By Jem Aswad
The transition from music to acting has been a bridge too far for many musicians, but Mary J. Blige isn’t just any singer. She brought multiple talents and skills to the daunting role of Florence Jackson in Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” the story of a sharecropper’s wife trying to raise her family in the Jim Crow-era South.
Blige had acted professionally before, appearing opposite Tom Cruise in the hair-metal musical “Rock of Ages” in 2012, channeling the Wicked Witch of the West as Evillene in a live production of “The Wiz,” and even played Dr. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s wife, opposite Angela Bassett in the TV movie “Betty & Coretta.”
Of course, channeling emotion is an essential element of singing, and as a vocalist, Blige, who is receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Jan. 11, is practically without peer: For more than a quarter-century, over a dozen-odd studio albums, nine Grammy Awards, duets with artists ranging from George Michael and Lauryn Hill to U2 and Kendrick Lamar, the “Queen of Hip-Hop-Soul” has been lauded as one of the greatest vocalists of her generation, with a delivery as heart-wrenching, powerful, human and occasionally imperfect as her sculpted face with its mysterious scar.
And in a way that has sometimes overshadowed her formidable singing ability, she’s long been viewed as an icon and a public symbol of strength over adversity to her millions of fans, overcoming a rough upbringing in the projects of Yonkers, N.Y., and series of rocky love affairs, friendships, business relationships and, most recently, a divorce in a seemingly never-ending search for happiness and self-love.
All of those attributes and challenges came together on the morning of Dec. 11, when the singer joined the rarified pantheon of artists nominated for both a supporting actress and song Golden Globe Award for her work in “Mudbound” — a group that includes Barbra Streisand (the only person ever to win both), Dolly Parton, Beyonce, Bjork and Neil Diamond. That distinction doesn’t only reflect double-threat talents or actor-singers who had exceptionally good years; it shows artists in career-defining roles, or at least ones that suited them perfectly — Streisand in “A Star Is Born,” Diamond in “The Jazz Singer,” Bjork in “Dancer in the Dark,” Beyonce in “Dreamgirls.” Just days later, Blige received a supporting actress nom for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, along with an ensemble nomination for the cast.
“We knew it was important when we were making it, but nobody expected this [reaction],” Blige says in the café of the Lotte New York Palace Hotel, clad in dark jeans, knee-high spike-heeled boots and a black sweater with a cool gold pattern. “It’s wonderful to be recognized in this way as an actress — and to be nominated for [the song] ‘Mighty River’ was a blessing. The message of how love can conquer hate is what inspired the lyrics. Singing is my therapy, but now acting is a part of that therapy as well, so I hope to continue to do both.”
The film serves as both a fitting culmination of Blige’s story so far, and a reinvention for the next act of her career. Neither the setting nor the character of the film were a stretch for her.
“My mom is a Southern woman and she used to send us [to Georgia] every summer when we were kids,” Blige says. “Florence is my grandmother, my aunt — I know this character.”
Referencing a graphic scene from the film, she adds, “I remember they used to kill the chickens right in front of us, the cows, too. One time my aunt cut a chicken’s head off and it ran at me! I was terrified — I think it scarred me. But I know this character. These women were reserved and respectful, but when they spoke, the men would listen!”
Yet becoming Florence was no easy feat. Rees forced the famously glamorous Blige, who’d performed with longtime friend Sean “Diddy” Combs at the Bad Boy Records reunion concert just before filming started, to strip away the artifice of her life to get to the essence of her character.
“I was in my full Mary J. Blige: blonde wig and nails out to here, and Dee was just like ‘No!’,” she laughs. “I didn’t wanna strip down because I was afraid.”
“She doesn’t need that!” Rees says with a laugh. “Mary is beautiful without nails and lashes and wigs. She has such an inner beauty, and I knew from her music that she has a deep empathy and a deep inner vulnerability. Florence is not a character who says exactly what’s on her mind, and to have an actress who can embody that and do a lot with a look — Mary can create empathy in a stadium full of thousands of people, so I knew she could do even more on the screen.”
But then came an even steeper challenge: a global superstar having to dig deep and learn new disciplines in the heat of the Louisiana summer, away from the comforts and stability she’s known for decades.
Blige, characteristically, acknowledges and downplays the challenge. “I just pushed past all the fear and insecurity and did what I had to do,” she says. “It was all hard — the weather, mosquitos everywhere, mud everywhere, and I’m there with Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke and Jason Mitchell and Jonathan Banks. I was nervous, but the intimidation, just like the fear, pushed me to step up.
“Definitely, it’s always challenging,” she continues. “But the people I worked with were so professional. Dee knew exactly what she wanted, so it was easy to learn from her every day because she knows who she is. She kept saying, ‘You’re doing great, you’re doing great,’ and I’m like, [humbly], ‘Me? I’m doing great?’ Even when things felt really hard, she was like, ‘You got it!’”
And in so doing, it brought her back to the place she came from and the disadvantages she’s had to overcome. She was born in the Bronx, where Blige’s father abandoned the family when she was young. Her mother moved the young Mary and her sister to the tough Schlobohm projects in Yonkers. Blige later revealed that she was sexually abused by a family friend when she was just 5 years old — a traumatic experience she did not speak about for years.
“I try to push through it all,” she says. “I have a lot of [self-]doubt because there’s been a lot of hurt, since I was a little girl. But I keep fighting for my life, and even if doubt is the first thing that comes, I’m gonna beat it.”
Famously, her big break came when, as a 17-year-old, she sang a cover of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” in a recording booth at the Galleria Mall in White Plains, N.Y. The tape found its way to Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell, who presciently teamed Blige with a fast-rising young A&R executive named Sean Combs — yes, Diddy. He understood Blige and her background, and also the way that she could speak to their generation. The result, “What’s the 411?,” released in July 1992, was a groundbreaking album that not only defined its era, it created a hip-hop-soul template that resonates to this day with such artists as current Blige favorites Anderson.Paak and Bryson Tiller. It combined the soul records that Blige grew up on — Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Roy Ayers, Aretha, Baker — with the hip-hop that was spawned just blocks from her Bronx birthplace. The album has since been certified triple platinum.
Yet as pioneering as “411” was, it was the follow-up, 1994’s “My Life,” that Blige credits with setting the template for her career.
“ ‘My Life’ is my favorite, actually,” she says. “Because it’s from a really dark time — and I’m here to tell the story. Those songs were written from a place where I was crying out for help. I was writing songs to heal myself. And that’s where all this started: 4 million fans, that I didn’t know I had, bought the album. I didn’t know so many women were suffering like I was suffering.”
A “Behind the Music”-type tale ensued (in fact, Blige’s episode of the VH1 series is one of its best) whereby the singer’s health deteriorated as her star rose rapidly. Her fourth album, 1999’s “Mary,” found Blige consolidating her rise to the top echelon of the pop world via collaborations with Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Eric Clapton, Elton John, George Michael and her former fiancée, K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci; 2001’s “No More Drama” featured the Dr. Dre-helmed “Family Affair,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks — the biggest hit of her career to date. After she embraced recovery, she began a long personal and professional relationship with Kendu Isaacs, who became not only her manager and co-producer but also her husband. Two years after their wedding in 2003, Blige released the album she (and many fans) rate among her best: “The Breakthrough.”
“My albums always start with the title — and I titled that one ‘The Breakthrough’ before I’d even started,” she says. “I got stuck and hit a ceiling, and I was like ‘I’ve gotta get through this,’ and I did.”
Yet the lyrics of her two more recent albums, “The London Sessions” and “Strength of a Woman,” showed dark clouds gathering. The marriage unraveled and Blige filed for divorce in 2016 amid ugly accusations of infidelity and financial impropriety that continue to play out in court and the gossip pages. When Blige is asked about the life experiences she brought to the role of Florence, she often says vaguely, “I’m going through a lot of stuff.” One can assume she primarily means her divorce from Isaacs.
“Oh, it’s horrible,” she says. “But I believe the terrible things we go through are not there for us to sit and sulk — although we sometimes do. I’m pressing through. It’s hard, but I just can’t break down in front of the whole world, like, ‘Oh god.’” She moans comically, then laughs. “This is a bigger message — this is not about me, this is too nasty and ugly for it to be just about me and my divorce. This is about somebody else who needs to know how to get through theirs — ‘How is she gonna come out the other side of this?’ This is bigger than me.”
Asked if it’s difficult to live life in public to such a degree, she offers: “It is a responsibility, but I never make it overwhelming because I’m not going to be perfect — I’m going to mess up in front of the world. I’m a human being and it’s not always gonna be pretty.”
A Life in Song: Mary J. Blige’s Five Favorite Songs to Sing
The discography in Mary J. Blige’s Wikipedia page lists 13 studio albums, 83 singles and no less than five greatest-hits or remix albums — and that’s just her core catalog. There are also soundtrack songs, B-sides, live performances, Japanese- and iTunes-only bonus tracks and loads more, adding up to several hundred songs from a quarter-century’s worth of studio and concert work by a workaholic singer — with more to come, since a new album is in the works. Rather than attempting the futile task of compiling a definitive playlist, we asked Blige which songs are her favorites to sing. She quickly obliged, but did not elaborate (so we did, below). And lest this list give the impression that she’s focused on her early career, the albums she listed as her favorites run the gamut: Her first two, “What’s the 411?” and “My Life,” as well as 2005’s tour de force “The Breakthrough” and her two most recent ones, 2014’s “London Sessions” and 2017’s “Strength of a Woman.”
“My Life” — It’s not hard to imagine why she listed this one first: It’s the title track of the triple-platinum 1994 album she says is her favorite, the one that built the bond with the audience that rides with her to this day, and it samples Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” a song Blige says she was obsessed with as a young child. It’s not only a concert staple but a song she re-recorded in 2006 — and she even released a “My Life II” album in 2011.
“Real Love” — For some, that bouncy piano riff is all they need to hear and it’s the fall of 1992 all over again and the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul is a sassy 21-year-old who’s changing the sound of R&B music. “Real Love” was Blige’s first Top 10 hit, the song that truly put her on the map, and one she nearly always performs live — the last time we saw her she opened with it, and the crowd nearly collapsed in a collective swoon.
“Reminisce” — The first song on her 1992 debut “What’s the 411?,” the song is a musical manifesto for the career that’s followed: a then-unprecedented combination of hip-hop beats, a gospel-inspired chorus, and one of the century’s most soulful singers soaring over the melody. Thematically, it’s just as much of a template for everything that came after: reminiscing about a love lost, and contemplating reviving it: “Let’s make the time tonight/ The feeling’s oh so right/ Reminisce on the love we had.”
“I Can Love You” —From 1997’s “Share My World,” the Rodney Jerkins-helmed song ushers in Blige’s glamorous era, when she set aside the street wear for top-shelf designer wear — and her music underwent a similar stylistic upgrade. The sumptuous harmonies and vocalizing got an additional (but not excessive) layer of polish, and a rap from Lil Kim keeps things on street level.
“Don’t Mind” — A later track from her 2011 album “My Life II,” the song isn’t just a vocal tour de force, its lyrics also express an uninhibitedness rarely seen in Blige songs: “I don’t mind saying I love you.” (The less said about the song’s controversial appearance in a Burger King ad, which mortified Blige and was quickly withdrawn, the better.)