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Queen Latifah right at home making movies and music

LOS ANGELES — Queen Latifah seems to have flip-flopped from singer-who-moonlights-as-an-actor to movie-star-who-dabbles-in-music.

There's her Academy Awards nomination for supporting actress in the musical "Chicago," and her first big-screen lead role, in the comedy "Bringing Down the House," co-starring Steve Martin.

But Latifah hopes to return to musical mode later this spring with her first album in five years. The title, "First Love," says it all about how she views her career priorities.

"Publicly, I would probably seem like I'm more an actress now than singer," she said in an interview. "But personally, nah. I'm always going to be music first. It's just in my heart.

"When I'm not working, I make beats in songs as a hobby. Some people will pick up a book or a magazine, read or watch TV or go to the movies. I'll go in the studio in my house and just make a beat. Or get on the guitar and play the two strings that I can and come up with a melody. That's just what I do."

When choosing movie roles, Latifah, who turns 33 this month, is drawn to tuneful projects. She had a scene-stealing role in last year's hip-hop romance "Brown Sugar." And for "Bringing Down the House," on which she is also an executive producer, she contributed a song and recorded a bonus track for the CD soundtrack.

"Chicago" was a chance to emulate screen idols such as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye in musicals that Latifah, whose given name is Dana Owens, watched growing up in New Jersey.

Musicals were a welcome refuge for a girl whose parents divorced and whose tender nature prompted a cousin to nickname her "Latifah," an Arabic word meaning "sensitive" or "delicate."

"Once you start getting worldly enough, your mind develops enough for you to understand when your mother has that conversation about you being black, and that you're going to have to work twice as hard," Latifah said. "And that you're a female, so you're going to have to work twice as hard. And that there will be people who will come against you just on those two reasons, those two facts.

"That's a crushing thing to tell a kid. To introduce your child to the fact that you live in a world of racism is tough. So things like musicals were places you could escape to."

Latifah, who played "Chicago's" opportunistic prison matron, was the lone black acting nominee for this year's Oscars, after three black actors earned nominations last year. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington both won, the first time black actors swept the top acting prizes.

Some viewed Berry and Washington's wins as a sign that Hollywood finally was making a fair share of choice roles available to blacks. Others saw it as an aberration.

Latifah simply likes to think the best man and woman won.

"I looked at it as they both deserved those awards," she said. "But it's not the kind of thing I held on to, like, OK, we've made it. We've arrived.

"I think as long as there's racism in America, there's always going to be racism, period. As long as there's classism, then there's going to be classism across the board, which can translate into racism. I don't really look at it as everything has changed. I appreciate the nomination. I'm proud of what we did with 'Chicago.' So I'm just going to go and enjoy the moment, you know?"

Her ascent to Oscar-caliber performer began with church choir gigs and school plays as a child. Her wide musical influences included jazz, rock, soul, gospel, doowop and reggae, along with movie musicals.

She made her first mark as a rapper recording singles in her late teens, when she added "Queen" to her stage name. She was hunting for a tag to set her apart from the many rappers adopting the initials "M.C."

"Everybody was M.C. this, M.C. that, and I didn't want to be known as M.C. Latifah," she said. "I had kind of been kicking around 'Queen' because I thought all women should carry themselves as queens, and if they felt that way about themselves, they wouldn't go for half the things they do. They wouldn't allow people to just treat them any kind of way. And they would feel prideful, respected. So I was like, yeah, queen. That sounds good.

"My mother was like, 'Queen? Who the queen? You're 17. I'm the damn queen.' But she trusted me, and I stuck with it, and it worked."

With her Afrocentric garb and regal presence, Latifah launched her career with the album "All Hail the Queen" in 1989. Three more records followed in the '90s, and the single "U.N.I.T.Y." earned her a Grammy for best solo rap performance.

Emil Wilbekin of Vibe magazine calls her "one of the foremothers of female rap."

"A lot of her music was very motivational, very grass roots, and she really took on this whole role as . . . being this sort of Nubian queen, and being very strong," said Wilbekin. "I think she kind of represented real women, instead of the music-industry, cookie-cutter version of the female rapper."

She made her movie debut in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" in 1992, starred in the sitcom "Living Single" and was host of a syndicated TV talk show. Other movie credits include "Set It Off," in which she played a bank robber, and "Living Out Loud."

"I think 'Set It Off' really showed everyone a different side of Queen Latifah because she played a bad woman," Wilbekin said. "That was a real turning point for her because everyone thought of her as the big sister or the good friend."

Latifah also launched her own record label — among her first acts was the Grammy-winning rap group Naughty By Nature — and management company, Flavor Unit Entertainment. And she wrote the inspirational memoir "Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman."

In between, there were a couple of scrapes with the law. In 1996, she pleaded guilty to carrying a loaded firearm in a vehicle and driving without a valid license. In a separate case, she pleaded no contest in January to reckless driving. In both incidents, she was ordered to pay a fine and sentenced to probation.

In "Bringing Down the House," Latifah plays a brassy prison escapee who upends the life of an uptight attorney (Martin), whom she enlists to clear her name. She came onto the project early, helping to shape the script.

Her Oscar nomination caps a 10-year slow build to gain clout as an actress.

"I guess I've been putting in my work, and people have kind of been waking up slowly," she said. "Your little hand, you've got to keep knocking on them, knocking, knocking, knocking, till they finally say, 'What the hell is that?' and take a look."