QUEEN LATIFAH has been proclaimed the monarch of female rap ever since the 1989 release of her first album, "All Hail the Queen," which some consider a feminist manifesto.
Selling nearly 500,000 copies primarily to rap's hard-core audience, it has been one of the most influential rap collections of recent years and inspired many women to try rap. Latifah's latest album, "Nature of a Sista'," may extend her popularity into the pop mainstream.
Born Dana Owens in a working-class East Orange, N.J., neighborhood, Latifah, 21, started rapping in her mid-teens. Tommy Boy Records, impressed by her demo recordings and anticipating the female rap boom triggered by the success of Salt-n-Pepa, signed her in 1988.
A Muslim cousin nicknamed her Latifah, which means delicate ** and sensitive in Arabic, when she was a youngster. Adding Queen at the beginning of her rap career was her idea -- a proud acknowledgment that many blacks are descended from African royalty. Tall and imposing, Latifah, who will perform at the Baltimore Arena tonight, indeed has a regal bearing.
She is more than a rapper. Many fans regard her as a philosophical and political leader, delivering a message that is spiritual and uplifting -- especially to black women. Her provocative, street-savvy raps -- like the sassy "Ladies First" -- rail against sexism and encourage women to act and think for themselves.
Articulate and outspoken, Latifah aired her pointed views on a wide range of rap-related issues and some social and political subjects.
Q: You're considered a leader -- both by the rap community and young black women. Are you comfortable with that?
A: Yes and no. Being considered a leader can be a hassle. Some people put you on a pedestal and don't let you be human. It's like they see themselves in you -- they see their best self in you and they expect perfection from their best self. When you're in that position, you want to live up to it. You don't want to slip or do the wrong thing. You're forced into feeling you should be perfect. That's not a comfortable thing.
But on the other hand, the power of that position feels good. It's a great feeling to know that people listen to you -- that what you say makes a difference to them. But like I said, a burden comes along with that power. It's not quite that bad for me because I'm basically a good person. But I'm no saint. I can slip -- just like anybody else.
Q: Given this leadership role, why do you seem to avoid addressing political issues specifically?
A: I make an effort to keep politics out of my music because rap is music, not school. Rap should be fun for the most part. I don't mind speaking my mind -- at certain times -- but I don't want to get overbearing and come on like a teacher. I'll put a line in here and there with a political point, but I'm not going to do a whole album like that -- or whole songs like that. That's bad business and I am really into the business aspect of things. Kids listen to music to get away from all that preaching and people telling them what to do.
Q: If you ever decided to get into political rap, what topics would you deal with?
A: I'd rap about some of the serious problems kids today are facing -- particularly young black kids, because they don't have enough people looking out for their interests. There's that critical problem of teen-age pregnancy. Kids need to be given condoms to cut down on the pregnancies. Women are in danger of losing their right to abortion -- which is a horrible shame. That's really going to hurt black women in particular. Also, I think many parents -- far too many black parents -- are irresponsible. They don't teach their kids, don't provide the proper guidance. I could talk for hours about political issues I'd rap about.
But that brings up another point. How do you rap about these issues and make it rhyme and make it clever and interesting and musical? If I ever figure that out, maybe then I'll get into political rap.
Q: What's the origin of your Afrocentric image?
A: Being Afrocentric and proud of my heritage -- that's something I grew up with. My mother always taught me that. When I started rapping, I wanted to make it part of my image. In the beginning, they gave me money to go shopping for clothes for promotion pictures. Back then, rappers were wearing sweat suits and sneakers and gold chains. That wasn't me. I wanted something that was dignified. I went to this store and bought an African-style outfit. At the time rap didn't have that much dignity. So I figured it was up to me to provide a little.
Q: What first turned you on about rap?
A: I was attracted to the sound and the content and the freedom of rap. To me, it's like a free art form. It flows -- it's smooth. It can be anything you want it to be -- harsh, bitter, funny, you name it. I used to write poetry when I was younger. Rap was just reciting my poetry to music. Just doing that intrigued me. There weren't that many boundaries to rap when I started. That was a big attraction too.