse among African Americans made a lasting impression on her that would later result in material for her own music as a rap artist. From her early days, she was known to her family, teachers, and peers as a strong and confident person, an image that continued throughout her career in music and eventually in her career as an actor. As a teenager, Latifah spent many evenings at clubs in New York City, most notably the Latin Quarter, where rap music was introduced to the music world as the new voice from the streets. She adopted the musical style and the clothing of the rappers at the clubs, and she began writing rap lyrics about childhoodmemories and her African heritage. These experiences at the clubs, though not endorsed by her mother, became the foundation for Latifah’s musical, dance, and acting persona.
By the time she was nineteen, Latifah had already released her first album by Tommy Boy Records, All Hail the Queen, and she wore a signature crown and regal clothing to draw attention to her appearance. The Flavor Unit, a group of emcees and rap deejays, became her best friends, mentors, and fellow performers in the world of music production, creating a support system that would help performers work out business dealings. Nonetheless, the inexperience of the group members sometimes proved to be a liability, when the performers were not paid the agreed-upon fees. When she formed her group, Ladies Fresh, Latifah enlisted the help of family members to manage its business deals. In 1992 Latifah’s older brother was killed in a motorcycle accident, and she halted work on an album. She eventually dealt with the painful loss by writing the song “Winki’s Theme” to finish the project, released by Motown Records. Latifah wears the key to her brother’s motorcycle around her neck on a chain. In 1993 she was the victim of a carjacking, during which her bodyguard and friend was shot. These incidents led to a period of depression, and she was arrested for marijuana possession in 1996.
She has revealed that she wore dark glasses and abused drugs at this time in order to shut out the pain. Her activities in public and at clubs came to a near halt after the carjacking, although her appearances on television’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air starring Will Smith led to more roles in films and on television and increasing success as an entertainer. Despite other arrests for carrying a concealed weapon and a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol, Latifah continued to inspire and promote messages of a positive attitude in her films, her music, her books, and her appearances on television and the concert stage. The Music After making acquaintance with performers at the New York City clubs, Latifah worked with Ladies Fresh as a beat boxer, which led to her own style of music influenced by jazz, reggae, and soul traditions. “Wrath ofMyMadness,” her first single, was released in 1988. All Hail the Queen. In 1988 DJ Mark the 45 King heard a demo version of Latifah’s single “Princess of the Posse,” and he gave a demo recording of it to the host of the MTV television show called Yo!MTV Raps. The singles “Wrath of My Madness” and “Dance for Me” were released in 1989, along with a duet with British rapper Monie Love, called “Ladies First.” The “Ladies First” song was eventually included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
The album All Hail the Queen followed, earning critical acclaim and favorable reviews. Selling one million copies and climbing to number six on the Billboard rhythm-and-blues chart, the album represented a woman’s point of view, and it appealed to a broad audience, which included pop and alternative rock fans. The album cover and promotional photographs featured Latifah wearing a regal costume and a crown, representing a royal and self-assured image, unusual for women at that time. Nature of a Sista. Latifah branched out into the world of music management and production when she established Flavor Unit Management, breaking away from Tommy Boy. Her company managed the careers of Naughty by Nature, Apache, LL Cool J, and other successful rap and hip-hop musicians. She collaborated with David Bowie in his remake of the song “Fame” and again pleased the critics with her thoughtful lyrics, which pointed to the harmony possible across race and gender lines and which brought about positive regard for rap music as a legitimate and respectable musical genre.
Latifah made television appearances with Barbra Streisand, Robin Williams, the cast of The Cosby Show, and basketball star Magic Johnson, and she made several guest appearances on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, one of the most successful AfricanAmerican- focused television programs of all time, paving the way for rappers in prime-time television. After a European tour and collaboration with other musicians, Latifah accepted a role in the Spike Lee film Jungle Fever (1991). Though her on-screen time was brief, this role propelled Latifah’s career in a new direction, and in 1990 Rolling Stone awarded her the title Best Female Rapper, voted by readers. She was also named BestNewArtist by the NewMusic Seminar inNewYork City, and she was invited to speak at Harvard University. Other films followed, including House Party 2 (1991) and Juice (1992), both about the lifestyles of urban African American youth. In 1991 she released her second and final album with Tommy Boy Records called Nature of a Sista.
The album got favorable reviews, and it featured songs that encouraged women to be self-confident and responsible. The track “Fly Girl” addressed men, reminding them to respect women. “Fly Girl” was nominated for a Grammy Award, and the album was promoted by a national performing tour with Ziggy Marley, the reggae artist. After Winki’s death and the release of Black Reign, Latifah found the album climbing to number sixty on the Billboard chart and going gold. This time, her singing was traditional in style, with the song “U.N.I.T.Y.” winning a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. She recorded another album for Motown Records called Order in the Court in 1998, which proved to be her last album on a Motown label. That same year, after her lead role in a situation comedy called Living Single came to an end when the show was canceled, Latifah performed at Lilith Fair, a concert tour for women artists only. Trav’lin’ Light.
Another successful album, featuring Latifah’s singing voice and her given name called The Dana Owens Album, continued to showcase her versatility, just as her multiple television and film roles had done throughout the 1990’s and into the 2000’s. In 2007 Verve Records released Trav’lin’ Light, which confirmed her skills as a vocalist and as a rapper, and the album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Album. It won a Grammy Award for the vocal arrangement on the album’s track “I’m Gonna Live Til I Die,” arranged by John Clayton. Latifah’s appearance in the crowns, hats, and headdresses came to a halt, because she wanted to project an image as a serious musician, not just a female rapper. Her acting and modeling career also contributed positively to her image as a self-actualized and empowered woman.
The strength portrayed in her music and her on-screen roles was reflected in her business life, and she launched her record label in 1995, so she could move from managing artists to recording them. Singers Monica and Daddy D recorded on Latifah’s label Flavor Unit. When Latifah took film roles that portrayed what she considered to be realistic AfricanAmerican lifestyles, she earned both criticism for playing a substance-abusing lesbian in the violent 1996 film Set It Off and acclaim for her willingness to portray negative characters. Musical Legacy Latifah’s promotion through television, film, and her production company of a number of rap musicians is as important as the contribution of her compositions and performances. She offered empowering messages to African Americans in her music, and later she portrayed characters on television and in films that promoted respect for women and for African Americans throughout her career. Latifah is rankednumber seventy-two on VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll, and she has gained recognition for her work as an author, actor, and mentor. In 2007 she won an Emmy Award for her role in the television film Life Support (2007) and received seven Grammy Awards for musical recording.