Herstory 36: Queen Latifah's U.N.I.T.Y. Injects Social Change Into Hip-Hop
In The Name of Native Tongue
For Hip-Hop, the 1980s and 1990s came down to essentially figuring out which high school clique to join. Originally released in 1993, “U.N.I.T.Y.” was hitting the airwaves at a time when Hip-Hop as both a culture and genre were in a battle for a place in pop culture. News outlets, politicians, and parental groups were centering in on a core piece: its lyrics.
Gangsta Rap was at its height and the focal attention for the genre and a lot of eyes were on the N.W.A.s and Public Enemys of the era. With that, came public criticism of the culture and everyone in it. A narrative was being written that only certain personalities would thrive in Hip-Hop. As long as they were men with an aggressive nature and the image to match, they would be loved by the culture and hated by its critics.
In an indirect cultural response, we were given the Native Tongues, a collective of artists in line with many of the Afrocentric teachings (i.e. unity, collective identity, etc.), a penchant for sampling eclectic records, and jazz/disco based instrumentals. Some of its core members included: De La Soul, Monie Love, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers. With plans for joint tours, merchandise, and further music collaborations, this was a short-lived but organic relationship between its members to push the narrative out of its small scope.
Now before we dive into anything else, let’s take a look at our source material so we‘re all familiar:
Born Out of The U.N.I.T.Y. Phase
Dana Elaine Owens was born in March of 1970 in Newark, New Jersey. Her stage name comes from the nickname, Latifah, (لطيفة laţīfa) (an Arabic word meaning “delicate” and “very kind”) that she’d be given as a child.
By the time Queen Latifah reached her third album, she had been gaining a lot of traction and attention for her unique sound. Her first album. All Hail The Queen. released in close proximity to the debuts of her fellow Native Tongue members; a new wave of expression and personality in Hip-Hop. On Latifah’s second album, Nature of A Sista’, while she got to explore different themes and styles of music, the album didn’t perform as well as her first. Latifah’s label, Tommy Boy Records, elected not to re-sign her.
This decline wasn’t the end of things by any means. Going on to secure a deal with Motown Records, Queen Latifah went to work on her third album, Black Reign ,in 1993. This is what we collectively call her U.N.I.T.Y. phase.
Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children
Queen Latifah made a huge impact on the music industry through rapping about issues surrounding being a black womxn. The relationship womxn have with Hip-Hop is already a complicated one. As consumers, creators, and producers the nature of representation in Hip-Hop hasn’t completely changed direction. Misogyny, violence, economic hardship, incarceration, objectification, and other forms of adversity still exist and cast a large shadow in the creative field. The distinction ‘female rapper’ still continues to be a conversation and one that is often separated from the ‘Best Rapper Alive’ conversation of late. But we are lucky to have those that that challenge the discourse of Hip-Hop influence.
“Fear can be good when you’re walking past an alley at night or when you need to check the locks on your doors before you go to bed, but it’s not good when you have a goal and you’re fearful of obstacles. We often get trapped by our fears, but anyone who has had success has failed before.”
The song was, at large, a commentary on the state of womxn in society. Verses took hold to bring attention to domestic violence, sexual harassment, and the public images of womxn in Hip-Hop. At that point, it was her highest-charted song but it was the cultural impact that it made on both the state of Hip-Hop and what would follow in its spirit. It turned a moment into an era that was present through the rest of the decade.
Queen Latifah has gone on to explore and thrive in other forms of entertainment since (including as an actor, talk show host, and television/film producer), but has never severed ties to her beginnings. Many have forgotten that rapper once was her primary form, but that doesn’t dampen her impact nor the path set for the womxn artists that followed.
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For our Herstory Lessons blog series — we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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