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!

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“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

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