Queen Latifah

Newark’s Favorite Homegirl Brings Heart and Affordable Housing to Her ‘Hood

Regardless of where you come from or how old you might be, everyone knows Queen Latifah. Whether you know her personally or not, her warm, no-nonsense, homegirl demeanor makes her feel more than just familiar. Born Dana Owens in Newark, NJ, many Gen Xers grew up with her through the hiphop music she made popular. From “Unity” and “Ladies First” to appearing with her homeboys, Naughty By Nature, in their “Hip Hop Hooray” video, Queen Latifah was the statuesque sista’ whose flow could match any of the fellas. She demanded respect on every level. She was the first female hiphop artist nominated for an Academy Award and the first hiphop artist ever to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

We watched her on Living Single as Khadijah James, and saw her make the jump to the big screen in ensemble movies like Set It Off, The Secret Life of Bees, and Girls Trip. She made star turns including Last Holiday, Just Right, Beauty Shop, and Bessie, and showcased her fabulous singing voice with musical roles in Living Out Loud, Chicago (for which she won a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting actress) Hairspray, The Wiz Live!, and her unforgettable portrayal of Ursula in The Little Mermaid Live!

It was both refreshing and inspiring when on a rainy day in late April, Queen Latifah announced her participation in the building of the RISE affordable housing project in Newark—her old stomping ground. As she took the stage in a light green ensemble with flowing, golden hair, her physical beauty matched her genuine humility and love for Newark. “I’m proud to be from here,” she said, name-checking friends and loved ones in the crowd and paying homage to jazz legend and Newark native Sarah Vaughan.

She expressed her faith and gratitude and acknowledged the involvement of a higher power in planning and executing the project. “We have been blessed to have God have His way over our lives and to put the right people in our paths and know that we can dream—not only dream, but bring those dreams to fruition. And we can set goals and accomplish those goals.” She said it would be “one uphill battle” from the start and added a rhetorical, “What’s new?”

There aren’t many who would be a better example of claiming victory in an uphill battle than Queen Latifah. Born in Newark, raised in East Orange, and educated in Irvington, Owens has seen more than her share of trials and tragedies. She lost her brother, Lancelot Owens Jr. in a motorcycle accident in 1992. She had gifted him the bike he was riding. She’s lost friends to gun violence and overcome stereotypes and outdated beauty standards to become one of the most celebrated and recognizable women from Newark over the last several decades.

The Owens family’s roots run deep throughout the Newark area. Queen Latifah recalled her grandfather’s long gone hardware store nearby the construction area and the parks where she played and ice-skated. Her father, Lancelot Owens Sr. served as a Newark police officer; her mother, Rita Owens, an art teacher. Visibly moved, she admitted her pleasure seeing many of her mother’s former students in attendance. “This is family,” she remarked.

Having accomplished so much in so many industries, It was both refreshing and inspiring when on a rainy day in late April, Queen Latifah announced her participation in the building of an affordable housing project in Newark—her old stomping ground. it is both impressive and heartwarming to see a celebrity of such magnitude not only claim her Newark roots, but return home with plans for community improvement. In March 2021, she received her COVID vaccination in Newark with hopes of inspiring others from her hometown to do the same. Knowing that Black communities were hard hit by COVID, particularly in Newark, she said, “We hear a lot of things in the media, they’re frightening; but to see someone in a hospital on a ventilator is much more frightening than what’s going to happen getting a shot in the arm that’s here to help our bodies fight this thing.” Good looking out on your part, Queen.

Now Latifah brings affordable housing to Newark with the intent to not only provide residents with somewhere to live but somewhere with “beauty.” She explained she had worked with the director of the Newark Museum, Linda C. Harrison, to create something residents and passersby would see rather than just a construction site. Instead, the fence surrounding the site is a work of art, featuring photographs and stories of local residents and celebrities—people who take pride in their community. “What’s important here for me and what’s always been important is that I can build something in this city I can live in—that Queen Latifah can live in, not just Dana.” She also gave a shoutout to a local resident for her simple act of love. “I’d also like to thank the lady across the street who planted the sunflowers because she cared about this piece of dirt,” she said. “So, what I want you to understand is there’s love in this city. There’s love in this community, the greater Newark area. There’s love from this mayor for the city. There’s love from this Owens family for the city.”

Currently, Latifah stars in The Equalizer on CBS-TV as the title character. With two successful seasons under its belt, the network recently renewed the show for two more. In The Equalizer, Latifah’s character, Robyn McCall, uses her skills to help those with nowhere else to turn—a kind of guardian angel and defender for those who cannot defend themselves. Perhaps it’s a bit of life imitating art or vice versa, but certainly having a homegirl like Dana “Queen Latifah” Owens on their side is a blessing for the people of Newark. Sounding like something her character might say, she declared, “To me Newark is ours. Newark is yours. And I don’t want people to think they can’t live in their own communities.”

As in everything she does, Latifah honors her late mother, Rita Owens, with this undertaking, and makes an appeal for others to join her. “I ask that you continue to support us as we try to build more in Newark and in the greater Newark area,” she said. “We want to see this area rise. ‘RISE’ is not just Rise Living. RISE is ‘Rita Is Seen Everywhere.’ RISE is ‘Rita Is Still Everywhere.’ There’s no way this would be possible if she were not still in the midst.”

In what can only be called a bit of fate, the day of the groundbreaking was also the 30th anniversary of Latifah’s brother’s death. After donning her hardhat and surrounded by press and well-wishers, Latifah had one more message for the people—her people. “What may seem like a dark situation can be turned into a positive,” she said, “So you may see dirt here, but you’re going to see beautiful apartments shortly. You’re going to see love that has been given to this property… I feel like this changes what might have been a sad day for me.” All hail the Queen.