At 47, Mary J Blige has been there and done that. She’s a seven times Grammy winner, but right now she’s being touted as a Best Supporting Actress contender for her work in Mudbound, an uncompromising look at racial prejudice in the American South. At her press conference for the film – I’ve interviewed her five times previously – she’s strong, formidable. And all embracing.
You’ve been singing for a quarter of a century. How did it all begin?
When I was seven years old, I sang the song Reunited by Peaches & Herb and I realised I could sing professionally, but it didn’t happen right away. I was already a teenager and I hadn’t gotten a deal yet. All my friends and some of my family members would show me off to people, and take me to stores and ask me to sing, and take me to people’s houses and ask me to sing.
So when did it finally happen?
When I was 16 or 17. My mother’s boyfriend was a co-worker of Jeff Red who had been signed by Uptown Records. I went to a karaoke machine (in a mall) and I made a tape. I sang Caught Up In The Rapture by Anita Baker. I gave the tape to my mother’s boyfriend. He took it to Jeff Red, and Jeff Red took it to Andre Harrell who was the CEO of Uptown Records. They came to my house in Yonkers and they heard me sing, but it took another two years before I was signed.
As a young artiste starting in the business, were you taken advantage of by unscrupulous record producers?
When I got into the music business, all I could do was sing. No one taught me what a contract meant or how to read through a contract. I had no preparation for that. I had no control over anything. I was being robbed, ripped off, lied to. But I didn’t care as long as I had my alcohol, my drugs, whatever, you name it.
As long as I had my supply, they could keep robbing me and telling me anything. I was pretty much trusting people that weren’t trustworthy. So you wind up signing your life away and then later on you have no money and you have nothing because they steal everything from you.
So how did you turn things around?
I realised I was going to die if I didn’t stop drinking. If I didn’t stop doing drugs, I was going to lose my career completely. My husband had come into my life at that point. He challenged me. He asked me these questions: “Why do you hate yourself? Why do you drink so much? Why? Why?” It drove me crazy to the point where I started to ask myself those questions, and the answers were always: “I don’t know.”
But then it happened that an artiste (R&B singer Aaliyah) who I admired died in a plane crash (in August 2001). It was a wake up call and I stopped cold turkey. I told myself I am not going to drink anymore. That accident changed my whole life completely.
When was the first time you realised you could be an actress?
When I did my first movie, it was an independent film called Prison Songs. But I had always wanted to be an actress. In elementary school, my music teacher Miss Sweeney would put me in plays, but it didn’t start happening until I actually got into the music business and realised I needed another way of expressing myself.
You still work with an acting coach. After five movies why do you think you still need one?
It’s something that I’ve always requested because I don’t believe I’m the greatest actress in the world. So I have to work at it. When people see my work, I want them to know that I’ve earned their respect.
You always have such a strong message of love and hope. Where does it come from?
From my mum. My mum was a single parent. I don’t want to go into the details of what she went through, but she’s been through a lot. In the neighbourhood we lived in, women were being abused really badly. And as a child when you see this, it affects you. It affected me. I didn’t want to see another woman suffer.
I said if I ever get a chance, at some point, I’m going to make sure my mother never suffers again, and every woman in the world that would listen to me never suffers again. I myself have been in relationships that were bad. So I’d say, it was my environment growing up that has inspired me to want to help other people.
Ending your marriage (to Kendu Isaacs) in 2016 after 13 years must have been painful. How are you coping with that?
Yeah, I’m dealing with a lot of challenges right now. But what I’m doing is allowing myself to be human. I cry, I scream, I do whatever I need to do to get through it. And then once I’m done with the emotional part of it, I go out into the world and I’m strong.
So you’ve started to love yourself?
Yeah, and it took me a long time to get there. I’ve made horrible people choices because I didn’t love myself, so I drew people to me that probably hated me more but hid it, and so it was, “Oh, yeah, Mary, knock yourself out. Drink yourself here. Do the drugs, do this, do that” which almost killed me. So now I make better people choices and I love Mary more.
What makes you happy?
Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is food. I love food. I love my girlfriends. I love to laugh. I love my sisters and going to dinner with my girlfriends. I love to see my family. I love when I do a good job. I love when I make people happy. What else? Shoes. I love a good pair of shoes. And just peace of mind, really being able to go home and have peace of mind.
Do you have a ritual you do before you go on stage?
My ritual is prayer. I pray and I sing to myself every single day, but especially before a show. I just need to be spiritually grounded so I can deal with any challenge.
What is your dream?
Well, my dream and my goal is to do what I have been doing through my music – to touch people and to uplift them and inspire them, and to encourage women to know that we are so much more important than they have pegged us to be. I can’t save the world, and I am not trying to, but I want to just hug people and reassure them that they are not alone. I have done that through my music throughout my career.
What is the best lesson you’ve learned?
That I have the power to make positive things or negative things happen to me. I have that power.