By Michael A. Gonzales
In years past, when Mary J. Blige’s primary claim to fame was being known as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul signed to Uptown Records, she wasn’t above cursing out writers, sniffing coke in nightclub bathrooms, or stumbling drunk through music industry parties. Yet, in the eighteen years since the release of her triple-platinum debut What’s the 411 in 1992, the former wild child who came of age in Yonkers during the 1980s golden years of crack and rap, has transformed.
Though she grew up to win nine Grammy Awards, to write (and co-write) countless hit songs, and to make duets with Jay-Z, Bono, George Michael Elton John and Trey Songz, she still struggles with abuse issues from her childhood and the self-inflicted sorrow she put herself through as an adult. From drink to drugs to abusive men, she’s been down that rock ‘n’ soul road. However, as can be heard on Stronger With Each Tear, her ninth studio album, Mary J. Blige is still striving for strength in her music as well as her life.
Reflecting back, 2009 was a very good year for Mary. Beginning with her televised performance covering Bill Wither’s classic “Lean on Me” at We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration in February, she also co-starred in director Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself alongside Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson, launched her charity Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now (FFAWN), and contributed “I Can See in Color” to the controversial film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.
“You can feel Mary creatively turning herself inside out on that song,” says Precious executive producer Lisa Cortes. “Her contribution to the film is a heartfelt song that elevates the emotion of the scene. It was obvious to me that Mary took her own pain and put it into her art.”
Recently Soul Summer lunched with Mary J. Blige over steak and potatoes as she talked about past accomplishments, future projects, and the soul of Nina Simone.
Soul Summer: People often talk about how today soul music is lacking something special. What is your take on R&B in 2010?
Mary J. Blige: I feel like there is some real talent in the younger generation, but they don’t get the attention they deserve. Like Christie Michelle—why can’t we hear her voice on Hot 97 more? Somebody like Monica can really blow, but we don’t hear her enough. For the guys, I’d have to say Trey Songz.
SS: Who are you listening to now?
MJB: Have you heard the new Sade single? [Mary whistles impressively] She is not playing around.
SS: What was it like performing at the Obama Inauguration?
MJB: There was a point when I got nervous, but I looked over at Michelle Obama and she was looking at me like, ‘Girl, you better sing that song. We’re your fans too.’ I just couldn’t believe where I was.
SS: And it was cold that day.
MJB: It was brick [laughs], but it felt so good. Words can’t even express what I was going through.
SS: It’s only been a year, but President Obama is already facing some harsh criticisms, even from Black folks.
MJB: I think it’s unfair, because what Obama really did for us as a people is to show us how to get it ourselves, to show us that we’re responsible for ourselves. When we all moved, he was elected. That’s how powerful we are. Now, we have to continue to move like that for us to be our own ruler.
SS: You sang the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium the night New York won the World Series.
MJB: You know, I was born in the Bronx, but had never been to a baseball game; that was my first. I kept thinking, Here is this little Bronx girl now a woman, singing at the World Series. I knew we were going to win. It was a no-brainer. I felt so good and proud to be a New Yorker that night.
SS: The last time I saw you live, you and Jay-Z were on the “Heart of the City” tour. Can you talk a little bit about your friendship?
MJB: My experience with Jay-Z has always been positive. He is a friend and a brother; you have to respect someone that smart. He’s just a a good dude, a stand-up guy.
SS: I remember when Jay-Z had that beef with R. Kelly during their “Best of Both Worlds” tour. Kelly walked off mid-show at Madison Square Garden in 2004 and you left your seat to go onstage and perform with Jay. To me, that was real friendship.
MJB: When I saw the R. Kelly thing blow up I thought to myself, Jay doesn’t deserve this. He’s strong, he would’ve stayed up there by himself, but I wanted to be there for him.
SS: On stage, you seem to go to a special place when you’re performing.
MJB: Not sure where singing takes me, I just know that sometimes I’m not there; I feel like I’m soaring in a spiritual place. At the same time, I’m being very real.
SS: How do you define real?
MJB: When you’re being honest with yourself then everything you do will come across as real—no matter who likes it.
SS: What is the word on the Nina Simone film project?
MJB: It had gone away and started fizzling, but Lions Gate is going to get involved and it looks like it’s going to happen. I’m not making an official announcement, but it looks good. [pauses] I’m going to go so hard with an acting coach to do this film justice if I get it.
SS: What is it about Nina Simone that attracts you?
MJB: She was what I was on the My Life album, very dark and hardcore. There is something special in her voice and those songs. She was manic-depressive, but also educated. She was on pills, smoked weed, but she wasn’t afraid of anything.
SS: Your song “I Can See in Color,” from the film Precious is wonderful, but there has been a lot of backlash against the movie. What is your take on that?
MJB: Many people don’t understand the honesty of Precious and it scares them; anytime people don’t understand something, they usually start judging it. It’s a heavy movie, so people are freaking out. The same way we might not have understood Monster with Charlize Theron, but you still gave the movie a chance.
SS: I saw you on the Today Show recently singing Christmas carols and between songs I was surprised that after all these years in front of the camera, you still look kind of nervous.
MJB: It’s true; I’m a shy person. Even when doing interviews I’m thinking, I hope I’m getting this right. So, sometimes I just want to crawl under the table until its time to start singing. [Mary laughs]
SS: Must make life difficult when people constantly want to take your picture in public.
MJB: People have so much easy access to everything. There is no such thing as privacy anymore. Everything is on YouTube or something, so don’t do nothing stupid, because it will be on YouTube tomorrow.
SS: But, no matter how shy you might be, you still maintain, dare I say, a realness in your music and your life.
MJB: I don’t know how to do anything else. Don’t think I haven’t tried being that person, but it didn’t work for me. If I had to act like that person people call a superstar, I would feel like a fraud.
SS: If you could go back in time, what would today’s Mary tell young Mary?
MJB: I would tell her to get all the education she can get from people who are trying to give it to you. Don’t take things so personal, just get all the information and don’t worry about anything else. Stop worrying, believe in yourself and have faith.