Early on, Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons embraced the idea of expanding hip-hop’s reach into fashion and TV. But Will Smith was one of the first performers to cross over into other areas of pop culture when, in 1990, he parlayed his Fresh Prince persona into a wildly popular TV series, which led to roles in blockbuster films such as Independence Day, Men in Black and Bad Boys.
The transition to TV and films was a smart move for Smith since hip-hop was developing a harder, grittier edge — the opposite of the fun-loving, party music he and DJ partner Jazzy Jeff were churning out. Earning Oscar nods for his performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness proved the rapper from Philly could do more than just talk the talk.
Now he and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, are raising the next generation of stars. Daughter Willow is finishing a debut album after releasing a few buzz-worthy singles, and son Jayden starred in the highly successful reboot of The Karate Kid.
Smith paved the way for Latifah, who branched out from rapping to reign over both TV (Living Single) and the big screen (Set It Off and Chicago, which earned her an Oscar nomination). Now Latifah is finding success as an executive producer for two TV shows — BET’s Let’s Stay Together and VH1’s Single Ladies.
Latifah knows none of it would have been possible without hip-hop. “I’m proud of everything I do, but I think I’m the most happy about becoming a rapper. It was my entrance into everything,” she told Parade.com. “That helped me get into acting. That’s a tough business for anyone to crack into, but having some marquee value already as a hip-hop artist helped me get into acting.”
Although she’s thankful to hip-hop, its failure to nurture and support female rappers will always be a sore point, and perhaps offers an explanation for why she moved away from the rap game. “We can’t just have one [female] rapper … the industry has gotten [terrible] in that sense by not supporting and making sure that our voices are heard. It just became so male-dominated. To me, hip-hop will never be right until female rappers have a stronger voice in it,” she said.