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.