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January 9, 2024

An Audience with Queen Latifah

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Few artists have enjoyed as successful a career in multiple arenas as much as the woman born Dana Elaine Owens but better known to everyone as Queen Latifah. She may have given herself the title when she was just starting out, but she has been crowned multiple times in the years since, making her true entertainment world royalty.

A Golden Globe, a Grammy and an Emmy are among the many honors presented to the Oscar-nominated BET Icon award recipient who has been name-checked by Megan Thee Stallion as one of “the queens that paved the way” for the latest generation of female rappers. Since releasing her first album in 1989, Latifah has also starred on television, stage and screen, hosted her own talk show and played a leading role in challenging beauty industry stereotypes, as a CoverGirl ambassador.

Most recently leading the CBS drama, The Equalizer, as a former CIA operative turned self-appointed righter of wrongs, Latifah took time out from her busy schedule to speak with WayMaker Journal about some of the lessons she has learned during her three-decade reign.

Of her considerable success, she believes “a great deal of it has been God’s blessings” and “the various relationships we’ve had through the years,” people who have helped and encouraged her. Latifah also attributes some of her varied achievements to a certain restlessness. “I’m a Piscean,” she explains. “I’m a person who thrives on challenges. I love creativity. I love variation.”

From her earliest days, “you never met a rapper” when you were introduced to her, she says. “You always met a person who wanted to do various things.” Rap was “my diving board, if you will. That was my platform from which to jump.”

There are hints of her wide-ranging interests even on her first album, All Hail the Queen, with its mix of jazz, salsa and reggae. “It’s not just beats and jams.” Seeing then-touring buddy Will Smith sign a deal for a TV show stirred her acting bug. “It was like, ‘Oh, if Will can do a show, we can do a show. We just have to figure out how to do it. Who can help us make this happen?’ It’s always been like that.”

Latifah says that reinvention is “really just like drinking water. How not to be reinventing constantly is much more difficult.” Something else has been important, too. “I think we’ve always had an attitude of being able to walk away from all of this. And so, no one’s ever been able to have a power over me to stop me from being who I am.

“I have a partner who believed in me. I didn’t need to be a size two, blonde, blue eyes, and we were able to connect with other people who felt the same.” Being like everyone else “is boring,” she says. “We wanted to attain the same success, but not be the same.”

Friends first
When Latifah talks about her career she uses the word “we” a lot, but not in the “royal we” sense that kings and queens of old used to refer to themselves, as a sign of their importance. When she says “we” she’s not puffing herself up—she’s actually talking about the others she knows have been a crucial part of her success.

Because you need to have a great team if you want to get anywhere, she acknowledges. “No man is an island, I believe. There’s no me without Shakim [Compere, her business partner]. So, when you see him in the room, you see me; when you see me in a room, you see him. There’s just no way this would be possible to do by myself. I have a lot of people who help support what I do. I just happen to be the one who has to be in front of the cameras.”

Those team members are not just there to fill in the blanks but to sharpen the edges. Good team members, she says, are “people who are not you, but almost the opposite. . . people who challenge your thoughts. People who give you the sort of devil’s advocate thought about things, or, in a positive way, constructive criticism [that] will help support you.”

Two people in particular loom large in her success story. First, her teacher mom, who “had a big influence on my career and entire crew’s career,” she says. Mom told Latifah not to put all her eggs in one basket—a piece of advice that was the seed of Latifah’s multidimensional career. “I figured if I wasn’t the best rapper—not just female—period, in the world, then I wasn’t putting all my eggs in one basket.”

Then there is Compere—one of her mom’s students—with whom she formed and runs her umbrella company, Flavor Unit Entertainment. “When I come up with these crazy ideas, I tell Shakim, ‘I’m thinking this,’ and when he comes up with some crazy idea, like ‘Lah, I think you could pull this off,’ we just start saying, ‘Well, hmm, how do we do it?’”

The pair’s long-time partnership—a rarity in the entertainment industry—thrives because “first of all, we’re friends,” she says. “We’re besties and we love each other to death and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for each other… that’s where we start, that’s our baseline.”

They would call him the star in the office and her the star out in the world. “When I go out here and I’ve learned something, I will come back and share with him. When he would learn some things, he would share them with me, and so we were able to grow at the same pace in a lot of ways.”

Compere is “very, very smart,” Latifah says. Indeed, he’s probably more creative than she is when it comes to business because “he can always come up with an interesting way of creating a deal or a way to approach it that’s simple. Everybody’s overthinking it and he’s like, ‘Well, why don’t you just do this? Boom, boom, boom.’ He’s always had that skill.”

Another important element of working together well for such a long time is respecting each other’s strengths and showing appreciation. And giving each other space when it has been needed. “We take chances on each other, and we allow each other the space to fail. But we support each other when we both need to get back up.”

There’s room for straight-talking, though. “We’ll cuss each other out if we have to, but it’s not very frequent that we really have to go there.” In fact, Latifah recalls only one major blowout in all their years together, back in the early days. “We get in a room and we have a few ‘F-you,’ ‘No, F-you’s and then it’s done,” she says. “We keep it real with each other, and then we let it go.

“You have to, because otherwise you are sitting around there grumpy and grudgy and nobody got time for that. We’ve got too many things that we want to move forward to, you know?”

Taking charge
Latifah’s possibility-thinking attitude started earlier. When others would go out after a show and party, Latifah and her team would be in a room reviewing and planning. “We would tally up whatever we had made that night and go through our expenses and then we would sit there and break the shows down: what we thought went right, what we thought went wrong, but also where we could go with this, how much further could we go.” Hard times helped sharpen their thinking. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we had to stretch a dollar. We had to get creative, we had to get imaginative.”

As both a creative and a business force, Latifah has proven that, contrary to common wisdom, women can have it all. So, what’s her advice to those who would want to follow in her footsteps? Decide and determine, she says.

“I think you need to decide what is your have-it-all? If you having it all means you want to have a career where you own your business, you want to have a family as well, you want to run a Fortune 500 company… you want to make socks, you want to make records, you want to get into cryptocurrency. . . whatever it is. You have to decide what it is you want.”

Then you have to believe it’s possible, “because if you don’t buy it, nobody else is going to buy it.” It’s a lesson she learned at a young age from her father: “If I really believed in something, sometimes I would have to stand alone because other people were not going to believe me. They would doubt me. They would be naysayers.”

Sometimes you need to be willing to cut people out of your life, she adds—the haters, the controllers, the manipulators. “I hate to say it this way, but it’s a pimp game sometimes, you know,” she says. “People want to control women and we’re not to be controlled. We bring life; how much more power can you have than to bring a life into this world?”

Having urged women to take charge, she also advocates letting go at some stage. “Somewhere in the middle of all those dreams and all that work, you need to stop, girl, and just take a bath and just relax,” she says. “You need to stop and do some self-care. Go on and get your facial, go get a massage, take a walk, get some exercise, go do something you love to do.”

While women can get to do it all, they don’t have to do it all: “We’ve become so accustomed with carrying everything. We got to carry the family. We got to carry the cooking, the food… please your man, walk the dog… We have to realize at some point we have to step back and take some time for ourselves.”

She speaks of the health issues women face—oftentimes, heart attacks are based in stress, she says. “And that’s because we are taking care of everybody else but ourselves.”

Giving back
One of Latifah’s more recent behind-the-scenes roles has been as a community developer. She is investing millions of dollars in an affordable housing project in her old Newark neighborhoods. On a visit back, one time, she saw a street of mostly abandoned buildings and decided she was going to replace them. “I didn’t pick an area to gentrify it, but to beautify it and to show what we could do.

“Real estate has always been one of my secret passions, so it’s to also just show what we can do with our dollars and how we could put it together and make it happen. . . People want to celebrate and feel good about where they live, and I love my people. I want them to drive down that street and celebrate. And if we can make this happen, then we can make it happen in other places.”

As one of the prime movers behind the Queen Collective initiative, in partnership with Procter & Gamble and Tribeca Studios, she is providing opportunities for women of color to gain filmmaking experience. They are far more inclined to hire more diverse crews, she says, correcting a longstanding imbalance in the industry. “So, we’re not just creating short films for someone’s ego, we’re creating a pipeline, we’re creating more skills, more skill set, more talent, more capable workers who can go on and have careers.”

It’s not just a question of the rightness of diversity, important as that is. “It’s just good business,” Latifah says. “The studies have shown any companies that diversify make more money. You appeal to a larger audience, a more diverse audience and people relate, and people connect, and they want to buy your product. For those who don’t want to get all emotional or creative in that sense, or altruistic, they can just look at the numbers and the numbers make sense.”

Latifah’s giving back is inspired in large part by her mother—both her example and her experience. “One of her things was, to whom much is given, much is required. And so, we were always encouraged to give back and always encouraged to share what we learned with our artists who we began to manage as we had a management company. If they wanted to know anything about their business, they were welcome to be a part of it, even though it was our job to represent them. If they wanted to learn, they could learn and take it and run with it on their own, which some did very well.”

Then she remembers how, having raised Latifah and her brother solo since she and the children’s father divorced when Latifah was 10, Mom saved enough money to be able to buy a house but could not get financing. “There was no reason she shouldn’t have gotten that loan.”

That lit a fire under her. “Seeing the unfair parts of life that we’ve been dealt, particularly as Black people, and definitely as Black women, has influenced so many things… I wanted to do things that were accessible to people like my mother and my father, who didn’t have money but wanted to live a good life and still be fly, like my family members. It’s not any fun if I got a dollar in my pocket and nobody else has any money…”

From an interview with Louis Carr

This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.