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But running the show is Zahir McGhee, a former Scandal writer who now finds himself leading a group of icons, wondering, "What is my f—ing life? How am I sitting here watching Brandy and Eve rap live? And Naturi, and then Nadine, in this thing that didn't exist?"
Below, the showrunner tells EW how he found his ideal cast, the rappers the show pays homage to, and what other stars will be popping up this season.
ABC/Kim Simms Eve, Brandy, Naturi Naughton, and Nadine Velazquez in 'Queens' on ABC.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did Queens come about? What inspired you to write it?
ZAHIR MCGHEE: It's a love of hip hop, number one. I'm from the east coast, I'm roughly the same age as the characters in the TV show, and I'm a Black guy, so hip hop has been the soundtrack of my life. And as someone who's getting older in life, I started to look at the Wu-Tang Clan and think, they're fathers and grandfathers… Hip hop is such a new genre, right? We don't have our Stevie Nicks's or Bob Dylan's or Paul McCartney's, right? So what does that start to look like? And I've just been such a huge fan of the women of hip hop for a long time, and just felt like what does Lil' Kim think about the resurgence of female hip hop, and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion?
So it was kind of born out of the nostalgia of my past, and also the idea of figuring out what you're doing with this second chance in life. And I think that was ultimately heightened with women in their 40s, and also heightened in the world of hip hop, which is such a young, genre-driven thing where people don't get the chance to age. And that's particularly the case with the women of hip hop. And then just like concerts I had gone to that I remember for the rest of my life and Swizz, our executive music producer, his Verzuz was actually an inspiration as well. Hearing all these old songs, I would connect with my old friends and [be] like, "I want to do that in a TV show." And oddly enough, this was an idea I had about four years ago and just kept passing over for things that felt more "serious" in a way, for lack of a better word at the time, and seemed like more integral to my life at that moment. And then during the pandemic, I was like, "I have to do this idea because I just know it's gonna be a lot of fun."
Did you write these parts for the cast that you got? Because you got quite the cast.
Not exactly. A version of the script was done at some point [last] September, I would say. And I wouldn't say that while I was writing it, I had that in mind, but I did know it was really important to me to have people who really did it.
The list of humans who are rappers, actors — who had been in TV shows, been in movies, had remained in the public eye — the list is like one, and that's Eve. So I picked up the phone, called her agent, and said, "Would she be at all interested in reading?" And then I sent the script to her and I knew I wanted her [for Brianna], but I allowed her to tell me which character she connected to. And she just talked about how she really connected with Brianna based on her real-life experiences. That's how it went down.
And then quickly after, Brandy; B7 had just come out, and there were a lot of profiles about her and where she was in her life, and I had already been thinking about her in the back of my head. And then I was like, "This feels too perfect." It feels like she's Naomi. So I called her, and she wanted to meet and was intent on meeting in person, so she was my first pandemic houseguest. I literally had not seen a single person for eight months, and then all of a sudden, Brandy's swinging my baby around in my backyard.
ABC/Annette Brown Eve, Brandy, Naturi Naughton, and Nadine Velazquez in 'Queens' on ABC.
Oh my God.
She was so lovely and so connected to Naomi. And it continued with Naturi with Jill, and Nadine as well. They just sort of gravitated towards the characters. We pulled Nadine out of a hotel in Dubai after she was skydiving, which is about the most Valeria thing you could do.
You can gather inspiration from each member, but there wasn't a popular female rap quartet from that Y2K era to compare the Queens to. Was that a purposeful choice to provide something new to that time period with this group?
It's funny because Eve and I talked about this quite a bit. Part of the fun and the fantasy of it for me is in the pitch, I would say, "What if Missy Elliott, Foxy Brown, Eve, and Lil' Kim were in a group together?" They should have been, but they weren't. So that is part of the fun fantasy of it all.
One of the weirdest sentences I've ever had to say is talking to Swizz and our lyricist about what are the comps for these rappers and then saying, "Well, Eve is a mix of Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim." That's just a weird sentence, right? Or Brandy is Rapsody. Every day is just a little bit more bizarre in trying to explain who these people are. So they are, in some ways, amalgams of lots of different artists. There's not anyone like Da Brat on the show, but Jill's story about coming out was very much inspired by Da Brat, who married her partner at the age of 46. So we pulled from a lot of different stories.
ABC/Kim Simms Naturi Naughton, Pepi Sonuga, Eve, Brandy, and Nadine Velazquez in 'Queens' on ABC.
Conversely, what went into developing Lil Muffin? There are a lot of new, relevant female artists to draw inspiration from.
It's partly my fascination. I don't know as much about hip hop today as I once did... [but] what I am incredibly excited about is [that] those artists have so much friggin' courage and freedom. I wouldn't get a diamond put in my head, but mad respect to the people who do it. Right now, there's such a wide breadth of artists. And I wanted to look at that. I wanted to be able to break down the business world and what that looks like, but then also see the character behind [it]. Megan Thee Stallion is this crazy superhero, and then you watch an Instagram Live where she's just around your house, and you're like, "She's just a young woman."
So that was fascinating to me, the duality of that character, and we have the duality of all of our characters as well. So they're all going through the same thing. And then having them together allowed us to examine what has changed about hip hop, and what hasn't changed, and for them to serve as a mentor, and also for this young person to serve as a mentor to them. There's a line in the second episode where Muffin is talking to Jill about coming out as a gay woman, and she says, "I don't even know why that's a big deal. It's 2021, everyone's a little gay." And I just love that character being able to say that to these women who are liberal themselves, but at the same time, they're not 24.
What else do you have in store for us this season? I know I'm particularly excited to see Cam'ron join the show.
That's going to be very early, in the second episode, so you won't have to wait too long for Cam'ron. We have a couple other guest stars coming through that are amazing and authentic. I mean, we have Cam'ron and Jadakiss on the show after that epic Verzuz a couple of months ago in New York City. Fivio Foreign, who is a young rapper that I'm absolutely obsessed with, is coming to the show, and there'll be plenty of other real people from the world who will both be contributing their amazing acting talents, and also music to the show. So Cam'ron is actually going to do a song with the ladies, and it's freaking incredible. The music just gets better and better every single week. I love "Nasty Girl," but you have no idea. And Brandy's going to do some original songs and some covers that are going to blow people's minds.
A little bit further into the season, you'll see some rappers playing characters in our show. But there's also going to be a pretty strong mix earlier in the season of people playing themselves. That being said, they are playing, to some degree, heightened versions of themselves. People will be very surprised about Jadakiss and what he does in our show because he's playing Jadakiss, but at the same time, it's a character; if Jadakiss had a secret life of some kind. And also, with the real people, we're blending them into our story, into the backstory. So we're saying that Cam'ron and our group had a song back in the year 2000. So if you're saying that, then we are in some ways in an alternate universe twisting the history of hip hop in a cool way.
ABC/Kim Simms Eve, Naturi Naughton, Brandy, and Nadine Velazquez say 'cheers' in 'Queens' on ABC.
I also can't wait to hear more about Brianna and Ja Rule's relationship.
We can't stop talking about it. I will say, there's the one scene that was cut from the script at one point, where she says that thing in the bar about "Do you remember what happened when you caught Ja Rule making out with Foxy Brown" — which is just a crazy sentence anyway — "and you set his Ducati on fire?" In the script, at one point, there was a cutaway in that moment to a driveway, a Ducati on fire, Ja Rule coming down in a robe being like, "What the f---?" And then cut to Brianna looking at it, and then driving away.
Wow, I hope to see that in the future.
I hope so too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.