Hip-hop is infused at the very heart of our culture. However, women’s stories have often been overlooked due to misogynist, sexism, and even ageism. With his new drama series Queens, writer-producer Zahir McGhee wanted to change that.
The musical drama follows now-defunct hip-hop 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 further her education and raise five children. Jill, aka Jill ‘Da Thrill (Naturi Naughton), has found community in her church but struggles with her sexuality. Finally, Valaria, aka Butter Pecan (Nadine Valquelz), paralleled the group’s success with her work as an actress and talk show host. When the opportunity to revive The Nasty B * tches presents itself, these four women confront their pasts to take control of their heritage.
With so much buzz surrounding the show, EBONY spoke with McGhee to learn about the show’s creation, its authentic cast of music legends, and all the magic that made his vision come to life.
“I was listening to Verzuz,” McGhee recalls. “It brought back all that nostalgia. I just wanted to do something really happy, triumphant and festive that reminds me of that Wu-Tang concert I attended in 1997 that changed my life.
A new generation of hip-hop artists now dominate, but McGhee was particularly keen to pay homage to the hip-hop generation and women of that era. “It was the hip hop era that I was going through, and I also felt like what these women were going through in their lives was something that I was going through,” said the Scandal the writer explained. “Women in 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 show 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 of the time who could act and who had kind of remained in the public eye. The people list is one or two, and Eve is like number one. And then Brandy seemed like an incredibly sensitive and incredibly talented artist from another world. I called her agent, who happens to be Eve’s agent, and I said, “What about Brandy?” I think musically, the fact that she started rapping is like the most surprising thing for everyone on the show. Very early on, Naturi came to us as someone who would be interested in participating in the series. I never thought of her because I assumed she must be alive in one of the Courtneys [Kemp]at 18 years old Power spin-offs, but it revolved around Jill. Then i met [Nadine], and she had just jumped from a plane in Dubai. And I said these are very Valeria things to do.
As a Shondaland writer, McGhee knows 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 assembled a team of 11 writers, nine of whom are women,” he said. “There is something authentic about the uniqueness of our show, which is having four women of color in the front and center.”
Although Queens center of the hip hop generation, McGhee knew it was imperative to reach out to artists of the present. He does this with Peppi Sonuga’s character, Lil ‘Muffin. “I think it was really important to represent the new generation of rappers,” he explained. “What excites me incredibly is their level of self-expression. I envy these young artists so much to be able to be artists. Like Lil Nas X being able to do whatever he wants. It’s amazing, and it shows so much growth in hip hop. Muffin is an amalgamation of these characters.
The realism of Queens extends far beyond the actors and their personal experiences. Swizz Beatz joined the group as executive music producer. Director Tim Story directed the first two episodes and Fatima Robinson choreographed the series. There are also guest roles of 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 go on and try to make this amazing, fun, authentic show that has something to say.”