She has one of the greatest stories Rap has ever known. Dana Owens came up in the east coast, enthralled by a young, budding Rap culture, enchanted by promising emcees and filled with a passion for poetry and music. A young, driven beat-box loving girl, she grew to enjoy the uplifting allure of the microphone rockin’ element, channeling her poetic spirit to what would become a powerful female emcee’s rhymes, something many weren’t ready for.
Eventually, those rhymes would become anthems for many as she rhymed for “U.N.I.T.Y.” and respect, pushing her name towards legendary status as she went from sneaking in to small clubs in New York to breaking out on Broadway. Her resume is as impressive as any you will find in the genre, one stocked with incredible accolades and nominations. She’s won a Golden Globe, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Grammy to match six other nominations, an Emmy nomination and an Academy Award nomination for her part in Chicago. By now, it’s clear that Dana Owens has gone beyond Hip Hop’s beautiful graffiti’d walls but she acknowledges that Hip Hop is where it all began. The culture that the young girl from Jersey fell in love with has allowed her to, as she put it, “do a whole lot” for two decades.
While she was introduced to Rap at an early age, she was also confronted with hardship and pain early on. As a young girl, she was sexually abused, a moment in time that scarred her for years, something that she has rarely talked about in her long and illustrious career. But, the rain didn’t stop with that painful and traumatic experience. Later, as the accolades and awards kept pouring in, she couldn’t resist the tears from pouring out because while her career had taken off, her brother, Lancelot H. Owens, couldn’t celebrate the success with her. On April 26, 1992, he died in a tragic motorcycle accident just as his sister’s career was gaining momentum. With the release of her new album Black Reign and the success of her television show Living Single, it should have been the time of her life, but instead it was a nightmare to live through. “I couldn’t even feel it or enjoy it because I was just so depressed.” Like many before her have done when faced with unbearable suffering, Queen looked to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain she felt, only to find that it worsened her condition, adding more layers of agony.
Obstacles, tragedy and hardship couldn’t hold her down. After speaking with her, you get a sense that she’s a “hopeful” spirit, one that has managed to turn every negative into a positive, not just for her, but for others, too. So, while she had a lot to endure, she also had a lot to give. See, her success isn’t solely based on the remarkable achievements, though they are enough to make any entertainer proud. Her success is based more on the positive effect she’s had on the culture and the world.
Recently, the celebrated emcee, singer, activist and actress candidly spoke to HipHopDX about all of this. She not only spoke on the state of Rap, her successes and her upbringing. She was also sincere about the pain she suffered as a child, the heartbreaking loss of her brother and the fight to come out of deep depression to become a positive light for others to follow. Sure, she’s lived a life that can be concidered one of Rap’s greatest success stories already, but with her latest album, Persona, in stores and a slew of other projects coming soon, Queen Latifah is far from done. The Reign continues. Long live the Queen.
HipHopDX: Let me set the scene for a minute. You’re in New Jersey and it’s the 1980s. What do you remember most about that place and those times for a young Dana Owens?
Queen Latifah: Um, well, I remember a lot of music, a lot of Hip Hop music and a lot of House music. In Jersey, we play a lot of House music. We’re probably one of the few places that plays that much House music. It’s just like us, Chicago, Baltimore and maybe New York. But, you’ll see the hardest dudes riding down the street bumpin’ some House music right now, as much as you will hear them playing Jay-Z [click to read] or Lil Wayne [click to read] or anybody else. We’ve got our own little niche there, when it comes to that. So, I remember a lot of that and a lot of cool fashion. A lot of Guess, K-Swiss and all kinds of craziness. I remember Hip Hop being very diverse musically…
DX: Something that you don’t see as much anymore…
Queen Latifah: Yeah, not as much as we should.
DX: Now, at what age did you start exploring the arts?
Queen Latifah: Um, 15. When I was about 15, I always used to like to beat-box. Well, I liked to beat-box. I wasn’t the best at it but I liked to beat-box. I hooked up with these two girls that rhymed in school. When I was in high school, we had a group called Ladies Fresh. It was two of them that rapped and me on the beat-box. I remember we had to battle these other three girls in this talent show from this other high school. It was three of them rhymin’ and two of us so I had to write a rhyme to make it even. I used to write poetry all the time anyway so I remember we went to my house and I remember my brother had deejay equipment. So, I put on LL Cool J’s record “I Need a Beat.” [I] just threw on the instrumental and we just wrote and wrote and wrote until our rhymes was ready. Then, we battled them and we won! That was the first time I ever wrote a rap.
DX: Do you remember what it was about?
Queen Latifah: All I remember is, at some point I said, “Like Voltron, my voice is formed of blazing swords.” That’s all I remember. It was the cartoon that was popular at the time. [Laughs]
DX: Your mother was quoted in a book [Today’s Superstars: Queen Latifah by Jacqueline Laks Gorman] as saying “She always wanted to explore the parts of the world that don’t normally interest little girls. She was the little sheep that’s always wandering away from the flock.” First of all, do you agree with that?
Queen Latifah: Absolutely! [Laughs]
DX: Second, how do you feel that’s helped you in your career?
Queen Latifah: I feel it’s helped me because I feel it helped me to learn number one, that there was a bigger world outside of North New Jersey and it also helped me to learn that there are pitfalls in that world and that the decisions that you make, the choices that you make, all have consequences. Some have good consequences and some have bad ones, so, try to make the right choices. So, yeah, I mean I remember being 16 years old from Jersey, but I was all the way hanging out in Brooklyn and East New York. I was at Latin Quarters, which was one of the biggest Hip Hop clubs basically of all time in New York. I was like 16, hopping on the train after I left work at Burger King, hooking up with a couple of my boys and having to like, “be cool to blend in with the crowd so you wouldn’t seem like you were from Jersey because [if they knew] you’d get robbed.” It was a dangerous time in New York, but it was also one of the most exciting times to me because clubs were interesting, music was interesting and the fashion was interesting. Although it was dangerous, like I said, it was very exciting. Getting to see Eric B. & Rakim [click to read] perform, Salt-N-Pepa, Boogie Down Productions [click to read] and Melle-Mel and Grandmaster Flash [click to read]…This was the stuff that inspired me and the whole Flavor Unit [click to read] crew. These were the things that we wanted to be and see. I never was really afraid to take a chance and go out into the world. I think my parents loaded me up with enough common sense and street sense to know how to move in a crowd. So, it was a very interesting experience.
DX: There you were, really young, thinking about your dreams and here you are now, you’ve accomplished so many of them. Is that one reason that you’re trying to make other peoples’ dreams come true with this new contest you have for the next great female emcee?
Queen Latifah: Absolutely! Absolutely, because I feel like, even with what I’ve seen, a couple reality shows tried to make it happen…Ah, I think it’s kind of been bastardized a little bit. It wasn’t done as properly and efficiently as it should have been done. But I feel like, thanks to Hip Hop music, I’ve been able to do a whole lot. I’ve been able to have a big, wide, strong career that’s lasted 20 years now. I feel like if I don’t reach back and try to help out the new generation of up and coming female rappers, then I’m kind of not really being thankful for the opportunities that I’ve been afforded to have. Plus, I just love hearing females rhyme. I love hearing a female rapper come around a group of dudes and just spit the illest rhyme and have everybody grabbing their mouths because they can’t believe how dope it is, the rhyme that she said… So, that’s kind of the whole theme behind it. I love hearing other females rhyme and I’ve never been a hater. I was always excited when I heard other females get in the game that sounded dope. When I first heard Eve [click to read] rhyming or Missy [Eliott] or [Lil] Kim or Foxy [Brown] or [DaBrat], I was excited because I’m like, “Wow, we got some dope females out here!” And because it is so male-dominated, when we do get on, we stand out. A lot of us have had to come up through all male crews and be strong enough and bold enough to not be afraid to spit around anybody. So, I know that those girls are out there and that they have things to say but they’re not being heard right now, which to me, makes Rap boring. I don’t want to listen to it as much because I feel like I’m listening to the same people over and over with the same talk. You know what I mean? Like, if you listen to an Eve album, she’s going to spit the hard rhymes but at the same time she’s going to make a record like “Love is Blind” [click to read], about her friend getting abused by her boyfriend and how that affected her and how it affects us. Ludacris [click to read] made [“Runaway Love”] about little girls running away from home and all that. Jadakiss [click to read] had [“Smoking Gun”] about a girl getting abused, but a lot of male rappers, all you hear is about how I can sexually satisfy you or how you gon’ sexually satisfy me. Or, how I ain’t even gonna get satisfied, I’m just gon’ satisfy you. You know what I mean? “Gimme that ass! Gimmie them titties!” All that kind of stuff. That doesn’t really cut it for me. For me, I need to hear that balance in the music. That’s why it’s really important for me to try to help discover the next female out there that has all of that.
DX: But when a guy touches on those subjects, it doesn’t always have the same impact as if it were coming from a woman’s perspective…
Queen Latifah: Well, I mean…I think the fact that “Runaway Love” had Mary [J. Blige] on it…I think you’re right. Having a Mary J. Blige on that very record made it hit home even more. Had Mary not been on it, it might not have had that same impact. So, here’s a guy who has a daughter, who is like “I’m gonna make a record that my kids can hear so that I show my appreciation for a woman by putting this one out here.” It’s not just making a record about smacking a booty, booty and all that good stuff, which is great. I don’t knock anybody for what they make. I’m just saying that when the balance is off, that’s when it doesn’t feel right. And the balance is way off right now. You can name one female rapper that’s bubbling out there and that’s Nicki Minaj [click to read]. Thank God for Lil Wayne and the fact that he even has a daughter. He loves her dearly and everybody knows it. If it wasn’t for Wayne being a guy who’s not like all…you know, there’s some real girl-hating guys out here. I can’t get into the girl-hating just like nobody wants to hear a bunch of man-hating. It’s not about us being against each other; it’s about us all being together and having enough room for everybody and an opportunity for all of our voices to be heard. That’s all I’m really looking for. They don’t have to be Queen Latifah. They don’t have to be on some righteous Rap or nothin’ like that. They just gotta be dope.
DX: Something that’s touching and isn’t talked about as much is how much charitable work you’ve done in your career. You started the Lancelot H. Owens Scholarship Fund. You recently worked on a commercial with other celebrities to help raise awareness about hunger in America. What prompted you to get involved with so many charitably organizations?
Queen Latifah: Well, for me, my mom is an educator and I lost my brother in a motorcycle accident when I was 22 and he was 24. We wanted something positive to come out of such a tragic situation, basically. So, we decided to create a college fund, The Lancelot H. Owens Scholarship Foundation and we’ve been helping to send kids to college for the past 15 years now. For me, giving back is just something that you learn when you grow up. When you’ve had so little and you’ve been blessed with so much, how can you not look around you and see that other people need help? Why don’t you just help them? It doesn’t have to be my organization. I’m all about supporting other peoples’ organizations. Like Alicia Keys has Keep The Child Alive, which I went to last year, got into her charity. Me and John Mayer battled over a painting that cost us both $100,000, but we knew it was going to go for a good cause, to provide medicine and support for families with AIDS in Africa. All it is, is buying some medicine. It ain’t political and all that stuff. It’s just “Here, you don’t have any medicine? Here’s some medicine. Now you can live and your kids won’t be orphans.” I’m doing it again this year. Whether it’s that or helping the homeless, you know, there’s a program that helps homeless women get prepared for interviews, and learn how to do an interview, and how to dress for an interview and how to dress for work to get back to working. Those organizations… I just did a thing for Robert Deniro’s wife in New York for her organization that supports a bunch of female-run organizations in New York that help all kinds of people throughout the city. It’s really not about…I mean, give some money to church. My church built wells in Africa for people that don’t even have running water. They built over 19 wells. So, it’s as simple as running water, things we take for granted. One of my friends, for her birthday next week, she doesn’t want a party and all that. She wants us to volunteer, put together care-packages that we can deliver to homeless people here in L.A.. When you do things like that, believe me, you get it back. I’ve written some checks sometimes that [had] my accountant scratching his head like, “What is she doing?” But, in my heart is to give and to help and every time I’ve written one of those checks, where it looked like I probably couldn’t even afford to give, I’ve always gotten that money back, and then some. So, I’ve never really been afraid to share what I have with those who really need it. I think it comes from being lower middle class. We definitely weren’t upper middle class but we weren’t poor necessarily. We were definitely lower middle class. If you lived in the projects before, then you know what it is not to have. When you get on and you get some success, you want to give back.
DX: After your brother passed away, you have said that you had severe depression which led you to some bad decisions. I know that many people that look up to you go through similar situations, feeling pain and despair. How were you able to cope with that and eventually make more positive choices?
Queen Latifah: I had the support of family and friends and God, really. God put his hands over me and on my shoulders and put me under his wing. It was definitely very, very difficult and the most difficult time in my life. I felt very numb through a lot of things. It was weird because right after my brother passed away, Living Single became the number one TV show among Black and Latino households. My record Black Reign came out, the one with “U.N.I.T.Y.” and “Just Another Day” [click to read] on it, and it became a hit record; it went gold and then some. Just all the different magazine covers and I got movies and everything was happening. It was so great but I couldn’t even feel it or enjoy it because I was just so depressed about losing my brother. It was almost like “I don’t want all this success if I can’t share it with him.” That’s how I felt, you know? After awhile, I did talk to a psychologist. I remember shooting Set It Off and I had to confront a lot of these emotions because I had to show a lot of emotions in that movie. These were emotions that I had turned off, you know? Every time I had to deal with one and let it out, it would open up that whole can of worms for me. So, it got to the point where I had to talk to somebody. My good friend Jada Pinkett over there recommended someone I could talk to and I just sat and talked to her. She told me about the process of grieving and things that I would feel and that I was allowed to feel that way. I also read this book called Living When a Loved One Has Died [by Earl A. Grollman]. That book helped me to learn a lot of what I was going through, all these different stages. Sometimes, when you’re going through something, the better you understand what it is you’re going though, the more prepared you are to sort of deal with it. And then one day, like, I fell in love. You know what I mean? I didn’t even know I could love again. It didn’t last long but it was okay with me because just the fact that I could feel again ignited me. I was like “Wow, I’m back! I remember that!” And of course, I was smoking a gang of weed and I had to stop, you know? I had to stop. I was numbing myself out. I was smoking and I was drinking and I was making music. And the music was the best escape for me. Music was a way that I could really express myself and be in a place where I felt okay, where it was alright to feel however I felt and I could just put it out through the music and it was all good. So, it was all those things but ultimately, I just really think God had a couple of angels watching over me to try to keep me from doing anything too stupid while he worked on repairing my heart. It will happen. Time heals all wounds. I’ll never forget my brother but I don’t have that pain, that pain that I had when it first happened.
DX: Many people do not realize what a problem sexual abuse is and how rampant it is for young people. When you spoke on your experience recently, it really helped a lot of people with their own struggles. What made you speak publicly on the subject after not talking about it for so long?
Queen Latifah: Well, there’s a record that I have on [Persona] [click to read] called “The World,” and I had done that record awhile ago, where I kind of just talked about my experience that I went through as a kid and how I had parents that talked to me about that and you know, my father was this big, strong guy who would whoop anybody’s ass and he was a cop, so not only could he whoop ‘em, he could shoot ‘em. [Laughs] My mother was very intelligent, she was a teacher and she would talk to me. [I had] very communicative parents but when somebody is slick and devious and that’s all they’re scheming on, they can slip through sometimes. So, it happened. Now, for me, I don’t have anything to be ashamed about but for a long time, I felt like it damaged my ideas of sexuality and introduced me to that at too early an age. I didn’t understand it and probably the fact that I didn’t tell my parents, they weren’t able to really help me through it. I know a couple of other parents who discovered that situation and because they knew about it, they were able to get their kids the help that they needed to work with those emotions and all the things that happen as a result of it.
Anyway, I talk about it on this record and I talk about a bunch of other things that go on but since the record is coming out, I figured it might come up anyway, so why not talk about it? I’m not ashamed of it. This is an older person that took advantage of a child. This is happening to one in four girls. One in four girls! Twenty five percent of girls, this will happen to and we have to do a better job of protecting our kids and protecting our little ladies and our boys. We don’t even know what the numbers for boys are. That could be an even tougher situation, you know? So, I feel like there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Whenever something like that happens to you, it’s almost like you have these feelings of guilt and shame or like you did something to cause it. And once again, I finally talked to a psychiatrist about it. It was just one real conversation and I was grown at this point, you know, but he said to me: “Picture yourself as how you are right now and think about a five year old kid. Can that kid do anything to hurt you? Can they overpower you? Can they make you do anything you don’t want to do?” And all my answers to those questions were “No.” Then he said, “Okay, now picture yourself as that little kid. You have no power. There’s nothing you can do. So, you shouldn’t feel ashamed. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed. There’s nothing you did wrong in that situation.” I was like, “You’re right. I’m able to let it go when you put it in the perspective.” You know what I mean? I think the more we’re honest about those things…It’s not that I didn’t talk about it, it just that it didn’t really come up. But the more we share our stories, sometimes there’s someone out there who is going through that and it may help them tell somebody: a teacher or a principal or the other parent or whatever, because no, it’s not their fault. But, I definitey think that with those staggering numbers, we really have to do a better job at how we look at women, period. We’re not just something to be taken advantage of like that.
DX: A few years ago, you spoke to our site about the Rap genre’s state and said “I think we need to make more positive music. I think it needs to be more of a balance.” Today, you kind of touched on that, too. It seems like people have been hoping for that balance for years now within the Hip Hop community. Why do you think that balance is so difficult to find within the genre and within the culture?
Queen Latifah: Um, I think we let each other off the hook too much. We let ourselves off the hook. We take the lazy way out. We could be kind of suckers like that, in a way. We’re always giving ourselves a pass and we’re not pushing each other to make better records. Everybody was like “Oh, what is Nas talking about, Hip-Hop is Dead?” You know? Yeah, Hip Hop was dead. When y’all make the same ass corny record over and over and over, and not even being creative, yeah, you’re killing Hip Hop. When you know better and you know you got a better record in you and you make a typical ass record, you killin’ Hip Hop. You know what I mean? When you know you could speak about something positive and make it sound so hot that it’d still be a hit and you don’t do it? Then, you killin’ Hip Hop. Therefore, in a way, you’re killing society [laughs]. That’s because we continue to dumb down things and make it easy. We don’t raise the bar. Whenever somebody comes along, who does raise the bar or who is more creative, we get excited. That excitement should inspire other people to get more creative. Why y’all love Wayne? Why, because he workin’ harder than everybody else? Because he’s making more fun, clever, punchy records than anybody else? Why? Why you like Drake? Because finally you got another person with some intelligence, who reminds you of Jay-Z because he doesn’t just say the obvious things? Well, if that’s what he’s gifted at doing, why shouldn’t he do it? He credits his mother with a lot of that. His mother [gets credit] for teaching him how to speak in metaphors and she even sends him [text messages] that uses in rhymes. That’s what I’m saying with the male-female full circle. But, the creative moments, they keep coming around. We just have to jump on board and not be afraid to push the envelope. That’s just what it is. So, I mean, I’m hopeful. I’m always hopeful that things will continue to get better. I don’t hate on anything. I listen to a gang of…Gucci Mane [click to read] and whoever else, you know what I mean? But, to me, even Young Jeezy’s [click to read] record, at first, it was kind of like okay. [But,] he got better and better and better. He pushed himself and he worked harder. It’s like, yo, I can respect somebody like him. I like his music because he’s pushing himself. I don’t think everybody’s pushing themselves in whatever style they do. I don’t think they push themselves far enough or they’re afraid to get looked at as soft in some ways. Like, whatever! Stop worrying about what everybody thinks. Do what you do. You’ve got a lane that’s just for you but if you get in everybody else’s lane, your career’s gonna be short as hell. Stay in your lane and you might be around for awhile. That’s for real. That’s why you can’t get mad at Jay-Z for making a record called “Death of Auto-Tune” [click to listen]. If Jay-Z would have been like “I don’t really like that Auto-Tune shit but that’s what’s poppin’, so let me make me an Auto-Tune record,” then, you’d be looking at him like, “Yo, you can’t be serious!” Everybody’d be looking at him like he crazy. But, he was like “This is what I do and this is how I’ma do it.” And hey, I ain’t knocking everybody else who does it. I mean I’ve got it on a couple of my dance records on my album. That’s your choice musically. But, the bottom line is he’s saying, “Yo, get on your grind! You takin’ the easy way out, yo!” For many people, Auto-Tune is the easy way out. T-Pain [click to read] can actually sing! A lot of people using Auto-Tune can’t sing. [Laughs] He’s just known for it, but you know…But, that’s the controversy that surrounds Hip Hop and keeps it interesting and keeps it from being flat-line and boring. Hopefully more people will come along, hopefully people who are positive and still very creative and people who can still make hot records.
DX: At a certain point you really made the decision to take this, your career, in your own hands. What inspired you to take control of your career and navigate through the industry in the way you have by being your own boss and creating so many different avenues for yourself and others?
Queen Latifah: I’ve always felt like I had to be my own boss because I would read the stories about James Brown and various artists from back in the day. When we was young, The Flavor Unit, we would just sit around and talk about music and about the history of it, talking about deals. We all really wanted to get deals so we could create businesses and get our parents and families out the hood, like buy them houses. Not too many of us actually lived in a house, let alone own one. That was the basics. But we read a lot of stories about how this person died broke because someone took all of their publishing or how this person let everyone else make all the decisions for him and they accidentally signed all their stuff away because they never read it. I just never wanted to be that person and I always felt like I was intelligent. I wanted to be able to control my own destiny. Shakim [Compere], my partner with Flavor Unit Management and Entertainment, we’re like-minded people in that sense and we would pump each other up to try to accomplish these goals. So, we set off on this mission to try and conquer new ground and create TV shows and create films, music and independent was always the way to go musically for sure…We always wanted to be able to control our own thing. If you’re always taking a check from somebody, don’t run that debt up too much because now you’re basically a slave to your boss. But, if you own your own thing, you’re not a slave to anyone. You’re your own boss. I always liked that idea. And even when we opened up our management company, we managed 11 platinum and gold artists at the same time, pretty much. All of our artists were all allowed to be involved as much in their own business as they wanted to be. Our job was to manage them so we had it covered but if you wanted to be in a meeting, you’re welcome to be in the meeting. You want to read these contracts? Read these contracts. You want your lawyer to break it down for you simply? Let him break it down. You want an accountant to explain how this all works? No problem! If you don’t want to do it, we got it. But, if you want to do it, then do it. You should. Several artists that we worked with like [DJ] Kay Gee from Naughty By Nature [click to read], both Big [Boi] [click to read] and [Andre 3000] [click to read] from OutKast, they was very involved in their business. They wanted to be involved and they were really in tune to it. They were interested in knowing their own business. Then they could take it and run with it and build more businesses from there. They had the entrepreneurial spirit as well. That’s just something that comes from being a hustler inside and wanting to make things happen and wanting to control your own destiny. Thanks to that, I never was a slave to Hollywood either. If that was my only check, when I was trying to get acting gigs, then I might have had to pick some role that was never right for me, just to pay bills. So, because I was making money in Hip Hop, I could always say “F you, I’m not doing it. Get somebody else to do that.” That gave me more and more power and more leverage and allowed me to create the type of body of work that I really wanted to build. And sometimes you gotta take the sacrifice and not take the check. You’re not gonna get it all up front necessarily, but on the back end, it’ll be all yours. It’s the patience and willingness to sacrifice that has to come along with that. I don’t know…I just had that [Laughs]. I just had that.