Queen Latifah (1970?—)

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Queen Latifah (1970?—)

Like most realms of mass media, the popular music industry has been historically dominated by men. Rap, the urban music style that developed in the late 1970s, has been characterized as particularly male-defined, with lyrics dedicated to bravado and pleasure derived from the treatment of women as commodities and sexual objects. Though women have always had a presence within the rap and hiphop culture, it was Queen Latifah who brought women from the sidelines into the limelight.

Queen Latifah, who was born Dana Owens, began her musical career in East Orange, New Jersey, where she performed in high school with a group called Ladies Fresh. Soon after she began her solo career, she rocketed to the top, becoming the first female solo artist to have a gold record. Her musical style is often described as combining elements of hip-hop, jazz, house, and reggae. Queen Latifah's first album, All Hail the Queen (1989), showcased her talents as a rap artist with which to be reckoned. Previously, women in rap were considered novelty acts and were not taken very seriously, especially on the East Coast; the style and content of rap articulated issues of oppression, racism, economics, lack of adequate access to the legal and medical systems, inadequate public education, and the need for revolution on all fronts. Queen Latifah added to the mix by noting something not discussed in the lyrics of her male counterparts: sexism.

In some sense Queen Latifah's persona can be described as androgynous, for it combines both masculine and feminine traits. Her chosen moniker, Latifah, which means delicate or sensitive in Arabic, almost contradicts the music she performs as a woman who is strong, independent, ready to challenge any rapper, male or female, while still mainlining her womanhood. On her first album, which was nominated for a Grammy, is a track which critics have called hiphop's first "womanist anthem." Titled "Ladies First," the song, in a call-and-response pattern performed along with British female rapper Monie Love, clearly challenges sexism in the rap music world: "Some think that we can't flow / Stereotypes they got to go / I'm gonna mess around and flip the scene into reverse / With what? / With a little touch of ladies first."

Queen Latifah has continued her pro-woman stance throughout her career, releasing a single in 1996 that would surpass that first anthem—"U.N.I.T.Y." In this song she tackles issues of sexism that divide the African-American community along gender lines: domestic violence, sexual harassment, and a lack of respect for women.

As the influence of rap and hip-hop culture expanded to other forms of popular culture, Queen Latifah began applying her talents to film and television. As an actress she has appeared in films such as Jungle Fever (1991), House Party II (1991), and Juice (1992). On television she starred on the Fox series Living Single, a popular show that countered many African-American stereotypes. She was recognized for her acting talent in the film Set It Off (1996) by the Indie Spirit Awards. Her portrayal of Cleo was a daring one, for it was one of the first overt constructions of an African-American lesbian in a big-budget Hollywood production. Queen Latifah has set many precedents in contemporary popular culture, and she continues to influence its changing landscape. In order to make a further impact on that landscape, she formed her own company—Flava Unit—which serves to discover and represent new artists and also functions as a full-fledged record label.