“I’ve kind of walked in those shoes throughout my career. I know what it is to start from the bottom, to be self-made, to create your own company, to gain success,” says Queen Latifah about the connection she felt to legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, whom she plays in the biopic “Bessie,” which premieres on HBO on May 16. Watch our complete video chat below.
Latifah adds, “I don’t think my ego ever got as out of control as Bessie’s did, but being humbled in different ways, getting up and dusting yourself off, partying too much and hanging out too much, sleeping with the wrong person maybe. All those things I’ve kind of been through. I’ve been through hurt, I’ve been through pain, and so I felt like I had more of a real place to speak from when playing her … Even being a fighter for other people, for women, for equality, for African-Americans.”
But Latifah “didn’t know anything really” about Smith before she was presented with the role. “I was 22 when this project first came to me. I got her boxed set and started listening to her music, and I thought, wow, this is completely different than what rapper-slash-actress Queen Latifah was doing. It was totally different than what I was used to listening to, but I could recognize the power of her voice and the uniqueness of it.”
Early on in her Grammy-winning music career, Latifah was best known as a hip-hop artist, but over the years, she has expanded her repertoire to jazz (“The Dana Owens Album” and the film “Living Out Loud”), musical theater (her Oscar-nominated turn in “Chicago”) and gospel (the film “Joyful Noise”).
She’s always had such myriad musical influences. “My father played nothing but jazz,” she says, “and then my mother played everything from gospel to rock and roll, to folk, to R&B, pop music … there was always music of different sorts around me, so when I became a hip-hop artist, I could not just do beats and rhymes, I need to put some jazz in there, put some salsa in there, put some reggae in there.”
Now she adds yet another musical style to her skill set by singing the blues in “Bessie.”
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