Queen Latifah: Build Your Own Boxes

I wrote this one after the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Yes, that long ago. I spent some time shopping it around. It was accepted to one market which thought the timing was right as it converged with some other things and had a certain topicality as a result but then yada yada yada, the window closed. That’s the freelance hustle; sometimes it be like that. But I still wanted to share it anyway so…hello, blog!


“I have often been told I’m not thin enough, I’m not white enough, I’m not short enough, not man enough. Damnit, I am enough.” — Queen Latifah’s introduction for the SAG Awards

I want to devote some ink to the Queen, Queen Latifah, who roughly between my high school and college years, late eighties into early nineties, stepped in to the rap game with a moniker that announced her greatness.

Somewhere between Salt ‘n Pepa and TLC, I came to appreciate Queen’s rhymes and all of her attitude on tracks like Ladies First and Come into My House (sidebar: did you spot the Antigua and Barbuda flag?). Her UNITY and Just Another Day are hip hop classics to me. I respect that she helped other artistes, e.g. Naughty by Nature, come up. And as an artiste in her own right, no one could doubt that she put it down emphatically on tracks like Brandy’s I wanna be down and Name Calling from the Set it Off soundtrack. Her rap cred was intact and then she went gangster in the earlier mentioned Set it Off, the movie, announcing with a performance both tender and tough that she had genuine acting chops.

So why didn’t she feature in any of my best of, favourite ever, GOAT discussions the way, say, Lauryn Hill (who, sidebar, belongs in all such discussions because she IS one of the Greats but that’s a story for another post) did?

I mean, in some ways she’s eclipsed many in and out of the rap game simply by enduring and shining in an industry which doesn’t comfortably make space for people like her – as she herself articulated in the quote introducing this piece.

Sure, as some friends and I were discussing recently, a number of artistes – LL in TV, Cube in film, Jay in the board room – continue to prove there can be life after hip hop. But Queen Latifah – the Will Smiths of the world notwithstanding – may actually be the best example of this. She began 2016 accepting a well-deserved best actress Screen Actors Guild Award for Bessie, on the heels of her turn as the Wiz in the live broadcast of same and, last I saw her, was on The Talk discussing her latest producing gigs – reality series From the Bottom Up and her new film The Perfect Match with Paula Patton (Edit: not sure about the fate of the series but I think it’s fair to say the film tanked – a fact which does not take away greatly from the overall inspiration for this piece).

Latifah’s trajectory as an artiste and as a person living her life is as defiant as her stepping in to the boy’s club of hip hop and declaring herself Queen.

I’m writing this ode to Latifah though Idris was the MVP at the SAGs with wins for both Luther and Beasts of No Nation, because her win for Bessie and the way she contextualized it transcended the moment in a way that could easily be overlooked.

It was one of those “Dammit, I am enough” moments that black girls, and underrepresented communities generally, need to hear and internalize until it soaks through the bone right to the marrow of what they expect of themselves and demand for themselves. It is Dana Owens’ Queen moment come full circle.
A tall, basketball playing girl with a name that means delicate, she asserted way back when in Ladies First, “sloppy slouching is something I won’t do/some think that we can’t flow/stereotypes they got to go/I’mma mess around and slip the scene into reverse” – and she has.

We followed Latifah over the years, some years more than others – we were there for Living Single in a way that we weren’t maybe for the Queen Latifah show, and some didn’t check for her singing on Living Out Loud until the Academy gave it up to her with a nomination for Chicago . Perhaps some were lukewarm on her transition from rap to standards, hip hop to mainstream, but it’s landed her here receiving awards and accolades for playing Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, a woman who similarly made her own rules.

“You build your own boxes, not people, so knock that thing away and do you!” Queen Latifah said in her SAG acceptance speech.

She has emerged after total immersion into the tortured life of one of the more iconic women in music, showing her strength but showing even more daring by mining her vulnerability, to well-earned glory, mistress of her uniquely imagined Queendom. And as we applauded her, she used the moment to tell us, now imagine what you can do.

Then she continued to get her hustle on.

As with everything on this site; do not re-use without permission. Copyright belongs to Joanne C. Hillhouse.

p.s. Just a reminder that even as I celebrate Queen Latifah by posting this piece written some time ago, the Purple one has gone out of the world and the world hasn’t been the same since. Here’s my post about Prince

“We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life”: Remembering Prince

Aretha to 2 Pac to Pink my music collection is an eclectic mix of not just artistes but musical platforms. From the cassette tapes of my younger years to the CDs of my adult years to now the playlist on my computer. In that collection, there are five physical Prince albums – Prince and the NPG’s Diamonds and Pearls on cassette which I would have got in either Puerto Rico or New York in the early 90s when I was old enough and monied enough to (finally!) start actually buying the music I loved. I have the Hits – because I was playing catch up, collecting the music I’d grown up on but never had the means to acquire. It was a two cassette set, but I can only put my hand on one – and not the one with When Doves Cry. But then I don’t have the means to play cassettes anyway, right, so those are mostly just souvenirs. When Doves Cry is on the Very Best of Prince – which I have on CD – and which includes many of my favourite Prince tracks, pre-Purple Rain through to Diamonds and Pearls. I have the three CD Emancipation collection (which he did while he was still the Artiste formerly known as Prince) and finally another three CD set, Lotus Flower (that last one was a gift from a friend, a now departed friend who like me loved Prince’s music…though Michael was her forever boo…will the rivalry never end lol). It’s actually less than I remember having (I remember having the Batman soundtrack on cassette for one; where’s that?) and not nearly enough to reflect the musical output of the man who was as prolific as he was profound. For the former consider the sheer volume of music he produced not only for himself but for artistes like Chaka, Sinead, the Bangles…(and try to deny that I feel for you, Nothing compares to you, and Manic Monday are among your favourites performed by each of the named artistes). For the latter (his deepness), I have only to look to tracks like When Doves Cry which my 10-11 year old self would have absorbed when the local TV station had it in heavy rotation back when, making him along with MJ my tween obsessions. That’s a song that’s grown with me in the way that songs do when you grow from singing the words as you hear them (in the often sexless way that you hear them) to singing them as they are to seeing the deeper meaning (which with a song rich in imagery and symbolism and complexity like When Doves Cry there is plenty of) to transforming the meaning in your mind.

Prince’s death is being transformed in my mind to the death of an essential time in my life, my coming of age, maybe my youth. It’s not gone yet but it is being chipped away with the extinguishing of each bright light that represents that time to me. I had an inkling of this feeling when Bowie died (Let’s Dance was in heavy rotation too back in the day) but it had been brewing since Michael, since Whitney. With Madonna, Cyndi, Bruce, Janet…a handful of artistes (just think the cast of We are the World), this is literally the music I came of age on. Sign of the Times, indeed. It’s weird to think of it as something in the rear view. It didn’t help that Prince like Sade hardly seemed to be aging, creating the illusion of that era being a forever time, unyielding to the press of time.

Of course, nothing is, is it? Time outlasts us all. And as my newsfeed floods with Prince’s music, and references to his movies, even Under the Cherry Moon (which I loved!), and the acts he mentored (Sheila E!), as I tune into music networks that somehow now remember their mandate to play music, as he distracts the easily distracted media from the Orange one for the length of at least a 24 hour news cycle, I feel oddly hollowed out (a familiar feeling from a much more personal loss mere months ago), not yet able to take joy in the musical legacy, yearning for a wall to wall eighties party where the best music that ever was reminds of the best time that ever was even if it was only so in the subjective imagination of those of us who came of age in that time (as it is for all young people of the time in which they come of age).

Yes, the music of the 80s hits me with a certain affection and so the death of Prince is jarring to put it very, very mildly. That said, I remain a lover of music, period, not stuck in that time (just ask the guy who was shocked to hear me rapping Biggie Smalls the other day, though he claimed it was because he didn’t think women were in to Biggie). And like few 80s artistes Prince transcended the time I first came to know him. He embraced the music that came before him and created music (created as in wrote, composed, arranged, sang-sans-auto-tune, and played damn near every instrument not in the let me sample that for a second way of too many of today’s ‘creatives’) long after he was no longer dominating pop radio, up to the time of his death, really. He was a creative force and that (more than any nostalgia I might feel) is what’s gone out of the world. And that’s always a sad day.

RIP Prince Rogers Nelson, icon and iconoclast, who blurred so many lines – gender, race, musical genres, sensual/sexual/spiritual, pop/political – and, while so doing, solidified yourself in our collective conscious as the creative force of our times. Well, except for that one kid who asked who is Prince?
These are for him:

This one from the Bamboozled soundtrack is one I listen to a lot. It is political Prince, no filter. Radical Man.

This next one (sorry can’t embed but here’s the link) I like because it’s a behind the scenes of Prince’s Superbowl performance, impressive for so many reasons, beyond the pouring rain and the real danger that posed to the live performers; like Prince’s on fire delivery of Let’s Go Crazy, Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, and Purple Rain – all favourites. “It’s profound and it’s loud and it’s funky and it’s just one performer shaking the entire world” one of the commenters says in the video, and it’s all that, and in some ways feels like another day at the office for an artiste whose default was greatness.

This is Prince with the NPG on Get Off. So much to love about this song – the funk, Rosie Gaines’ powerhouse vocals, Prince pushing boundaries and killing us with the lyrical and visual sexiness (not Kiss level sexy but still). Did I forget to mention the yellow ass-less pants?

I’m gonna leave it there as far as the vid links are concerned. Prince was one of those artistes whose music is oftentimes impossible to find online and with good reason, he was always an advocate for artistes (whether from exploitation by labels or piracy by fans) and I want to respect that. Because I agree with him, artistes should own their voice and be fairly paid for their work; just know I’d really, really, really like to share When Doves Cry with you right now.

“Dig if you will the picture…”


Teach, Do

“My name is Joanne C. Hillhouse. I love to write. I write and edit professionally for companies. I believe I can help other professionals become more comfortable with written communication.”

I began a new journey tonight, a course on written communication for non-writers. I asked participants to write who they were, why they were there, what they hoped to accomplish; then, while they wrote, I did, too – the view from the other side.

Where will this go? How well will it go? I don’t know. This freelancing life, this writing life, this publishing journey is rife with uncertainty (books underperform or go out of print, promising pitches languish in limbo or go forward only to burn on the back end). But, as I’ve asked them to do, I’ll be using my written introduction to orient myself – to remind myself that all I’m challenged to do is teach what I know, help them to grow in their confidence with the written word, and try to  infect the process with some of that passion I feel for writing.

We’ve begun; that is all I know for sure.

The first step is the hardest, they say. Well, here’s another cliché, keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Will do.



After the Awards – a Wadadli Pen Challenge 2016 Picture Post

Another season of the Wadadli Pen Challenge has come and gone. And I have these pictures to remind me how the awards ceremony went since I’m not 100 percent in my body during these activities – too busy making sure everything goes well…which of course it doesn’t…100 percent. Congrats to the winners. I continue to work on plans for solidifying and then expanding the project. Because, hell yeah, Wadadli Pen is here to stay.

Wadadli Pen

You’ve been warned: this is going to be a picture dump. I’ll be sharing memories of the Wadadli Pen 2016 Challenge season in pictures. Consider it a slide show like in those old school view finders and have fun!

p.s. to see the details of who won what and for links to the winning stories, go here.

new plaque To the right is the now retired Challenge plaque; the left is the brand new Challenge plaque. All the names of the winners through the years have been re-located and the plaque has been (re)named the Alstyne Allen Memorial plaque for a past volunteer member of the Wadadli Pen family (and a really good friend) who died in 2015. I’m happy that we could remember her and her contribution to Wadadli Pen – as I really couldn’t have gotten through those early years without her help. The new plaque is sponsored by…

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My first Underground post – here there be spoilers (up to at least ep 6 of season 1) – be warned

I feel like WGN America’s Underground is a show more people should be watching. undergroundAre a lot of people watching it? I don’t know; I’ve only seen two people post about it in my facebook newsfeed so based on that unscientific barometer, I’m going to say people may be watching but not enough people are talking about the John Legend executive produced series. Granted nothing has the social media buzz of the Shondaland shows and Empire but I’m going to do my little bit here at the blog to tell you why I think more people should be watching Underground.

I wrote about the show initially after watching episode 5. Then episode 6 came along with that final potentially iconic image of Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee coming to the rescue of her fellow runaways while looking like a cross between Black Widow, Lara Croft, and Pocahontas i.e. a bad ass Amerindian warrior woman, and it occurred to me how oddly feminist this show is because of visually striking moments like that yes but also in the complexity with which it writes its female protagonists and the initiative/the agency it allows them as they ‘manipulate’ their way within their admittedly confining circumstances. In this same episode, we see Elizabeth (played by Jessica de Gouw)hawkes, wife to a white lawyer with abolitionist leanings, counsel and aide her husband as they jointly avert suspicion of their activities in a way that underscores that she is the backbone of that particular pairing. It was inspired on the writers’ part to let her voice be the one of reason and to let her be the one responsible for the telling – via a letter to another character but really to us, the viewer. And yet, these women are not superwoman – Rosaleerosalee-v2-L, like her fellow runaways, not all of whom she can be sure mean her no harm, is afraid but keeps moving forward; and Rosalee’s mother (Ernestine, played by Amirah Vann) grapples with the guilt of her actions in episode 5, drowning her sorrows in drink, but only when it’s safe to let her guard down for a minute. There are very few such minutes in the life of a house slave as she monologues in episode 6.


These women have me thinking of Harriet Tubman, the woman most associated with the Underground Railroad – the path to freedom for African Americans during the time of their enslavement,  and how we see her as this fierce and determined woman willing herself and her fellow escapees to freedom, and going back for more…several times. Think she wasn’t scared? I venture to say she must’ve been but she felt the fear and did it anyway. And that’s the measure of courage isn’t it – not not feeling fear but pushing through it to do what must be done, daring in spite of fear not in the absence of it.

That daring can lead to questionable actions. Consider the episode (episode 5) that prompted me to write about this show in the first place, and particularly the moment in that episode that had me sitting there with my mouth open. It really shouldn’t have. Ernestineernestine had already proven time and again that she would do anything to protect her children even given the limited maneuvering room she has working in the big house on the Macon plantation in the slavery-era-South. She is a slave, every child she has, including the ones with her ‘owner’, is a slave; and a running theme through this series about the Underground railroad from the beginning has been what wouldn’t a mother do to protect her child. What, indeed.

For one woman – in episode one – it meant killing her new born; for another – Pearly Mae played by Adina Porter, it meant putting herself between the slave catcher’s bullet and her fleeing husband and child; and for Ernestine, it meant poisoning Pearly Mae when she seemed poised to take the mistress’ deal of freedom papers for her and her daughter in exchange for the runaways’ whereabouts. With Ernestine’s daughter, Rosalee, among the runaways, she couldn’t have that. While it is not the path she necessarily planned for her daughter who is, as her master, also her daughter’s daddy, said, “delicately made”, now that she’s on the run, Ernestine’s going to do everything she can to ensure she doesn’t return – even if it means she, Ernestine, doesn’t get to see Rosalee again.

In an episode, episode 5, in which one Hulk-sized male runaway fuelled by adrenaline and desperation killed three slave catchers after taking several bullets and a hatchet to the back before being felled by blood loss, it is the iron will of the women, their courage under pressure, that most impressed.

Other reasons I’m watching? It’s educational on a visceral level. A part of me watches looking for clues to human nature – not the nature of the ones on the extremes necessarily but the ones in the middle (the ones who could be us) who live in a world of normalized horror, not oblivious to but accepting of it. A part of me watches, fascinated at the ways oppressed people make life when even their life is not their own – the episode with the cotillion, for example, which illuminates the roots of a ritual that’s still part of the modern black American experience in some circles. A part of me, I remember, watched one of my nephews’ reactions as we watched the first episode, the reality of enslaved people he’d read about coming alive (he watched like it was a horror show – because horrific it was). It proved to be a teachable moment.

Underground – a slave narrative with modern music, paced like an action film – is, also, proving to be quite invigorating and entertaining television. Before it aired, I saw some complain on social media that they were tired of slave narratives and wouldn’t be watching. And while I understand where that is coming from – the story of downtrodden black hope is one Hollywood loves to tell – I think they’d be surprised. These Enslaved are the opposite of downtrodden and even at their most desperate, the opposite of hopeless.

noahFrom episode one when we meet Aldis Hodge’s Noah, re-captured and returned to the plantation he’d run away from – I wager it was not a real runaway attempt but a reconnaissance mission – we see in his eyes and in the way he carries himself that (though he’s beaten, and he is, literally) his humanity has not been beaten out of him. That he is a calculating man, a man with a dream and with the charisma to recruit others to his cause. He realizes early on that to make it he can’t go it alone. All but one of his fellow runaways take some convincing – and one buckles when the time comes. I can’t judge them for that – we still get in our own way and we have more agency over our lives than enslaved people for whom getting up had real consequences. They plot and prepare – deciphering a written song, song being one of the ways enslaved people passed on messages, devising a way across the bridge, testing them etc. But when time comes to improvise – i.e. after Rosalee, also Noah’s love interest, deathly injures the overseer during an attempted rape, forcing her and Noah to break with the plan and run – they do. But, once they’re clear-ish, in one of the show’s sweeter moments, precursor to Noah and Rosalee’s first kiss, Noah, a man of his word and a believer in strength in unity, explains that he has to return for his crew. Thankfully, he didn’t have to go all the way back as his crew showed some initiative, all but one (as mentioned) getting themselves free – albeit with a snake in the midst.

It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out – do they discover the former slave driver’s betrayal, how he pulled a Shane (remember when Shane shot Otis in the leg on The Walking Dead to buy himself some time), or does he, through association with them, become someone with the courage to sacrifice for others.

Hot on their tail is for me so far the show’s most infuriating character – infuriating not because he’s unrelenting evil, he isn’t. chris meloni
He is an honest man doing an honest day’s work – it just so happens that that work is slave catching and he is both competent and persistent. Played by Christopher Meloni, he is a charmer, sweet talking the runaways he catches into the back of his wagon under the guise of helping them, almost snagging Rosalee at one point. And though he’s morally conflicted, as he passes on the knowledge of tracking runaways to his son, he’s the biggest threat to our heroes. At the start of episode 5, there are shades of his Law & Order SVU Elliot Stabler character as he reads the evidence, profiles the runaways, and gets too damn close to foiling their plan.

Up to this point, they are still ahead of the slave catchers, intrigue is afoot back on the plantation, and if you’re like me, you can’t wait to see what happens next. And after the death of one of the escapees and the poisoning of Pearly Mae by Ernestine, the audience now knows that anything can happen, that not even our heroes are safe.

Underground is an intriguing insight into a part of the slave narrative that’s been undertold – the ways the enslaved people claimed their humanity, through the life and rituals they made on the plantation and through the ways they plotted their freedom. I say plotted because it wasn’t all instinct. It was brain and nerve and ingenuity and, yes, instinct; and it is an exciting – and oddly liberating – thing to witness, all to the tune of hip hop fuelled soundtrack.



Aldis Hodge (who I first saw on Supernatural) and Christopher Meloni (who I first watched on Oz) are two of the reasons this show caught my eye. Even given the milieu, they remain eye catching, no?

Other TV shows or movies, I’ve blogged about here are The Walking Dead, Creed, Survivor’s Remorse I’d love to write more and will soon as I’m moved or find a market – preferably both.

Only days left to register, generous fee

This is an official letter that went out to businesses some weeks ago. It concerns my partnership with Barbara Arrindell & Associates, and aspires to bring my writing knowledge and experience to an adult education platform targeted at professionals and entrepreneurs. I’m posting here as I continue to prepare for my first class, hopeful that, if you’re in Antigua and Barbuda, you will pass it on to any individual or business that might benefit from either the written or oral communication courses.

Dear Sir /Madam:

Over the last few months, Barbara A Arrindell & Associates has conducted a number of evening classes aimed at improving a person’s communication and public speaking skills. In some cases, individuals take the class to facilitate their own personal growth and development but many participants receive full or part scholarships from their place of employment.

Employers understand that in today’s competitive environment that employees who fill key roles need to be able to speak confidently and to make presentations with ease. We are sending you this information as you may wish to register for the course and/or consider encouraging and investing in your associates so that they can be more successful at their job(s).

Full letter here: Letter to businesses

Registration forms:
registration Pubic speaking
registration Written communication

Classes begin April 19th 2016 – so register now!

Very (did I mention very!) generous fee.


AALBC (New) Black Classics List

Recently I blogged about the AABLC’s list of children’s books and now it’s the adults’ turn. I like the idea of this: Our Own List. I did something similar on the Wadadli Pen blog a while back on the subject of Caribbean books – I didn’t have in excess of 3000 respondents though. Cool list. Personal favourites include:

Number 1 The Colour Purple, number two Their Eyes were watching God77212_jpg– though I might have switched the order, number five I know why the Caged Bird sings, Disappearing Acts – number seven – my favourite Mcmillan, number nine Song of Solomon – my favourite Morrison, number ll James Earl Hardy’s 2nd Time Around (though I think I favour B-Boy Blues more – that’s at number 88), number twelve A Raisin in the Sun – we did this in college and by did I mean performed it, number 21 imagesEDP0VLFMWaiting to Exhale, number 24 The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Invisible Life – 25 – though, again, I think I may prefer another in this series, the follow up Just as I am51oZu+AMMYL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_, which is number 28, Possessing the Secret of Joy, number 26, number 32 Breath Eyes Memory (though my favourite Dandicat is Farming of Bones which didn’t make the list), Your Blues Ain’t Like Mineuntitled, number 35, Bebe Moore Campbell, love that one (love her Brothers and Sisters – which is not listed  maybe more …or equal…point is I liked them both), number 37 and 38 Morrison and Morrison Sula and The Bluest Eye, number 41 Roots, Alex Haley, number 53 Maya – Heart of a Woman, number 55 Go tell it on the Mountain untitledw-Baldwin, number 63, The Best of Simple, Langston Hughes, number 94 – In search of our Mother’s Gardens, number 95 Morrison’s Jazz.

What are some of your favourites from AALBC’s Favourite 100 Titles of the 20th Century?

p.s. I was feeling sentimental so I chose the covers I owned – some unfortunately lost, in the move, or to people who don’t return, or to my periodic book donation impulse.