Queen Latifah (originally, Owens, Dana Elaine)

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Queen Latifah (originally, Owens, Dana Elaine)

Queen Latifah (originally, Owens, Dana Elaine) , positive female rapper who espouses feminism and supports African-American issues; b. Newark, N.J., March 18, 1970. The daughter of a high school art teacher and a Newark police officer, Dana Owens was raised in a middle-class home. Her father taught her karate and how to handle a firearm. Athletic, she played power forward on two state championship basketball teams in high school. She also started working with some friends in a rap group that won several talent contests. They made a few demos which landed in the hands of rap-pioneer-turned-MTV-host, Fab Five Freddy. He passed them along to Tommy Boy Records, who signed Latifah as a solo act. Her 1989 debut, All Hail the Queen, featured a who’s who of rap, including De La Soul, DJ Mark, the 45 King, Daddy-O from Stetsasonic, and KRS-One. Taking the name Queen Latifah (an Arabic word meaning delicate), she rapped over house-style tracks, reggae, and funk, talking about feminism and Afrocentrism without losing sight of romance. While the album didn’t break any hits, it featured her duet with Monie Love on her theme song, “Ladies First,” and earned her a Grammy nomination and Rolling Stone’s best female rapper honors. Her honest good looks and well-spoken, informed presence made her a press darling in the best sense of the phrase.

Latifah broke to a wider audience via her rap break on David Bowie’s remix of his hit “Fame” and a cover of The O’Jays’s “For the Love of Money” with Troop and Levert on the New Jack City soundtrack that rose to #12 on the R&B charts. She followed this with Nature of a Sista, a more subdued project than her debut. It generated the R&B hits “Latifah’s Had It up to Here” (#13) and “Fly Girl” (#16), featuring forgettable male vocalists Simple Pleasure.

Her recording career also opened doors for her in the acting world. She made a guest appearance on the Will Smith TV show Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and landed a role in Spike Lee’s 1991 feature Jungle Fever. Her acting career took off, leaving music in the back seat for a while as she took roles in House Party 2 and played a supporting role in the 1993 drama My Life. These roles led to her joining the cast of Living Single, and singing the theme to the Fox sitcom. She held the role for four years.

In 1993, Latifah moved to Motown and released her best-selling effort, Black Reign. This presented her pop hit “Unity” which rose to #;23 pop and #7 R&B. It also had the minor R&B hit “Just Another Day.” She dedicated the album to her brother, who had died in a motorcycle accident earlier that year. “Unity” won her a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. The album went gold. In 1996, Latifah took on the role of Cleo, a brazen lesbian, in the film Set It Off. She took the role to challenge herself, saying that the character was the furthest thing from her own character as she could get. It led to frequent questions about her own sexuality.

Latifah has proven herself as a businesswoman. She invested early income in smaller ventures like a video store, and has since started her own artist management company and record label, named after her old posse, the Flava Unit (source of the Tuff City compilation). She has directed the careers of such notable performers as LL Cool J, Outkast, and Naughty by Nature.

Despite these demanding activities, she managed to release Order in the Court in 1998. Featuring guests like Apache, Sisqo, and Next, the album sold moderately well. By the time it was released, however, Latifah was on to her next projects, playing a jazz singer in the film Living Out Loud, writing her autobiography Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman, and hosting a syndicated talk show.


All Hail the Queen (1989); Nature of a Sista (1991); Black Reign (1993); Queen Latifah & Original Flava Unit (1996); Order in the Court (1998).

—Hank Bordowitz