When Mary J. Blige sings, your whole being feels it. Growing up, her music took me through emotions I never knew existed as a kid, but somehow I found myself belting out her notes trying to match her intensity.
When Blige started making a name for herself in the early ‘90s, I wasn’t even born yet, but her music is timeless. As a kid, I spent hours in front of our family desktop watching music videos of Mariah Carey, Keri Hilson, and of course Blige. I got caught up in the story of her “I Am” video, found the confidence to be myself while bumping “Just Fine” and almost lost my breath countless times holding out her notes in “Without You.” Blige’s music made me feel grown and now in my 20s, her songs put the negativity in life into perspective. Through her songs, I learned that my life is what I make of it as long as I understand my own strengths and weaknesses and in true New York fashion, I can handle anything that comes my way. The soul in her runs and relatable lyrics have continued to usher in the joys of summer cookouts, endless moments of puppy love, and serious reality checks.
This month on June 25, the queen of hip hop soul is detailing her life during the time of her album “My Life” in a documentary of the same name. As a celebration of the iconic album’s 25th anniversary, Blige performs songs from the album in between clips of testimonies from music powerhouses including Alicia Keys and Sean “Diddy” Combs. Along with making the soundtrack to our love life, the three-time Golden Globe nominated singer-songwriter has partnered with Gold Bond’s #ChampionYourSkin campaign to bring awareness to the lack of Black stunt women in the film industry. With the help of Diamond in the Raw, the Skin Champion Stunt Workshop will give much needed guidance to young Black women aspiring to get their shine in the stunt world.
To speak to the influential woman who’s used her gift of music to not only heal herself but her fans, nearly left me speechless.
Ahead, Blige explains her upcoming documentary, what she’s learned about herself over this past year, and how she sustains her relationship with fans from every generation.
R29Unbothered: What has your personal experience been working with stuntwomen and when did you realize the problems with the lack of diversity in that industry?
Mary J Blige: Well, I'm so happy to partner with Gold Bond and their ChampionYourSkin campaign to share my spotlight with a community of people that don't get recognized often and that is Black stuntwomen. I'm just happy to be a part of it because it's very rare. They barely get recognized. And, you know, as far as diversity in Hollywood, we have to do something. We all have to step up and do something. And it's extremely important to me because, as an actor, [you're] falling, you're shooting; all of these things that you can get hurt doing, and they take the fall for it. They take the pain for it and we need them. They're an extension of our greatness so what people think is great about us, they're an extension of that.
What have you heard from Black stuntwomen about how the industry should change?
MJB: What was crazy is when I heard Black stunt women are not being recognized in Hollywood, it was like, wow, I hadn’t even thought about it myself. Nobody ever thinks about Black stunt women. So it’s perfect for me to be involved because this is what we all need to be doing in Hollywood, just Black women in Hollywood standing up for this community.
The first time you performed at the Apollo you were singing background for Jeff Redd, then in ‘92 with Showtime At The Apollo, and now it’s come full circle. What does it mean to you to be inducted in the Apollo Theatre Walk of Fame alongside the greats Patti Labelle and Ella Fitzgerald?
MJB: Aw man, it means so much. I never thought in my lifetime that I would be getting any of these honors. I remember being a little girl growing up in the projects, jumping on the train to come to Harlem to shop, looking up at the chyron at who's going to be there and never thinking that I would. It wasn’t on my mind ever. And the first time I ended up on the Apollo stage, I was singing background for Jeff Redd, an artist on Uptown Records. So, I mean, it blows me away to be honored for so many things in my life now.
I remember being in middle school and holding out that long note in “Be Without You” without knowing a thing about real heartbreak; that’s a testament to how genuine your musical expression is. Did you know little girls like me were singing their hearts out to your adult heartbreak anthems?
MJB: Well, you know, that's interesting because when I was a little girl, I was singing my heart out to “I'm Going Down,” by Rose Royce, which is a song from a carwash soundtrack. I was five or seven years old. I don't even know why I was singing that song so hard. So, I understand because the expression was real. I really thought I was in love. I really thought I found somebody. That's why you feel like you really thought you found someone. You’re probably not even understanding your emotion, you’re just feeling how I felt.
Your documentary “My Life” comes out this month and in the trailer you mention how painful that part of your life was as you struggled with depression. What made you empowered enough to make music to cope with those emotions and to share them with other women?
MJB: I wasn't feeling empowered at all when I was writing songs and singing those songs. I was feeling like I needed help. I was crying. I was almost dying, and I needed to get it out. I needed an escape and singing for me was like an escape. It gave me wings, it gave me freedom. So, to write something that I could sing that can heal me, I didn't even know I was doing that. I was just writing because I was dying and I needed help.
You’ve said you don’t like your fans calling you "Auntie." Why is that and how has your relationship with your fans evolved over the years?
MJB: I love my fans, but I love myself more, and I don't let people just suck my life away from me. I don't let people just tell me what I'm supposed to do or tell me what they want me to do. Do what you want. But I'mma tell you how I feel. You can't make people stop calling you Auntie, but you can let people know that's how you feel. So I've never been the type to be afraid of my fans or afraid of people. I love y'all, but y'all not going to disrespect me. Y'all not gonna try to play me.
Have you explored anything new during this past year or learned something new about yourself?
MJB: Yeah, not a lot of positive things either, but it's good that I learned them so that I could fix them. I learned that I need some patience and lots of it. That's really one of the biggest things. And that's major. But I'm working on it. I've been working on it since the first quarantine, so I'm getting better.
Nice. It's definitely a work in process, it's all a journey.