Editor’s Note: As Women’s History Month draws to a close, arts critic Okla Jones looks back at the indelible legacy of Queen Latifah and the long-lasting influence her anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.” had on women’s rights, especially in the hip-hop world.
The contributions of women to the arts have often been overlooked throughout history. In music (specifically hip-hop), the female artist has been held to an unfair critical standard. The industry requires women to be both talented and desirable, only to allow them to be negated by public opinion if they come across as overtly “sexy” or if their content doesn’t fit some status quo. For quite some time, the music business has served as a microcosm for society’s treatment of women overall: including the verbal and physical abuse, lack of appreciation (disparity in compensation), and the marginalization of or complete disregard for their voices.
In November of 1993, rapper Queen Latifah, born Dana Owens, addressed many of these aforementioned issues with her hit single “U.N.I.T.Y.”. The song focuses on confronting the disrespect that women face in society, addressing issues of street harassment, domestic violence, and slurs against women in hip-hop culture — all themes that are sadly still relevant today.
Some of the song’s most poignant lyrics include: “I guess I fell so deep in love I grew dependency/ I was too blind to see just how it was affectin’ me.” Latifah continues, “All that I knew was you was all the man I had/ And I was scared to let you go even though you treated me bad.” “U.N.I.T.Y.” finds Latifah shedding light on the misogyny in hip-hop during a time where the opportunities for women were sparse, almost nonexistent. Although Queen Latifah’s implementation of feminism into rap music was evident since All Hail the Queen in 1989, it was “U.N.I.T.Y.” that exposed her positive message to a much larger audience.
Queen Latifah openly rapped about the contempt towards women on “U.N.I.T.Y.”, but what sometimes gets missed is the word itself spelled out by the title. In the chorus, she talks about “unity,” specifically the unity between Black men and Black women. “Love a Black man from infinity to infinity” is a part of the song’s unforgettable chorus. Although the treatment of Black women by Black men can sometimes be appalling, Latifah’s main message is one of love and togetherness. It’s a theme touched upon at the time by another one of hip-hop’s biggest names.
About two weeks prior to the release of “U.N.I.T.Y.”, Tupac Shakur debuted “Keep Ya Head Up”. His hit single from the album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z… was a dedication to Latasha Harlins, who was murdered in Los Angeles by a convenience store owner in 1991. The abuse that Black women face in society emphasized throughout this song made the perfect complement to Queen Latifah’s most successful recording to date. What was special about the dichotomy between “U.N.I.T.Y.” and “Keep Ya Head Up” was that two different perspectives came together in a similar point of view. In an industry dominated by men, it was important for one of the genre’s biggest stars to show support for the women who struggled to have their opinions heard.
“Keep Ya Keep Up” was in stark contrast to Tupac’s previous single, “I Get Around”. While the latter promoted promiscuity, his second single showed appreciation for the Black woman and also criticized the male counterparts who have added to their suffering, both directly and indirectly. “…And since we all came from a woman, got our name from a woman, and our game from a woman,” Tupac raps on the song’s opening verse, “I wonder why we take from our women, why we rape our women; do we hate our women?” The soft and introspective nature of “Keep Ya Head Up” and the aggressive, in-your-face tone of “U.N.I.T.Y.” served as the perfect combination to show what really goes on in the lives of women across America.
The cries of women frequently go unheard. Although the reasons may vary, most of the time it is due to ignorance, apathy, or downright neglect. This has resulted in countless women having to or even choosing to suffer in silence so as not to cause more damage to themselves or the people around them. With “U.N.I.T.Y.”, Queen Latifah used her platform to tell her story and also the story of an entire demographic. At the same time, it gave women the courage to speak out about the injustices they endured on a daily basis. Discriminatory behavior towards women is not limited to what was touched upon on “U.N.I.T.Y.” In addition, they face inequality in their careers, home life, as well as in other genres of entertainment. Thus, a new generation of women were created – many of which felt empowered to express what is on their minds and having the confidence to refuse to accept treatment detrimental to their well-being.
Another point that often goes unnoticed in regard to “U.N.I.T.Y.” is the impact that it had on subsequent female emcees. It preached the respect of all women, and, more importantly, the acceptance of all women. The song’s critical acclaim, as well as the favorable reception from the general public, led young, aspiring female artists not to become boxed in by how the industry dictated a woman should look, act, and sound like, but to remain true to who they genuinely were as an artist. Because of “U.N.I.T.Y.”, Da Brat was able to maintain her own rugged sense of style and no-nonsense attitude, which ultimately led to her becoming the first female rapper to receive platinum status. Lauryn Hill’s eclectic musical style was able to co-exist with Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown’s emphasis on sex appeal. These women, though entirely different, encompass the many facets of the beautiful diamond that is the female emcee.
Even today, the landscape of females in hip-hop music remains diverse. The North Carolina-born Rapsody would perhaps be the closest representation of the legacy of “U.N.I.T.Y.” A true lyricist, regardless of gender, Rapsody is known for her intricate rhyme schemes and introspective album concepts. She has risen through the ranks of the genre as not only a great female rapper, but a formidable emcee overall. In terms of sales, Nicki Minaj has reached a level beyond any other woman rapper that preceded her. On top of her talent, her musical range allowed her to become one of the most successful artists of her time. Her focus on fashion, originality, and unique style laid the groundwork for newer artists such as Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion to flourish in today’s climate.
There remains a stigma attached with being a female in the genre of hip-hop, however. Misogynistic views are still prevalent, and women have to have twice the talent in order to be respected as an artist. Beauty also serves as a double-edged sword. One’s success can be attributed to the way an artist looks in order to minimize her musical ability or work ethic. While these obstacles may be here to stay for quite some time, there has never been more optimism regarding the future of women in the rap industry. As time progresses, the legacy of Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” will be a woman’s right to be who she is without being judged for it, regardless of her walk of life.
As Women’s History Month concludes, it is paramount that the achievements of women made throughout American history are recognized, which includes their invaluable contributions to music, especially in hip-hop. Since its release almost 30 years ago, “U.N.I.T.Y.” has become an anthem for women’s rights. It turned a critical eye towards Latifah’s own community and raised awareness from demographics outside of the United States’ urban neighborhood. Awarded a Grammy in 1995, “U.N.I.T.Y.” remains one of the most important songs in hip-hop history, with a legacy that understands that change is needed in a country and industry too often stuck in its unjust ways.