2016 was a tough one for Mary J Blige, with the year ending in the very public dissolution of her marriage to her manager and husband of 12 years, Kendu Issacs. But d.i.v.o.r.c.e won't break Blige; the singer and songwriter has learned valuable lessons over the course of her 45 years on planet Earth. MJB is the MVP of pain, heartbreak, and overcoming the odds. Blige has battled her way through a tormented childhood and turbulent teen years to become one of the pop's most treasured singers, working with anyone and everyone that interests her over the course of her 24-year career. She's hopped on tracks with both Biggie Smalls and Sam Smith, Disclosure and Drake. Blige counts everyone from Lil Kim to Elton John and the late, great George Michael as friends and collaborators. She's also a long-time advocate of HIV and AIDS awareness, and a frequent spokeswoman on domestic abuse.
The magic of Mary is her ability to pour her pain into every note and her willingness to share her world — the good and the bad, the pretty and the ugly. And it's been her savior, she says. As well as a hearty helping of self-love, Mary has found redemption through music since her childhood in the Bronx and Yonkers. "Hip-hop and R&B was how we survived; we survived through music." And it's through her music that millions of other young women have also sought salvation — all hail "Real Love," "Be Without You," "Everything," "No More Drama," "Not Gon' Cry," "I Love You," and "Family Affair." With her triumphant new single "Thick of It" harking back to the days of What's The 411, the Queen catches up with i-D to share some wise words.
Mary, [at the time of this interview] it's the close of 2016, a year that has been a tough one for many. But as we enter 2017, I wondered if you have some wise words for us all. I know you've had your struggles. How do you pick yourself up and dust yourself down?
I always say: if you don't have self-love, you don't have anything. You can't have friendships, you can't have any relationships, but most of all, you can't have a relationship with yourself. Self-love is really important; it breeds confidence, it makes you feel better about life. And it's a process, you know. I feel good about my life, I feel good about myself, but I had to learn that 'cause I doubted myself and I didn't love myself because I believed what someone else thought about me. Everything negative that someone has to say, you're gonna believe. And that's an exhausting way to live, to have to live for people that have got something horrible to say about you, and you believe that shit? No. So it's very important for you to love yourself because if you love yourself, you love the God in you. Every day is a process because it's being chipped away at by the negativity of the world. You need a foundation, a foundation that says, 'Ok this hair looks nice, but is it about this hair? Is it about these nails? No. It's about when I peel away all this stuff, who am I? Do I like me? Oh yeah, I do. I found a friend in myself.' I been doing this a long time, I done hated myself, believe me [laughs]. Forget all the negative things because the things I can't change, I can't do anything about. The things I can change, I can do something about; the things I can work on, I can work on. Whatever is me is me — the good, the bad, the ugly. It's all me. I love all of it. You understand what I'm saying?
You mention God. How do you encourage someone who might not be religious to find his or her own way?
Well, because it's not even about religion, it's about your spirit. Your spirit needs to be fed with positive things. I had to learn that my spirit needed to be fed with positive things and if I hang around with negative, critical, horrible people who are constantly saying 'You're not this, you're not that,' then I'm not gonna grow. Find some good in you; it's like a seed and it will grow if you keep watering it. For a long time, I was scared. Five years ago, Mary was very afraid of who she was. Afraid of my power, afraid to love myself, afraid to know myself because of what everyone else had to say. All you have is you. All you have is you. Can you look in the mirror and deal with you? It's easier said than done, but I've been doing this work for a very long time. I had to learn how to love myself.
You had a tough upbringing; how much did that environment impact your own identity as a young adult?
Environment plays a huge part. In your environment, if you're not surrounded by those things or you don't see them, it's not going to happen. As I got older, I had to make a choice. I hated thinking I was ugly, not good enough, I was sick of that feeling. You have to choose for yourself cos you may not see it in mom, you may not see it in dad. Those are the two biggest role models and at the end of the day, they can't make our choices for us. It took almost my whole lifetime being on this earth to say to say I like myself. If you don't love your life, people won't love your life for you. If you love your life, people will love your life with you.
How do you think you and your music have help to improve the lives of young women?
I think a lot of women I meet will relate directly to certain records. So I'll hear 'What's the 411 helped me get through college'. Or 'Not Gon' Cry helped me to get out of an abusive relationship'. "No More Drama" helped this little girl who was all mangled by a dog. Her mother told me a dog had bit her face and she had been an ugly mess for a long time. "No More Drama" came on in the car and her daughter said 'I want to live'. But as much as it's doing it for people that are listening to my music, it's doing it for me too, you know.
Who do you listen to when you're down and blue?
You know what's really crazy is that I go really silent — or I go old-skool. Stevie Wonder or the Jones Girls. I never go all the way female empowerment when I'm messed up. I just go silent [laughs]. I pray, I listen to gospel or hardcore R&B, something to take the edge off so I can think. I want to think about what I'm really going to do; I want to get to the core of it so I can really be free of it.
Your new single, "Thick of It," feels like a return to the 411/ My Love era. Hard-knock beats streaked with triumphant pain.
Oh wow, yeah. I wrote that with Jazmine Sullivan, she's one of my favorite singers, she's just so phenomenal. This chick don't even get the credit she deserves. And to write with her, it's a match made in heaven. The album was being written from the perspective of a woman trying to save her marriage, when I first started writing it. Then when I lost [the marriage], I didn't know I was going to lose it... you know? So lyrics changed, things changed... I wanted to work with Jazmine so I called her and we sat down and the chemistry was flowing. I knew I needed to work with her, but I didn't know all this shit was going to transpire with the divorce and everything. I didn't know this was going to happen.
So what direction has the album taken now that you're going through divorce?
Well, it's called Strength Of A Woman and there were songs being written while I was still in the marriage. I was writing a lot of this stuff… it was weird. It's written from the perspective of a woman who's had to save herself constantly, hence the title because I needed the strength for myself when there was nobody around, but everybody was around.
What do you mean?
Being surrounded by people and someone who you think is going to make sure you're ok, and then they don't. So you're in the midst of it all, going through all of this hell by yourself. It feels like you gon' die but, there's this strength in you that keeps you going, that picks you up, that makes you go out and do all your interviews with a smile while everybody's laughing at you, all over the world. Your business is all over the news, worldwide, shit, everybody's talking and laughing. But you're in this and you're alone. You're alone. You and God are the only ones that can save you. Your strength is the only thing that can save you. My strength, which comes from God, saved me. And that's why I called it Strength of a Woman.
I can't imagine going through a break-up so publicly.
It sucks that it's so public, you know. It sucks because you don't want it to be public but once you file, those courtrooms get it, and then those stupid tabloids who have offices in those courtrooms get it, and then it's everywhere and it's like 'Oh god.' Your stomach is hurting, you gotta hear this shit everyday. But it is what it is now. And then all the ugliness that this other person's coming out with… you're like, 'wow.' It's just too much. And that's not the first time it's happened. I had the Burger King thing happen and that was everywhere, the tax thing that happened, it was all over the frickin' news, the phone thing that happened, that was all over the frickin' news [laughs]. It's just… 'arrrghhhhh.'
Can you look at it like: 'this is just a part of my life I have to go through right now and soon it will pass'?
Yeah, absolutely. That's why I open my live show with [the news headlines], because it's where I am, in the thick of it. It's very hard. I'm strong. I am the strength of a woman right now. Recording the album, and performing it is the most therapeutic thing. Giving the energy out and getting it back, giving it out, getting it back from the fans. That's why I always say to them, 'you have no idea how much you mean to me,' because they really don't. We went through some times together; we have 12-something albums together under our belt, of life. So it's nothing but a celebration.
Why did you make music in the first place and why do you continue to make music today?
Because it's helping to save me. It's therapeutic. It helps me get out what I need to get out. And my fans, they need it as well. They need whatever I'm going through so that we can all heal together. It's medicine. Making music is medicine for me and putting it out there is medicine for the people. So it's therapeutic, it's healing. It's everything I need it to be.
What was the very first song you recorded?
The first time I recorded, man, was it called "Don't Go Away"? I was still living in the projects; I didn't have a deal or nothing yet. But these people believed in me, they had a studio in their house, I recorded the record and they were like [laughs] losing their minds over the record. That was definitely the first record I recorded. I felt like I had wings. Singing was something that always released me, even as a kid. Singing always made me feel like I could fly, I could heal; I had so much emotion when I sang and that went into the records.
What was the soundtrack in your house back then?
Soul. My mom was all soul, soul, soul: Aretha Franklin, Jackie Moore, Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, Betty Wright, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, the OJ's, the Spinners. My dad, when he was there, cos he was a funk band musician, he would play Parliament, Earth, Wind & Fire, Grateful Dead. Yeah, the Grateful Dead [laughs], he had a lot of shit going on! Kool & The Gang, B.T. Express...
When did you start to develop your own musical tastes?
The first song I really remember hearing was "Reunited" [Peaches and Herb], I was seven-years-old. I remember hearing that song, it made me feel so crazy. I was seven and that song made me feel like I needed to be in love and sing his part and her part. When I think about it now, I still feel the same way about that song. That's when I knew I wanted to sing. And then after that, we had hip-hop; we had the Funky Four + One More, then Eric B and Rakim came, and then EPMD and the Jungle Brothers. It was survival. Hip-hop and R&B was how we survived; through the music.
Did you go to gigs, parties, concerts as a kid?
My very first concert was New Edition and Al B.Sure — that was my very first concert. But we experienced music through block parties; they used to plug in the turntables in the parks and play music for the whole hood. We'd be out there dancing real hard, the DJ mixing up all our records so we experienced it like that.
Is there a song you wish you could have made?
It would be "Crazy In Love." That song is incredible. When I first heard it, the very first time, I thought, 'wow that's crazy.' That whole album was so great. Amerie had "1 Thing" with Rich Harrison too, but "Crazy In Love" — I wish that was my song.
You've worked with so many megastars. Who have you got the most from collaborating with most?
Elton was a lot of fun cos he's fun and he's like a real person! Meth was fun. When we recorded that record, that was a lot of fun. George Michael — he was too much fun. Such a nice person, so, so nice.
Who's your best pal in music?
Awww, I have a lot of great friends, so I can't say who is my best friend. I have a lot of family; Puffy is my family, that's my brother. Missy Elliot is one of my really good friends, [Lil] Kim and I always stay cool. I still have my friends from way back; Busta Rhymes is one of the most amazing friends I have in the music business, he's one of the nicest people. I have so many great friends so I'm going to stop there because I don't want to leave anyone out!
Mary will release 'Strength of a Woman' in February.
Text Hattie Collins