, AMERICA'S PREMIER female rap singer, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Consider the pluses. At 23, Latifah has put aside her tough-minded lyrics and trademark power turbans and is enjoying her turn as a rookie TV actress on Living Single, Fox's sitcom about black professional women in Manhattan. Meanwhile, her third album, Black Reign, is just out. She has her own label, Flavor Unit, based in Jersey City. And she plays a hospice nurse in the new film My Life, in which Michael Keaton stars as a father-to-be dying of cancer.
But even with this, Latifah is not feeling so queenly. She's still grappling with the tragedy that devastated her a year and a half ago. Her brother, Lance Owens, a policeman in East Orange, N.J., was killed in an off-duty accident when his motorcycle collided with a car while he was making a turn. "That took my confidence away," says Latifah, who wears Lance's motorcycle key on a chain around her neck. The Kawasaki had been her birthday gift to him (he was 23). Latifah, who has two Honda cycles, says they took their last spin together three days before his accident. "We had a good day," she says. "It ended with the usual hug and kiss, 'I love you. Bye.' "
In the first rush of grief, all she could think to do was spend hours on the basketball court (the 5'9" Latifah, then known as Dana Owens, had been a power forward at Frank H. Morrell High in Irvington, N.J.). "I killed myself out there every day," she says. She briefly resorted to smoking marijuana. ("I wasn't a weed smoker before, but I felt completely helpless. I've since shied away from that.") Then she threw herself into working on the album. "That was healing to her," says her mother, Rita Owens, 42, a high school art teacher.
The sadness, though, is indelible. "Now that he's gone," says Latifah, her eyes darkening with tears, "I don't treasure life as much as I used to." Last year she bought a four-bedroom home in Wayne, N.J., to share with him and her mother. "But he didn't ever get to move into the house," she says. "Or to see me on TV." And he won't ever hear "Winky's Theme," a song dedicated to him on his sister's new album. "That was his nickname," Latifah explains. "Mom said he used to blink a lot when he was a baby."
Her own moniker came courtesy of a cousin during her teen years. Latifah is an Arabic word meaning "delicate, kind" (she herself had added "Queen" by the time she released her first rap album, the best-seller All Hail the Queen, in 1989). Growing up in East Orange, she was an unstoppable performer who would walk around the house impersonating shampoo-commercial star Rula Lenska. "Give her a pot, she'd bang it. A spoon, she'd sing into it. A box, she'd beat it," says her mother.
Rita and her husband, Lance, a former police officer, split up when their daughter was 9. Rita raised the kids, but Latifah says her dad's imprint is unmistakable. "I'm not afraid of too many things," says Latifah, "and I got that invincible kind of attitude from him." He gave son Lance and the tomboyish Latifah, who refused to wear dresses, lessons in both karate and guns. "Dad taught us how to shoot 'em, unload 'em and where not to point 'em," says Latifah.
She probably owes her lyrical gift to Mom, who used to run a jazz-and-poetry club in Newark. Latifah's rap breakthrough came when she was a senior at Morrell High. She and two friends formed a rhyming group, Ladies Fresh, and handily won a school talent contest. By the time she graduated in 1987, a deejay friend had put her demo tapes in circulation, and they eventually landed in the hands of MTV host Fab 5 Freddy. The result was All Hail the Queen.
Her Rapness has gradually branched out as an actress with movies (Jungle Fever, House Party 2) and now on TV with Living Single, a solid Nielsen performer. In what little spare time she has when taping in Los Angeles, she stays fit by training several times a week with kick-boxer Kathy Long. Latifah has no romantic life at the moment, although she has definite ideas about what her king should be. "I don't want no dummy. And if he's jealous and possessive, forget it."
And despite losing Lance, she hasn't given up riding her motorcycle. "I don't want to put my mother through losing another child, but I have to go where I have to go."
Rita accepts this. "I think Latifah looks at that bike as a tribute to her brother's life," she says, "not his death. She's not one to back down."
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles
- John Griffiths.