Hip-hop is infused within the very core of our culture. However, women's stories have often been overlooked due to misogynoir, sexism, and even ageism. With his new drama series Queens, writer-producer Zahir McGhee wanted to change that.
The musical drama follows the now-defunct hiphop group The Nasty B*tches two decades after their explosive and very public split. Naomi, aka Xplicit Lyrics (Brandy Norwood), has never stopped chasing fame, even at the expense of her relationship with her teenage daughter. Brianna, aka Professor Sex (Eve), stepped away from the spotlight to pursue academics and raise five children. Jill, aka Jill 'Da Thrill (Naturi Naughton), has found a community at her church but struggles with her sexuality. Finally, Valaria, aka Butter Pecan (Nadine Valquelz), has paralleled the group's success into her work as an actress and talk show host. When an opportunity to revive The Nasty B*tches comes to the forefront, these four women confront their past to take control of their legacy.
With so much buzz surrounding the show, EBONY sat down with McGhee to get the lowdown on the show's creation, his authentic casting of music legends, and all the magic that went behind making his vision come to life.
"I was listening to Verzuz," McGhee remembered. "It was bringing back all this nostalgia. I just wanted to do something really joyous and triumphant and celebratory that reminded me of that Wu-Tang concert I went to in 1997 that changed my life."
A new generation of hip hop artists dominates now, but McGhee was particular about paying homage to the hip-hop generation and the women of that era. "It was the time in hip hop that I knew, and also I felt like what these women are going through in their lives was something I was going through," the Scandal writer explained. "The women of hiphop were underserved and underutilized. I just felt like women in hip hop were inherently more interesting and more complicated."
Once McGhee formed the world of Queens on the page, he knew he needed the perfect cast to bring the series to life. "It was just sort of divine," he explained. "I wanted two of the four people to actually be artists. I started to think about the list of human beings from the era who could act, and had somehow remained in the public eye. The list of people is one or two, and Eve is like number one. And then Brandy seemed like such an amazingly sensitive, insanely otherworldly talented artist. I called her agent, who happens to be Eve's agent, and I said, 'What about Brandy?' I think just from a musical standpoint, the fact that she got to rap, that's like the most surprising thing for everyone on the show. Early on, Naturi came to us as someone who would be interested in being in the show. I’d just never thought about her because I assumed she had to be alive in one of Courtney [Kemp]'s 18 Power spin-offs, but she gravitated toward Jill. Then I met [Nadine], and she had just jumped out of a plane in Dubai. And I said that those are very Valeria things to do."
As a Shondaland writer, McGhee knows firsthand how to write fully-formed female characters who are the heroes of their own stories. However, there is nothing like the lived experience. "We're open here as writers, and we've put together a staff of 11 writers, and nine of them are women,” he said. “There is something authentic to the uniqueness of our show, which is having four women of color front and center."
Though Queens centers the hip hop generation, McGhee knew it was imperative to extend a hand to artists of the present. He does so with Pepi Sonuga's character Lil' Muffin. "I think it was really important to represent the new generation of rappers," he explained. "What I'm incredibly into is their level of self-expression. I am so envious of these young artists being able to be artists. Like Lil Nas X being able to do whatever he wants. That is incredible, and it shows so much growth in hip hop. Muffin is an amalgam of those characters."
The realism of Queens extends well beyond the cast and their personal experiences. Swizz Beatz has come aboard as an executive music producer. Director Tim Story helmed the first two episodes, and Fatima Robinson choreographed the series. There are also guest roles from Jadakiss, Cam'ron, and countless other familiar faces. "I wanted to continue to populate the world with as many real people as possible," McGhee explained. "We're just going to keep going and try to make this amazing, fun, authentic show that has something to say."