RuPaul and Queen Latifah at “Love Ball II” at New York’s Roseland Ballroom in 1991. (Getty Images)

Though she’s primarily known for her acting today, Queen Latifah first got her start as a rap artist when she signed to Tommy Boy Music at age 19 in the 1989.

Over the next decade, she would record a total of four hip hop albums, culminating in a performance at the 1998 Super Bowl halftime show, making her the first rapper ever to do so.

In 1993, at age 21, Latifah released “U.N.I.T.Y.”, the lead single from her third studio album Black Reign, which would peak at No. 15 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop chart and go on to sell over 500,000 copies.

The song confronted misogyny and the lack of respect of women are given in in society by addressing issues of street harassment, domestic violence, and sexist slurs against women.

“Instinct leads me to another flow / Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho / Tryna make a sister feel low / You know all of that gots to go.”

“U.N.I.T.Y.” was co-written and produced by KayGee, who would later go on to work with several queer icons, including the ’90s R&B duo Zhané, frequent Pride headliner Deborah Cox, and soul singer Luther Vandross.

It sampled “Message from the Inner City” by the Houston-based jazz group, the Crusaders, and offered an early preview of the direction Latifah’s music career would go in the 2000s, with the release of two jazz collections, 2004’s The Dana Owens Album, her best-selling record to date, and 2007’s Trav’lin’ Light.

Of course, at the time of its release, Latifah was not publicly out. But the song’s general call for respect, love, and togetherness could easily extend to include queer women and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.

Per Olka Jones at Consequence of Sound:

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.

For many years, Latifah wouldn’t address speculation around her sexuality, telling The New York Times in 2008, “I don’t feel like I need to share my personal life, and I don’t care if people think I’m gay or not.”

In 2015, she portrayed iconic bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith in the HBO film Bessie. The film would garner numerous accolades, including four Primetime Emmy Awards nominations, winning for Outstanding Television Movie.

It wasn’t until the BET Awards in 2021, when she was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award, that Latifah publicly acknowledged her partner, Eboni Nichols, and her son, Rebel, for the first time, ending the speech with “Happy Pride!”

“U.N.I.T.Y.” won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance and remains Latifah’s bestselling single in the United States to date, and her only song to reach the Top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100.

Over 30 years after its release, it continues to be a timeless and empowering hip hop classic that has inspired numerous other female singers, emcees, and queer people.

Before you go, check out Queen Latifah perfoming a slower, jazzier version of “U.N.I.T.Y.” at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway.

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