There’s something about Mary. She’s been through it. Musically, Mary is a veteran. With a career spanning three decades, with over nine Grammy’s and twelve albums to her name, selling over 50 million and counting — you’ve gotta give credit where credit is due; Mary is a living legend. It’s not just her voice, her personal life is so closely connected with her music. Having experienced abuse, battled addiction, her music is etched with tales of pain and survival, her life has propelled Mary into this global fighter figure, with a voice – and message – which provides hope and inspiration to women and men alike.
My first memory of Mary J goes back to 2001, watching MTV, seeing Mary and her a-symmetric black and white bob cut, performing some energetic moves and singing “we don’t need no hateration”, for her Dr Dre produced hit, ‘Family Affair’. She’s almost hip-hop’s auntie. Referred to as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, the Bronx born and bred singer went from back-up singer, to solo artist, Grammy Award winner who has redefined modern soul. Since her debut album in 1992, Mary has steadily released albums and singles, all met with critical praise.
It’s been 15 years since the release of ‘Family Affair’, I meet with Mary in a snazzy central London hotel. Having performed in London, alongside fellow soul ledge Maxwell, as part of their joint King and Queens of Hearts tour, Mary is in good spirits. Wearing a grey polo jumper, with her hair in a blonde bob, I’m greeted with a firm handshake. “How are you Mary?” I ask – letting out a sort of exasperated sigh, she replies, “I’m doing OK, considering everything… I’m OK”.
Mary is going through the thick of it – both musically and personally. She’s in the midst of a very public divorce from her husband – and ex-manager – Kendu Isaacs. And, her latest Jazmine Sullivan co-written single, called ‘Thick Of It’ – is a raw ballad, kissing goodbye to a turbulent relationship. “Me and Jazmine came together at the right time for this song. She is one of my favourite artists I love her voice, her pen – the way she writes is perfect”.
Set to feature on her up and coming album, ‘Strength Of A Woman’, which includes a collab with Kanye West, the project is a musical box, containing some of Mary’s most saddest times. “Some of my darkest moments have been all over the news. I found myself being alone, yet surrounded by loads of people. I was ready to give up on life – having that feeling of suicide and not wanting to live as I didn’t know if I could make it”. It is clear Mary is very much in tune with her emotions and feelings, citing prayer as the only thing that gave her strength through her darkest moments: “Through prayer – I found strength in me – and just continuing to press through these hard times. Not just to survive in them, but to thrive and to come out better and having learned something. I had to call it [the album] ‘Strength Of A Woman’ – because it’s about the strength of me, the strength of this women. Like all the women who come to my concerts who say ‘you helped me’”.
Fans have been intrinsic to Mary’s longevity. They know her life inside out, they watch along with the masses as she goes through life’s highs and lows. This, in some way, is what has given Mary her staying power, her fans know her on a personal level, and it’s that which makes her so relatable to women worldwide: “Being transparent in my music has helped. Being transparent and loving and respecting my fans. When I released the ‘My Life’ album back in ‘94, and I started to speak, 4 million of my fans responded, that’s shown we started our relationship. There hasn’t been anything different since”. Having this two-way relationship with her fans, has allowed Mary to navigate her way through her pain and experiences, coming out on top. “This is the way we relate together, this is how I heal myself and we all heal together. This is something I believe I’m sent to do, obviously”.
It is a healing process; it’s the biggest form of communication and expression.
It is in that way you can say that music is catharsis for Mary. Her songs have seen her dive deep into the depths of her soul, to relive painful past memories, yet hold a sort of reconciliation, singing her way through the pain, and this was captured the most in her album ‘No More Drama’. Mary is very much aware of the medicinal value of her music: “It is a healing process; it’s the biggest form of communication and expression. It helps you heal and to get delivered from things and it’s definite therapeutic. It does everything and anything. It doesn’t just have to be mine. I can go to the songs from Stevie [Wonder] ‘In The Key Of Life’ album, to songs of songs of Jhene Aiko — if there’s medicine in it, you’ll get what you need out of it. Ever since I was a little girl, it always helped me to sing, and I always listened to music that helped me feel something”.
Mary is a firm believer in destiny, she believes she was born to sing, and that’s all part of her journey here on earth. But what would Mary J be like if she didn’t have the ups and downs of life? “If I didn’t have life experiences I would be singing. Nothing. I don’t know if you noticed, I go through hell in front of the whole world, if it’s positive it’s on the TV, if it’s negative it’s on the TV”.
Like most celebrities, their lives are put on blast in front of the globe. The internet has made that even easier. And while in the age of social media, it’s become a given for celeb’s lives to be under constant scrutiny. “They [paparazzi] should give us a bit more privacy, and get out of our hair and TMZ not to be in my business – but they don’t. You need to have tough skin, what are you going to believe? What they write about you, or what you know about yourself? That’s where self-love comes in. How social media is you can see anything and your feelings could be hurt all the time. Kids sit there with their phones and say fuck you, call you names – it’s just about being strong and not letting the negativity get to you. Having a shield of love for yourself – if you love yourself, none of that will get to you. You can’t let that bother your world and your love for yourself”.
It’s a huge job – it hurts like hell, but here I am again, with my business out and I hope how I come through it will help someone else.
And while recently, Mary has been in the spotlight, and been subjected to a few internet trolls, notably for her Burger King Commercial appearance. Her interview with Hillary Clinton for Apple Music show, ‘The 411’, left her subjected to online ridicule. And now her divorce demands being made public. “I don’t wanna be in front of the world getting a divorce, having my taxes in front of the world or doing a burger king commercial what people mock. It’s a huge job – it hurts like hell, but here I am again, with my business out, and I hope how I come through it will help someone else. But because I’m here – someone else could look at my situation and think hey I can get through what I’m going though”.
Musically though, Mary’s up and coming album, ‘Strength Of A Woman’ couldn’t arrive at a better time. Like other albums from females we’ve had this year (think Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ and Solange’s ‘A Seat At The Table’) women are becoming more vocal in their music about both their personal and national issues. “There’s a rise in women right now, women are standing up and speaking and saying – we’ve been speaking for years – but people are listening now for some reason. Maybe it’s to do with us potentially having a female president. Women are being heard now, and that wasn’t the case before – we’re speaking out and being heard. Now they want to hear us – no one wants these unfortunate things to happen, but where else will we put it? The only way you can help yourself is by helping others. When Beyoncé said what she said, it was like damn – who knew that she was feeling and thinking that… We’re listening and can relate”.
After a 25 year plus career, it’s hard to imagine there not being any Mary J Blige in music. She’s always been there. Having recently had a cameo appearance in Shonda Rimes’ show ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ (she’s also a huge ‘Power’ fan guys), Mary is planning to focus more on her acting in the future. “In 5 years – I’ll be making music, but not like how it is now, not so much. Hopefully the acting comes off and I’m doing well, retirement is in there. Just chillin’ – making money for me, I can sleep well and have different business – be comfortable – really comfortable”.
If I was to write to my younger self, I would say – Don’t be afraid of who you are. Don’t ever play yourself down to please people
As our time drew to a close, I had one last question for Mary. ‘What would you tell your younger self?’ After a career spanning a lifetime, lined with ups and downs I was curious to know if, or what Mary would change if she could. “I wouldn’t change anything. If I was to write to my younger self, I would say – Don’t be afraid of who you are. Don’t ever play yourself down to please people. Self-love is the key to everything… That’s what I would tell her. My biggest lesson, self-love and it’s something I still work on daily”.
Mary J Blige’s video for ‘Thick Of It’ is out now.