U.N.I.T.Y. Another one of them songs so many young black college students today still seem to know, even though it was released in 1994. There is more going on here than a mainstream success story about a rap song.
This week, we looked at femcees, bgirls, and female DJs as rhetors in my class which invariably means folk start talking about Queen Latifah’s UNITY (again, this is not from my explicit directions since students were given over 50 artists/videos to choose ONE from this week). This year I just went ahead and added the cut to a very long playlist. Of course, this year, like all years, UNITY was a point of chosen focus and all hell broke loose in class. Maybe that’s an overstatement. I’ll just be more bourgeois and say the class grew contentious. Yup. Over Latifah’s UNITY. This has happened every time for more than a few years now.
Here’s how it goes down. Some student, typically white (a white student or a non-black student who culturally identifies as white), who is not a Hip Hopper, proceeds to tell the black women in the class that this song is neither positive nor socially valuable. Queen Latifah is routinely condemned for HER language and for her aggressive content, lyrical style, voice, and body postures. Yes, this condemnation happens every single time and always around the word, “bitch.” Because of the song’s message, radio stations didn’t bleep Queen Latifah when she said “bitch,” “hoe”, or those infamous, opening lines “Who you callin a bitch?” These words are left in tact no matter where it gets played and are not marked as “other” with labels of parental advisory suggestions.
You know what else happens every single time Queen Latifah and this song get condemned in my class? The sistas just ain’t havin’ it. Not a single one of them.
Though I always loved that young people were influenced so positively by the song, the song seemed rather trite and, to me, stopped short on analysis (I had been a die-hard Latifah fan on the first two albums, not really this third one). If a man calls me a bitch or hoe, Ima check him and get at him. That just seems like a rather casual fact-of-life to me. I was actually teaching high school at the time when the record dropped and even witnessed a young black woman beat the hell out of a boy who wouldn’t stop calling all girls in the school bitches; they ironically became good friends after that and, not ironically, he stopped using the B-word. So this argument and request that black men stop calling black women bitches and hoe sounded like a simple-enough position to me. Queen Latifah (as femcee, that is) is hardly the most “aggressive” or in-yo-face personality my students meet in the course of a semester. In fact, I would argue that Shirley Chisholm gave the folk the business even tougher this semester. But yet, these women of the past are not perceived as a threat to white students who authorize themselves to publicly devalue black women, even in a college classroom that is 95% filled with educated black women whose academic records and abilities far exceed theirs (I am a writing teacher and grade the papers, so you can trust me on THAT one). This is why I need the classroom to remind me just how thick this ish can get. Apparently, what I see as a pretty simple and straight-forward request on Latifah’s part ain’t easy to digest at all, not even 19 years later from the song’s release date. Black men targeting black women (or some of them, as the apologists, from Tupac on down, like to say about not saying all women are bitches and hoes, as if that’s different) is VIOLENCE, plain and simple, and it is very regularized and normal. When I forget that, all I have to do is listen when someone references U.N.I.T.Y. and watch white students, both male and female, do their best to deny Queen Latifah’s right to name and define herself outside of bitch and hoe!
I had a long conversation with one of my students, Vaughn, about this song. Vaughn pointed out what he sees as the real threat that Latifah poses: it’s her deliberate and clear call for black solidarity. Misogyny and sexism are called out for the sake of black unity, not for the sake of shaming black men, and Queen Latifah does this successfully. Of course, theorists and scholars are often quick to remind me that it is naive and romantic to think that one song or one artist can counter and reverse patriarchy and deeply embedded systems of social injustice. But, if Vaughn is right, and I think he is, then the disruption that THIS song wreaks each time it plays or gets discussed in my classes has more power than what we like to admit. When I say I learn from my classrooms just as much from the scholarship I read, it is these kinds of lessons I have in mind. Maybe Queen Latifah hasn’t converted the misogyny of black men with this song, but, as far as I can see in my classrooms, she certainly intimidates and threatens white power… let em know, Queen!