How True Superhero Queen Latifah became the Monarch of Moguls

When Queen Latifah was an aspiring young artist, the idea of female rappers was highly unusual, never mind proud, defiant female rappers whose lyrics focused on the experiences of young women and the daily misogyny they faced. She’s since built a pioneering career that has changed the way women are perceived in rap and beyond, while overcoming harrowing personal tragedy along the way, and now she’s doing everything in her power to provide the next generation of aspiring young black women artists a smoother path to success. 

Ladies First

Queen Latifah was born with the less regal name of Dana Owens in Newark, New Jersey in 1970, the second child of parents Lancelot and Rita Owens, following the birth of Latifah’s brother, Lancelot Jnr., the previous year. Her father was a police officer, and young Dana’s early years were relatively peaceful until her parents split up when she was 8, after which her mother was left to raise her two children singlehandedly. It was around this time that Dana became Latifah, a name she discovered in a book of Muslim names given to her by a relative; it appealed to her because of it’s meaning, loosely translated as “delicate and kind”.  

How True Superhero Queen Latifah became the Monarch of Moguls
Latifah as Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid Live!

Her honorific title of Queen only came after she had started rapping as a teenager. Commercial rap in the early to mid 1980s was an almost exclusively male pursuit but underground pioneers like Roxanne Shante had changed perceptions, and doors were beginning to open at record companies. In 1988 MC Lyte released the first solo album by a female rapper, and at the same time Latifah was making a name for herself as a rapper and beatboxer, joining legendary producer The 45 King’s crew, Flavor Unit, as an original member. This led to a demo of one of her earliest tracks, Princess of the Posse, landing in the hands of Dante Ross of Tommy Boy Records. who swiftly signed her up. They began work on her first album, All Hail The Queen, which came out in 1989, and she also became a part of the Native Tongues, collaborating with fellow New Yorkers De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers as the fabled collective subverted stereotypes of 80s rap, radically altering the landscape of hip-hop. The 19 year old Latifah was arguably the most radical of all the Native Tongues, with lyrics that explicitly foregrounded the experiences of black women in a medium that had been dominated by misogyny until that point, and with songs like her first hit single, Ladies First, she swiftly made a name for herself as one of the most thoughtful and important lyricists of her generation.   

How True Superhero Queen Latifah became the Monarch of Moguls

BY
SPYSCAPE
5
MINUTE READ
Share with Twitter
@SPYSCAPE
Share
Share to Facebook
Share to Twitter
Share with email

When Queen Latifah was an aspiring young artist, the idea of female rappers was highly unusual, never mind proud, defiant female rappers whose lyrics focused on the experiences of young women and the daily misogyny they faced. She’s since built a pioneering career that has changed the way women are perceived in rap and beyond, while overcoming harrowing personal tragedy along the way, and now she’s doing everything in her power to provide the next generation of aspiring young black women artists a smoother path to success. 

Ladies First

Queen Latifah was born with the less regal name of Dana Owens in Newark, New Jersey in 1970, the second child of parents Lancelot and Rita Owens, following the birth of Latifah’s brother, Lancelot Jnr., the previous year. Her father was a police officer, and young Dana’s early years were relatively peaceful until her parents split up when she was 8, after which her mother was left to raise her two children singlehandedly. It was around this time that Dana became Latifah, a name she discovered in a book of Muslim names given to her by a relative; it appealed to her because of it’s meaning, loosely translated as “delicate and kind”.  

How True Superhero Queen Latifah became the Monarch of Moguls
Latifah as Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid Live!

Her honorific title of Queen only came after she had started rapping as a teenager. Commercial rap in the early to mid 1980s was an almost exclusively male pursuit but underground pioneers like Roxanne Shante had changed perceptions, and doors were beginning to open at record companies. In 1988 MC Lyte released the first solo album by a female rapper, and at the same time Latifah was making a name for herself as a rapper and beatboxer, joining legendary producer The 45 King’s crew, Flavor Unit, as an original member. This led to a demo of one of her earliest tracks, Princess of the Posse, landing in the hands of Dante Ross of Tommy Boy Records. who swiftly signed her up. They began work on her first album, All Hail The Queen, which came out in 1989, and she also became a part of the Native Tongues, collaborating with fellow New Yorkers De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers as the fabled collective subverted stereotypes of 80s rap, radically altering the landscape of hip-hop. The 19 year old Latifah was arguably the most radical of all the Native Tongues, with lyrics that explicitly foregrounded the experiences of black women in a medium that had been dominated by misogyny until that point, and with songs like her first hit single, Ladies First, she swiftly made a name for herself as one of the most thoughtful and important lyricists of her generation.   

Article Ad
Article Ad
Article Ad

Tragedy and violence

Chart success was immediate but after releasing a second highly successful album Latifah soon began to look beyond music to acting; she had a cameo in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever in 1992, and made numerous appearances on popular shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Hangin’ With Mr Cooper before landing a starring role in the long-running hit Fox sitcom Living Single. Her professional life was going from strength to strength, but behind the scenes there was tragedy and controversy waiting in the wings.  

In 1992 Latifah’s brother, Lancelot Jr. died in a motorbike accident. The bike he was riding had been a recent gift from Latifah; and as she later told Untold Stories of Hip Hop. "Losing my brother, that was a devastating time for me… We had just bought a house because I was missing my family from being on the road so much, and my brother, my mother and myself were gonna live in it. I was supposed to be with him that day on the motorcycle but one of my friends had to move, so we were moving all day… After my brother passed away, that ruined my world. It rocked me to my core."  The impact on Latifah was severe, she was diagnosed with clinical depression, and developed substance abuse issues that would plague her for many years. She took to wearing the ignition key of Lancelot’s bike around her neck, and it is clearly visible throughout her performances on Living Single, a tragic reminder of loss in the center of an otherwise feelgood comedy show.

Latifah as Khadijah James on Living Single

More trouble was to come. In 1995 Latifah and her then boyfriend, Sean Moon, were driving through Harlem when they were held up at gunpoint. Although the pair swiftly gave up their vehicle and offered no resistance, the carjackers shot Moon in the stomach. He survived, but the incident shook Latifah up and she started carrying a firearm in her vehicle for protection; this led to her being arrested a year later in LA and charged with possession of a loaded weapon, a cruel outcome for a musician who had been a vocal and effective campaigner against gun violence.

The Queen of the moguls

While her personal life was consistently troublesome, her career went from strength to strength. One particular highlight came in 2002, when she took the role of Matron “Mama” Morton in the film adaptation of the classic stage musical Chicago, becoming only the second hip-hop artist to be nominated for an Oscar (after Will Smith’s nomination for Ali in 2001), and she was only prevented from picking up a Best Supporting Actress award by her co-star, Catherine Zeta Jones. 

How True Superhero Queen Latifah became the Monarch of Moguls
Playing Mama Morton in Chicago

In recent years Latifah’s been as busy behind the camera as in front of it, as she has taken over the reins of the company that first hired her, Flavor Unit. What was once primarily a hip-hop crew in late 1980s New York is now a highly successful TV and film production company, although Latifah is wise enough to know who the biggest star on her roster is. She now plays the lead in Flavor Unit’s reboot of the classic 1980s crime drama The Equalizer, a role which surprised critics when it was announced - it is hard to think of someone more different to the show’s original lead actor, Edward Woodward - but which she has made her own thanks to typically engaging performances that have been a huge hit with the CBS audience. She’s also continued to star in major Hollywood productions, including a critically acclaimed turn as Adam Sandler’s wife in the 2022 Netflix movie Hustle

Elsewhere, she’s doing what she can to inspire young black talent to emulate her successes, with the Queen Collective, a mentorship program that aims to boost gender and racial equality by supporting multicultural women directors. She’s also heavily involved in redevelopment projects in her hometown, recently breaking ground on a new construction project that will provide affordable housing in the community of Newark. It’s all part of her commitment to giving back; as she told The Root: “I would be remiss if I did not reach back and help black women get where I am today.“ She’s already done an enormous amount to make that possible by forging her own fresh path through the entertainment industry, a Truly Superheroic effort that has fully delivered on the mission statement she first announced in 1989: Ladies First.

Read mORE

RELATED aRTICLES

Gadgets & Gifts

Put your spy skills to work with these fabulous choices from secret notepads & invisible inks to Hacker hoodies & high-tech handbags. We also have an exceptional range of rare spy books, including many signed first editions.

Shop Now

Your Spy SKILLS

We all have valuable spy skills - your mission is to discover yours. See if you have what it takes to be a secret agent, with our authentic spy skills evaluation* developed by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence. It's FREE so share & compare with friends now!

dISCOVER Your Spy SKILLS

* Find more information about the scientific methods behind the evaluation here.