Queen Latifah: Another jewel for her crown

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
January 13, 1999

“I am not a psychologist or a sociologist. . . .  What I am is a young black woman from the inner city who is making it, despite the odds, despite the obstacles I’ve had to face in the lifetimes that have come my way. . . . I am a child of God. I am a queen. A queen is a queen when riding high, and when clouded in disgrace, shame, or  sorrow, she has dignity. Being a queen has very little to do with exterior things. It is a state of mind. And with God as the center of your life, you can never be dethroned.”

 

At 19, Queen Latifah was the first female solo rapper to have a major label record deal. Four years later, she had crossed over into acting with roles in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and her own Fox sitcom, “Living Single.”

Not bad for a former Burger King employee who used to hide her uniform in a backpack before she hit the New York club scene.

“I know, I did all right, right?” Latifah said, phoning from New York. “I was never sure how it would all be played out, but my mother always knew that things would work out well for me. She always knew.”

In her first book, Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman (William Morrow, $22), Latifah candidly writes about her steady rise to fame, her close-knit family and how she medicated her pain with drugs and alcohol after her beloved older brother died in a motorcycle accident.

The performer will be on hand to sign copies of her  book tonight at Best Buy in Evanston. On Thursday, Latifah will autograph her book at the Afrocentric Bookstore.

“I really didn’t want to write an autobiography, because there’s a whole lot more to who I am,” she said.  “But this book is kind of meant to empower people – women – to let them know that no matter what you go through, you can overcome it, hold your head up high and be a queen.”

Heck. Even Latifah wasn’t born a queen.

Dana Elaine Owens didn’t become Queen Latifah until the late 1980s.

She had already picked the Latifah moniker in the late ’70s when, as a precocious 8-year-old growing up in Newark, N.J., she decided to give herself a Muslim-sounding name. Her brother, Winki, had already renamed himself Jameel. And her friends had reinvented themselves with such names as Malik, Rasheedah and Shakim.

“I didn’t change my name because I didn’t like what my parents had given me,”  she said. “But I knew that picking my own name would be a way of defining myself. And that was important to me even when I was very young.”

She showed an aptitude for music early on as well. Though she loved hip-hop and knew that it was male-dominated, the idea that she couldn’t – or shouldn’t – be a part of it never entered her mind.

“I didn’t really think about it being almost all men doing rap,” she said. “All I thought about was doing my own thing and making my own album. It didn’t really faze me that there weren’t a lot of women in the business, or that the women that were around didn’t look like me.

“There was no way I was going to wear spandex to fit into what everyone else looked like. I didn’t see the point in that. Just like I didn’t want to sound like everyone else.”

That meant a Latifah show didn’t include a lot of chattering about “bitches” and “ho’s.”

Rap isn’t the only musical genre guilty of referring to women by such terms. So how does she feel hearing songs such as Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” and Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” on the radio?

“I’m not going to sit here and say Meredith shouldn’t say whatever, because I love that song,” she said, singing a bit of the chorus. “And if Meredith wants to call herself a bitch, then she has every right to do that, you know what I’m saying? For me, who I was directing that at was a lot of male rappers who talk about women like dogs.

“But I’m not an angel. When me and my boys sit and laugh and joke, we call each other all sorts of names. But it’s the way the word is used. When it’s used to downgrade or denigrate you, that’s when I have a problem with it being used toward women, because I felt everybody was getting really free and casual with that word and I didn’t like that.”

She was also somewhat puzzled about the way her show, “Living Single,” was pushed aside while NBC’s copycat series, “Friends,” won magazine covers and worldwide media attention.

“I remember the first year of `Living Single’ when we kind of proved all the naysayers wrong, Warren Littlefield – who was running NBC – was asked if there was one show he could have, which one he would want,” Latifah said. “And he said, `Living Single.’ So he went and got a `Living Single’ – a white version of it.

“That’s not to take away from `Friends,’ cause to me, it’s a great show. It’s funny and has a great cast and they do their thing. They’re funny. But we wanted to see the love come our way a little more. The major difference was that ours wasn’t a white show. But we weren’t a ghetto show either. It wasn’t so black that only black people could relate to it.”

Still, enough people tuned in to the show to further Latifah’s fame.

But nothing really secures your celebrity status until the public begins speculating about your sexual preferences.

Latifah addresses the lesbian rumors in Chapter 9: “There’s still all kinds of speculation about my sexuality, and quite frankly, I’m getting a little tired of it. My ploy to get the media off track didn’t work. It seems that in this country, sexuality is never a non-issue. Rather, it is always the issue. . . . But it’s insulting when someone asks, `Are you gay?’ A woman cannot be strong, outspoken, competent at running her own business, handle herself
physically, play a very convincing role in a movie, know what she wants – and go for it – without being gay? Come on.”

In case you haven’t figured it out, no, she’s not.

And with the big 3-0 approaching,  Latifah said she has been giving some serious consideration to her next production: meeting the right man and having children.

“I really am feeling that (biological) clock,” she said. “I hope I’ll meet someone great soon, ’cause I’m ready to have some young ‘uns. We’ll see what happens.”

Laughing, she added, “Maybe I’ll pop some of those fertility drugs and pop those suckers out all at once. I can’t wait to have a big family.”

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