Why Beyoncé, Nicki, & Taylor Owe A Debt To Queen Latifah

In receiving an Emmy nomination this year for her role as a bisexual, hard-partying Depression-era blues singer in HBO’s biopic of Bessie Smith, Queen Latifah has broken yet another barrier in her career. There doesn’t seem to be an area of the entertainment industry she can’t conquer — music, TV, film, daytime talk — and she continues to break ground by making thought-provoking art.

It’s the approach she’s taken since she introduced herself to the world as Queen Latifah more than a couple decades ago, bursting onto the hip-hop scene, demanding respect as an artist, a rapper, and a woman. Latifah has often been called the first lady of hip-hop. But given her ever present influence on culture, particularly how it casts women, the term that’s most appropriate is right there in her name: Queen. Relax, Beyoncé still gets to be Queen Bee, but without Queen Latifah, it’s hard to imagine Beyoncé's brand of feminism or even cries for solidarity among women in modern music. (Think: TLC, Nicki Minaj, and even Taylor Swift.)

Latifah called out the misogyny in hip-hop at a time when women in the industry weren’t being given opportunities to ask for much at all. She infused feminism into rap music when female artists were barely allowed through the door. And then she left it open.

The importance of hip-hop in the early 1990s cannot be underestimated. The songs of N.W.A, Tupac Shakur, and Public Enemy (to name a select few) told the stories of struggle, injustice, and identity within a community largely misrepresented by the media, and all but forgotten by politicians. It was powerful. It provoked controversy to the tune of Congressional hearings and FBI inquiries. It was a force that shook the complacent nation of the 1980s back to the reality of the world. Reaganomics didn’t benefit everybody, after all. And those silenced were starting to scream.

But like any industry or art form dominated by men, sexism was inherent. While there was a raw beauty to telling the true, untold stories of life for many African-Americans in inner cities — gang warfare, drug use, prostitution, police brutality, and daily violence — the depiction of women in these scenarios was often denigrating. Rather than reflecting anything remotely resembling the full range of Black women’s identities, too frequently they were simply “bitches” and “hos.” The terms were used so often in 1990s hip-hop that they became colloquialism, rolling off the tongues of male rappers as easily as if they were describing the color of someone’s eyes.

As hip-hop became the dominant (and most profitable) genre of the mid-to-late '90s, status rather than street cred became the primary bragging right of artists. Songs about struggle were replaced by anthems of excess. The setting moved from the street corner to the bow of a yacht. And one of the most coveted trophies of all was a woman. But not just any woman. She was a fantasized fetish, disposable arm candy. In many music videos of the time, women like this wore as little as possible and gyrated or sulked in whatever way best pleased the alpha male rapping the lyrics (the point of view in hip-hop was still overwhelmingly male.) This wasn’t empowerment through sexual expression. It was sexist hate speech.

Queen Latifah wasn’t having it, though. By the early '90s, she had already become a success as a skilled MC with a different kind of political agenda: feminism. Her first two albums, All Hail the Queen and Nature of a Sista, are filled with songs about the power of women and the respect they command. On her most popular early single, “Ladies First,” which came out in 1990, Latifah teams up with British-born female rapper Monie Love to champion the strength of women at home, at work, and as a force for social change. (There’s also perhaps a wink at women advocating for themselves in the bedroom.) These themes are standard-issue in a Beyoncé record today. But they were all revolutionary in music at the time, especially hip-hop. Latifah wasn’t the first female rapper or the first to demand respect for herself and for other women. In fact, she pays homage to her contemporaries in the “Ladies First” video, giving cameos to Shelly Thunder, Harmony, and Ms. Melodie, and other female rappers of the time. But whether she intended to or not, Latifah became the leader of the pro-woman pack.

Latifah called out the misogyny in hip-hop at a time when women in the industry weren’t being given opportunities to ask for much at all. She infused feminism into rap music when female artists were barely allowed through the door. And then she left it open.

It was Latifah’s third album, 1993’s Black Reign, that turned a critical eye back on her own community. The hit single “U.N.I.T.Y.” issued a direct retort to sexist men — MCs and everyday dudes from the neighborhood — who had made the terms “bitch” and “ho” go-to descriptors. In it, she poses perhaps the most important question in 90s pop culture: Who you callin’ a bitch?

The song also addresses sexual harassment, domestic violence, the cycle of violence within the Black community, and the ways Black female sexuality had been objectified in life and art. In one verse she’s asking men, “Who you callin’ a bitch?” and in the next, she turns to the women and demands, “You gotta let him know/You ain’t a bitch or a ho.”

She places the responsibility on the shoulders of the men perpetuating sexual stereotypes and the women allowing them. Latifah has said she was inspired to write the song at a fraternity picnic in Philadelphia, where she was incensed by the misogyny she witnessed. She got angry, but the winning emotion that day was a desire to unify.

In 1995, Latifah won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance for “U.N.I.T.Y.” It was the first time a woman took that honor. (In 2003 the major song categories were split along gender lines). The song remains the biggest hit of her career and the most influential.

MC Lyte, another pro-woman rapper of the Bush and Clinton eras who is also a good friend and contemporary of Latifah’s, told Billboard in 2014 that “U.N.I.T.Y.” is one of the most important songs in hip-hop: “[It] was extremely impactful for the genre of hip-hop to finally hear a strong voice of a positive Black woman speaking about uplifting young woman. To date it's still one of my favorite songs.”

In the book Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, author Gwendolyn D. Pough likens the impact of “U.N.I.T.Y.” in the 1990s to Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech in 1851. Both demand that women be seen, heard, and respected.

Of course misogyny still exists in hip-hop — and in rock, pop, and country for that matter. And female artists don’t always use their fame to empower one another, or even themselves.

But even Nicki Minaj, who fancies revealing outfits and uses the term “bitch” as a placeholder for “woman,” “friend,” or “self” more often than not in her music, has a direct link to Latifah’s feminism. In “U.N.I.T.Y.”, Latifah calls for men to stop devaluing women’s bodies. Twenty years later, Minaj has flipped the script: women’s bodies — particularly those blessed with curves that would never appear on a runway — are magical, unabashedly sexual, and something to be respected. It’s a theme that’s present throughout her music, albeit sometimes the message can get muddled. In her recent hit song and video for “Anaconda,” Minaj sampled perhaps the quintessential male-gaze-at-its-worst song of the 1990s, Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” and made it about the beauty of an ample woman’s body. Win! But those bodies are still undressed, gyrating and performing for the male gaze, even if it’s done with a wink. Progress?

Nicki Minaj is no Queen Latifah, but she is still reaping the benefits of her trailblazing, as did Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, M.I.A., Gwen Stefani, Taylor Swift, and any female in music willing to sing about women’s power.

Considering that there's still a dearth of female artists in the male-dominant world of hip-hop, and that women in general still make far less than their male counterparts (with the exception of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift), we can take comfort in the Latifah's legacy. Because of her, female artists don’t demand to be seen, heard, and respected. They simply expect it.

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