Queen Latifah received the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard's Hutchins Center for African & African American Research

By Megan Johnson
October 23, 2019 05:30 PM

From her hometown of Newark, New Jersey to Harvard University, Queen Latifah says she’ll never forget where she came from.

The Girls Trip star and hip hop pioneer headed to Sanders Theatre at Harvard on Tuesday afternoon to receive the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, which presents the honor to those who have made contributions to black history and black culture.

“New Jersey in the building!” Latifah said as she took the stage, looking stylish in a blue suit and black blouse. “I feel so honored to be up here and among such great people who’ve done such accomplished things.”

Though she moves between entertainment, philanthropy, and several other industries these days, Latifah shared that it wasn’t always a seamless transition. In her early days of pushing her way into the industry, she was told she would never make it.

“Crossing over from rap to film, the people at our agency told my partner I could never be an A-list artist,” said Latifah, pointing out her longtime business partner Shakim Compere in the audience. “Wrong thing to tell him. He was determined to make sure I became an A-list actress.”

Latifah credits people like Compere with keeping her down-to-earth. “How could she remain humble after all these years? I keep my feet on solid ground, and know who I am, because I have real people around me. Who love me, and smack my head when I do bad things, and pat me on the back when I do well, and I appreciate that.”

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Queen Latifah
Credit: Paul Marotta/Getty

And while she did go on to win both a Grammy and an Oscar, Latifah shared that the challenges didn’t stop there. Sometimes, the stress becomes so significant that she steps outside to scream.

“I get in the backyard sometimes and I scream ‘Fight! Fight Fight!’” Latifah told the audience. “Thats me fighting for my life. Fighting against drugs and alcohol. Fighting against mental illness, fighting against racism, sexism, all of it. You’re gonna have to fight.”

She closed her speech by telling the audience, which had many students from area high schools, that they can achieve their dreams — but only if they’re willing to do the work.

“I want to speak to all of you students out here, and let you know that you can be whatever you want to be if you put your mind to it, and you will have to work hard for it. Just understand that there will be times when you will have to stand alone. There will be nobody else that will believe in your dream. They will think you are out of your mind. You have to be strong, and be courageous, and know that if you believe in it, it’s gonna happen. Don’t give up. Do not give up. Do not quit. Fight for it.”

Other honorees included poet Rita Dove and billionaire Robert F. Smith, who announced back in May that he would pay off the educational debt for every Morehouse College class of 2019 student.