Regal and Real: Mary J. Blige
BY KEVIN SESSUMS
She had me at “Excuse me.” I had been standing over to the side of the photography studio watching Mary J. Blige remain eerily calm at the center of a storm of stylists who were tugging at her, touching her, telling her how to stand to best showcase her body and the red gown with the showy train in which she was sheathed. They had certainly done their jobs. She looked like a million in her vermilion. I found myself so entranced by her self-possession, in fact, that I also found myself suddenly standing directly in her path when she came sweeping toward me to get to her dressing room to change into her next gown for one final photo. That was when instead of haughtily demanding that I move out of her way—or, more typically, relying on one of her minions to make me—she sweetly whispered, “Excuse me,” and, kicking off her heels, walked barefoot on by. We had yet to be introduced. I was just another interloper in her midst. But Mary J. Blige, the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” is, as the title attests, both regal and real.
Blige, 42, has been an indomitable force in the music business for more than two decades, ever since Sean “Diddy” Combs, her friend, mentor, and executive producer of her first album, took her under his professional wing. She has gone on to sell more than 50 million albums and is the only artist to have won Grammy Awards in four categories (R&B, Rap, Gospel, and Pop), having been nominated for the award 29 times, and winning nine.
She has also begun an acting career. She’s been in the requisite Tyler Perry movie and last fall completed the upcoming Lifetime Network film Betty and Coretta, about the widows of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., in which she stars as Dr. Betty Shabazz opposite Angela Bassett’s Coretta Scott King.
Married for the past nine years to Kendu Isaacs, Blige has come a long way from her troubled past. Born in the Bronx , the daughter of Thomas, a musician, and Cora, a nurse, she grew up in Yonkers, New York, where she attended the charismatic Pentecostal church.
It was a hardscrabble life. And yet she bears her emotional scars with dignity. After we were introduced, we curled up together on a sofa in the corner of the photo studio. As she sank into the cushions—giving the brim of her newsboy cap a jauntier tilt as she did so—we dug into just how hard-won such dignity has been for her. Blige, the artist, has always used “sampling” in her music; here’s a “sampling” of my conversation with Blige, the woman.
KEVIN SESSUMS: I can’t wait to see you channeling Betty Shabazz. She and Malcolm X had six daughters.
MARY J. BLIGE: Attallah, Qubilah, Ilyasah, Gamilah, Malikah, Malaak. There’s a lot of ’em.
KS: If they had had a seventh one they could have named her Synesthesia.
MJB: [Laughing] I have that condition, synesthesia. I see music in colors. That’s how my synesthesia plays out.
KS: I think a lot of Betty Shabazz’s empathetic—even wounded—dignity can be traced back to when she was the daughter of an unwed teenager herself back in Detroit. Can your empathy, your dignity, be traced back to your own wounded childhood?
MJB: I still have the child within me. She’s more around now than ever. She wasn’t around in the early days because I was pushing her back. I didn’t want anybody to hurt her.
KS: Somebody did hurt you. You were molested. I’ve written about my own molestation—though some people think those kinds of things should be kept to oneself.
MJB: Yes. That was very hard to deal with—my molestation—and sometimes I do go into that again. But I can’t do that so much anymore. That’s a prison.
KS: For so many of us your song “No More Drama” became a kind of key out of the prisons of our own pain—whether it was from abuse or molestation or drug addiction or alcoholism. You were preaching to us, Mary.
MJB: For me, it wasn’t preaching. For me, I was exorcizing demons. It’s extra hard for people like you and me because we want to be free and we speak about it.
KS: You’ve spoken openly about your addictions as well.
MJB: What I did was I chose to learn how to drink socially and it didn’t work. The test comes when you have to decide whether you’re drinking to be social or drinking to cover up something again. To cover up depression. To cover up guilt. Shame. Abandonment. All of that, man. Once I realized, “There you go again,” I had to stop. Whitney Houston’s death really affected me. Her death is another reason I stopped. I really do think I’m done. I looked at how that woman could not perform anymore.
KS: Were you afraid to do a more structured program of recovery because of your fame?
MJB: I don’t know why. But I didn’t want to go to rehab. I believe that anything man himself can do for me, God can do for me in a greater way. I decided to pray and to seek God on my own. I just stayed in The Word. And it worked.
KS: Do you consider yourself a born-again Christian?
KS: And yet you’ve come out in favor of same-sex marriage. A lot of people would say that is not compatible with your born-again Christianity.
MJB: I would say this to those people: I’m not God. God said not to judge anyone lest you be judged. That’s it. Who am I to point my finger? You’ve got to walk in love. To say you do not want people to be happy is so mean, so not me.
KS: And yet people do have some good reasons, as you have had, for not being happy. Poverty. Molestation. How old were you when you were molested?
MJB: I was 5. Mmmm ... yes. I was 5. I don’t want to go into the details. It’s something that hurt me really bad. I’m still the same way. When I open up to trust you, I trust you wholeheartedly. And then when you betray that trust, it closes me up.
KS: You become that 5-year-old again.
KS: What you carry around with you the rest of you life—I can only speak for myself here—is the complicity in your own molestation, how you are a participant in it. It goes way past guilt.
MJB: Right. You’re so right. And the quiet. The quiet. I always think about how quiet it all was. It was abnormally quiet. It was just quiet. And there are certain smells that... mmmm... well... someone was using this lotion on their hands an hour or so ago. I smelled this lotion and I had such a flashback about it all. It’s weird that we’d be talking about all this right now after me just having that flashback.
KS: Your voice—your music—could be looked upon as healing “the quiet” that was inflicted upon that 5-year-old little girl.
MJB: You know what else is weird? In my life—when I don’t have to work—I am quiet. That’s how I live. I’m by myself and I remain really quiet either reading or watching an old movie. I don’t really like too much noise around me.
KS: Well, there’s nothing noisier than a Grammy Awards show. What was winning your first Grammy in 1995 for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group like? Were you still using?
MJB: Back then? Shoot. When I got that Grammy I was high. Not at the Grammys I don’t think. But I was drinking like a crazy person. Still sniffing cocaine going in.
KS: Was winning your seventh and eighth Grammy more of a thrill than winning your first one? You were certainly cleaner.
MJB: Yeah, winning that one in 2007 was for a gospel duet named “Never Gonna Break My Faith” with Aretha Franklin. I mean, wow. Just to go up on that stage for that, I know it was God.
KS: I know we’ve talked a lot about God today. But I do have a pet peeve about these awards shows like the Grammys when folks get up and thank God for their wins. I think God has a lot more on Her plate than to worry about who’s going to win a damn Grammy award.
MJB: I think we have got to give God the glory. That’s just me. It’s not a cliché for me.
KS: Even when you were using were you a believer in God?
MJB: I loved God, but I didn’t love myself. When I would get really, really high and the daytime would come, I would feel like God was watching me. And that’s when I’d start to go into this panic thing. I remember one night I was soooooo high. And as I was trying to go to sleep there was this dream... mmmmm.... Gosh, man, I don’t know if I should be telling you all of this. But let me put it this way. I believe in God so much that I would not let the enemy win my soul. You know what I’m sayin’? God loves me no matter what. He loves me high. Sober. Gay. Straight. I can’t let the world tell me anything different. That’s how I survived, knowing He loved me no matter what. Because if I don’t believe that God loves me when I do wrong, I’m dead.
KS: There is a Langston Hughes poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, in which he writes,
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than
the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
What are the tributaries in your life that have flowed into your own river of soulfulness?
MJB: Life. That’s it. Life. You start from day one. And what we spoke about earlier—when I was 5 years old. That dark moment. That one dark moment. It only happened once, but after that there was so much else in my childhood that happened. So many dark moments—which all added up and that’s what sprung on the drug addiction, trying to numb it all with the drugs. The depression. The lack of love for myself. The lack of people loving you around you. The abandonment issues. Daddy not being there all the time. Mommy not knowing how to handle it all. Although she loves you, she abandons you at some point too. I’m not saying that to be down on my mom. She was just a cursed woman as well. There have been so many other dark moments that I can’t even talk about. I have given the world so much and even in the middle of all that stuff there has been so much shit going on. It was all those tributaries that gave me such deep soul. But it is those same things that now have taught me how to be strong. In the past those were the same things that were killing me. But I made it out. I made it out.
KS: You certainly have. Not only are you costarring with one of the greatest actresses of our time, Angela Bassett, in Betty and Coretta, but you are an executive producer on the film.
MJB: You have to move forward. If Betty had not moved forward, Malcolm X would have died and that would have been it. I didn’t even realize that she and Coretta had been friends. Women never get a chance to have their stories told when there are important men involved. That’s what drew me to the part.
KS: After losing Malcolm to assassination, Betty herself died tragically after her troubled grandson set fire to her apartment. There was so much forgiveness in her life’s story. There’s so much forgiveness in yours, too, Mary. Have you finally forgiven yourself as well?
MJB: Yes. I have. Just lately I have been saying that to myself a lot. “I forgive you, Mary. I forgive you.” I’ve been saying that to myself out loud. I’ve been praying to God to show me how to forgive myself. Because… maybe… that’s the thing I’ve been searching for.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREW ECCLES; Styling by Jocelyn Goldstein at Margaret Maldonado Agency; Hair by Larry Sims for kenbarboza.com; Makeup by Janice Kinjo for Make Up For Ever/Epiphany Artist Group Inc.; Manicure by Dawn Sterling at Melbourne Artists Management using Chanel
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.