Mary J. Blige Transformed Her Pain Into the Sound of an Era. Her Joy Sounds Just as Good.

We didn’t think hip-hop would ever make it to 50 years,” Mary J. Blige says definitively. Across our late-summer conversation about hip-hop, healing, and staying in the present, Blige’s voice is suffused with characteristic sincerity. “We thought it was gone be done, the way people were trying to cancel it and parents weren’t trying to hear it,” she says. “So it’s just a blessing and a miracle that it’s still around. And I feel good that I’m at the forefront of that, being the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul and R&B.”

Here, at the half-century mark for hip-hop, Mary J. Blige, 52, the woman who gave the genre its soul, is living life in the sunshine. The woman who invented honey blonde hair on honey brown skin has earned nine Grammy Awards and dozens more nominations, netted Academy Awards nods for music and acting, and sold 50 million units in music sales. Thousands of iterative moments from a life of exceptional promise and pain, and some extraordinary successes, are the roses and stones that have brought Blige to this hard-fought “now.”

Prabal Gurung bodysuit and skirt. Ariana Boussard-Reifel bracelets. Alexis Bittar earrings, ring. L’Enchanteur ring. Gianvito Rossi shoes.

And as we absolutely expect a girl from Yonkers, New York, to be, Blige is entrepreneurial too. She sells wine (Sun Goddess) and hoop earrings (the Sister Love collection, in collaboration with jewelry designer Simone I. Smith). In the spring, her annual, free Strength of a Woman Festival and Summit presented a “hip-hop at 50” celebration in Atlanta. This fall she rereleased her Christmas album, A Mary Christmas. In every arena, Blige is flowing.

“This is not an overnight success,” Blige says, especially animated, a preacherly quality to her delivery that is revelatory of the human spirit: persevering, triumphant, sometimes cast down but never destroyed. “This is not an easy thing, this new me, this new Mary. This is hard work. When you’re happy and you’re strong, and you’ve been…[as] miserable as I’ve been in life and went through as much hell, it’s easy to revert back to the residue. It’s easy to revert back to the past because that’s what you knew. Because you know the pain of the past will always try to pull you back.”

There’s always a Southern summer or two in the background of remarkable artists, and Mary J. Blige has several. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Blige, born in 1971, and her sister LaTonya spent the hot months between the care of maternal and paternal grandparents off Highway 17 in Fleming and Richmond Hill, Georgia. The setting was a sharp contrast to the eight-story, eight-building Schlobohm Houses in Yonkers, New York, where Blige and her sister moved with their mother after their parents’ divorce.

Dundas coat and knit leotard. Simone I. Smith Sister Love earrings. Alexis Bittar bracelets. Giuseppe Zanotti boots.

“We were like, ‘We don’t wanna go down South anymore.’ We were tired of it,” she says, giggling.

“But it was fun though,” she continues. “Our Southern upbringing gave us a lot of the manners that we have—‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘ma’am.’ Because everybody up here was like ‘Hunh?’ and things like that to their mom. But we have to say, ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, ma’am,’ and ‘Thank you, ma’am’ and all that stuff.

The Southern rearing endured beyond etiquette, as the sisters found their first set of collaborators. “They were church girls, and they became our play cousins,” Blige says. “And so we started going to church with them and we made our own church thing. We went to sing, we went to eat candy, and we were just going to laugh. But we were really going to sing.” With these play cousins, Mary would tinker on the piano and compose her own church songs, including “Bubbling,” a song about God bubbling in their souls.

“Don’t make me sing it right now,” she implores.

“Y’all need to drop this!” I nearly yell back. “Y’all got to get back together. The young people need to hear God bubbling in their soul today!” I tell her. She laughs, covering her face, but I am dead-ass serious.

Burberry coat. Dinosaur Designs earrings. L’enchanteur ring.

The South was a respite, but there were also difficult memories of her time coming of age. Blige has discussed her experience of childhood sexual abuse and the trauma that remains. Vanessa Roth’s Mary J. Blige’s My Life documentary, which premiered in 2021, deploys moving, color-filled animated sequences of little-girl, teenage, and young adult Mary that gently capture the light moments of her life as well as the shadows. I ask Blige about her grandparents again, about their prayers for her during that time.

“I believe it was [their prayers] that definitely covered us, and still to this day,” she replies. “Their prayers is what we are living in.”

Blige was 19 when their prayers began to unfold. That year Uptown Records founder André Harrell came to hear her sing at the Yonkers apartment, after listening to a demo tape of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” that Blige had made at the mall. In the documentary, she says, “All I can remember is [Harrell], and what I had to do. Because I zone everything out to sing.”

Signed on the spot to Uptown Records, Blige became the sound, look, and driving force of a new era in hip-hop and R&B. Produced by Sean “Diddy” Combs, her first album, 1992’s What’s the 411?, was a proclamation: new sound, new energy, new style, new spirit. It was a natural lane for Blige, who had grown up in the culture’s birthplace, with hip-hop as both sound and experience. “When I became a teenager, it was all about hip-hop for me, and it was all about R&B for me,” she says. “So that’s been in my soul and in my life all the way until now.”

But it was My Life, Blige’s sophomore album, that compellingly declared her strength and laid a definitive foundation for a hip-hop that was in its young adult phase in 1994. Through her voice and energy, her willingness to fill the album with the searing pain of breakup, she transformed an entire culture that, in its haste to dismiss soul and disco in favor of being gangsta, had forgotten how to feel. Of that moment, Blige’s friend and collaborator Nas, the hip-hop artist whose now classic album Illmatic was released the same year, notes that “it was just the perfect time in music, in the city, and the world for new artists.”

“The ’90s were the next chapter after all the incredible things the ’80s gave us,” he says. “So we couldn’t play with our albums. I think we both knew what we had to do. We knew what the new sound of the city should be like.”

Because Blige’s work carved a new space within and between genres, it wasn’t easily categorized. “Mary’s music, though, was considered R&B by most,” Nas says, “and was running neck and neck with all of hip-hop’s most top-tier, classic music nationwide.” It is essential, he contends, to underscore the ubiquity of her influence. “Her voice was heard on every block, in every household, every party,” he says. “You could hear her music coming out of all the cars with the loudest custom speakers. Everyone wanted to try to find out how to do songs with her. It was a big wish list. She even collaborated with some artists real early and helped careers like The Notorious B.I.G. There is no one like her anywhere.”

The pioneering rapper and singer Missy Elliott, who recalls Blige deeming her a star after she rapped for her at their first meeting in the early 1990s, concurs. “With Mary’s music you were getting the best of both worlds because you were hearing the singing, but sonically, the beats were hip-hop samples with R&B chords on it,” she says. “Lyrically, her songs connected with the streets and everyday people.”

Diotima top and skirt. Private Policy coat. Simone I. Smith Sister Love earrings. Brandon Blackwood boots.

Blige’s look also connected her with the streets and everyday folks. It was in part inspired by the femme-masc fashions of Black girls and women in urban neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s who integrated traditionally masculine clothing—combat boots, jerseys, thick rope chains, and backward caps—with traditionally feminine clothing—tennis skirts, jumpsuits, and hoop earrings. But once at Uptown, Blige’s now iconic style was cultivated by fashion architect Misa Hylton, who conjured colorful femme looks with edge and later reformed designer clothing with street style. They called it “ghetto fabulous,” this hood-inspired glamour, and it provided an urban update to the softness of the R&B divas of yesteryear.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Blige says of the early days of hip-hop street style. “We were just living our lives, doing what we did before we even got into the music business. We were surviving. We were taking what we had and making the most of it and making it fly, whether it was expensive or not. We took hockey jerseys and put tennis skirts with them and Teflon boots. Who knew that everyone and their mother was going to wear their hats turned backward? That’s how we came out of the hood.”

The thing about Blige is that she is rigorously committed to representing her own thing, to pouring herself into her external expression of her soul as much as she pours herself into the art. “What makes fashion and what makes you a trendsetter is that you do what you love, not what everybody wants you to do, and not what everybody else is doing,” she says. “And that’s what we’ve always done. We did what we wanted to do, and then everybody started following us.”

In spite and because of it all, the glamour and the stardom, that time was also destabilizing for Blige. In Mary J. Blige: My Life, she says that “things had happened so fast that I didn’t even know that they had happened,” which ironically functions as both a description of her rise to hip-hop and R&B fame from Schlobohm and of how intimate partner violence victims remember the onset of abuse. “I’m afraid of it…I’m fucking scared to death of it,” she says in the documentary of the whirlwind of that moment. “I’m scared to death of myself.”

The My Life album remains the starkest reminder of the distinction between past and present. It is fitting that, nearly 30 years after its release, that album—one that Blige has said was recorded at a time when she was in an abusive relationship and coping with past trauma—is the thematic ground to which she has returned to begin again with a new set of stories.

How did she arrive here? When I ask her about the women who were her mirrors along the way, Blige talks first about Maya Angelou.

“She always spoke about a phenomenal woman,” Blige says, and my mind flashes to the times I’ve read, recited, or witnessed Angelou’s 1978 poem “Phenomenal Woman” performed. “I had never in my life even been able to look at myself as a great woman, but now I look at myself as a phenomenal woman, and I believe that it’s because of things that Maya Angelou did for us, and how she spoke about women.”

Her mother, Cora, whose beauty and singing echoed through their home, even in difficult times, set a kind of example too. “She was single and hurting and everything, but she never let herself go,” Blige says. “I never saw my mother looking bad. She took care of her skin day and night, she took care of her body, she took care of her mind, and she never let us see her in no kind of pain, you know? We never saw that. We always saw her keep herself beautiful.”

Blige learned from her foremothers, but she tweaked their lessons. It was once broadly taboo for mothers—and especially Black mothers—to allow their children to see them as vulnerable. Strength was defined as what a woman could bear, what she could skillfully hide or not allow to show. Which is what makes the gift of Blige, as mother of an entire genre of music, so improbable and necessary. She birthed a tradition of holding nothing back.

Blige’s strength is in everything she does show and tell of all sides of human feeling. The raw tenderness we hear when she sings “No one’s gonna make me hurt again” on “No More Drama,” and on “Beautiful Ones,” when she intones, “I’d give my flesh for yours / I’d sacrifice everything.” And that second verse of the recent “Good Morning Gorgeous,” which sends the heart straight to the ears: “Why did I hate myself? (Why did I hate?) / So intensely / Lord, help me.”

Lapointe dress. Simone I. Smith Sister Love earrings. Dinosaur Designs bangles and rings. Alexis Bittar bangles.

The actor Taraji P. Henson, who is a longtime friend to Blige, tells me that “Mary’s strength is in her vulnerability, and that’s why we are so connected to her. Whether you are Black, white, it doesn’t matter where you come from, because she’s such an example of what life looks like sometimes.”

What life looks like sometimes: trauma and abuse in the absence of love, protection, grace, and mercy. I ask Blige whether her mother’s example affected how she chose to express her pain, and whether she recognized herself as a phenomenal woman back then.

“Well, that phenomenal woman thing just started happening,” she quickly replies, with a well-earned laugh. “When I was younger, I was not this person. When I was first in the music business, I was not this woman who thinks she’s phenomenal. I learned to collect myself, the good, the bad, the ugly. Everything about me. [I was like,] Gosh, it hurts to look at all the things that are not right with me, but it’s me. And if I can’t look at it, I can’t fix it.”

For more than 30 years, Blige has collected everything about herself across 13 solo albums and a host of unforgettable collaborations. On 2022’s album Good Morning Gorgeous, Blige arrives at a new gateway of her new self. Standing at the crossroads looking backward and forward, Blige and fellow Grammy-winning R&B singer H.E.R. are in rare gospel call-and-response form on the album’s titular remix. It is such an intergenerational moment; each woman’s voice flowing into the other’s, strong yet billowing, Together their voices underscore that, although women’s pain—human pain—persists in this society, there is power in vulnerability and affirmation, just as there was in the magic of Angelou’s poem. H.E.R., a lifelong fan of Blige who performed “Be Without You” as a child in much the same way Blige performed Anita Baker’s “Rapture,” recalls the collaboration with Blige as “surreal.”

“I’m so in awe of her as a person and as a woman,’ H.E.R. says of Blige. “With how honest she was being in the studio. I was just like, ‘Wow, I want to be that way. I want to be that vulnerable in these records, and you know just give it everything.’ Because that’s what she does.”

Blige owns that. “[My experience has] opened doors for women to not be afraid to express their truth and fight for what they believe in,” she says. To younger artists, and almost to her younger self, she offers: “Don’t worry about being in a male-dominated business as far as being afraid; just carry yourself a certain way, and you’ll get that respect from your male peers and counterparts. Be honest with yourself, treat yourself well, treat others well, pay your bills, call people back. You know, just try to do the right thing at the end of the day. Just try.”

Which is not to say openness and vulnerability are easy, whether she’s singing about her joy or her pain. Blige has spoken previously about people being uncomfortable with a happy Mary, one who has freed herself from some of the most painful moments of her life. I wonder about this aloud to her.

“People want what makes sense to them. And that’s fine,” she says. “I can’t do nothing about it. I can’t make them move because I don’t know where they are in their life and what their process is like. And the ones that wanna grow and go with you, you appreciate that. And then there are some people who just want a reason to just let go. Or just not like you anymore. And that’s fine too.”

Henson goes further: “A woman with joy? Especially a black woman with joy? She’s giving life, baby,” she says. “That’s everything that they don’t want. Her joy and Black women’s strength and joy is absolutely a threat. Because out of that spawns life.”

It is impossible to overstate how essential Mary J. Blige is to hip-hop culture, which is to say American popular culture and moreover global popular culture. Back when hip-hop was emerging from its adolescence, registering to vote, and taking its first legal drink, Blige’s voice became its scaffolding and architecture, the thing that balanced it. Her voice, throwback and modern, bound R&B and hip-hop together. When she covered the classics—Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” to “All I Need” with Method Man, Rose Royce’s “I’m Going Down,” and Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing”—she haunted them with a Gen X hip-hop angst, revealing a sharp shadow of post–civil Rights melancholy, longing, and possibility.

Today Blige’s freshness, innovation, and expanding relevance almost belie her status as an entertainment OG. Her longevity is in her artistic approach, and her deftness as a storyteller.

“I want to tell stories of progress and going through the process of getting better, of going through the pain of change,” she says. “Because change is painful. But being stuck and stagnant is painful as well.”

Here in her life in the sunshine, Blige tends affectionately to what she calls her inner Marys. There’s “my little baby,” the young Mary who just wants to go outside and play, and there’s older Mary, the protector and survivor. “I tell little Mary, ‘You can go outside and play now. You can actually play, and no one’s going to hurt you ever again. I can promise you that.’” To her older Mary, she says, “Stop that,” with a smirk. “Things are new. And we can’t judge the future with the past.”

I ask Blige what she’s dreaming about these days, and she breathes deeply and means it: “My dreams are for things to go right,” she says. “Joy and peace for the world. No more diseases and plagues. Everybody’s healthy and happy. For people to have jobs and opportunities. And for kids to be safe.”

And after she blesses everybody else, she speaks life over herself. “And for me to continue to be well and healthy and strong, you know?” Here is her wish: “Just grow with me.”

Photographed by Adrienne Raquel
Styling: Zerina Akers
Hair: Tym Wallace
Makeup: Merrell Hollis
Production: Hannah Kinlaw
Location: The Record Room

Record Room LIC is a vinyl listening lounge and cocktail bar on Center Boulevard in Long Island City, New York. Founded by ex–NFL player Aaron Weaver and hospitality veteran Shih Lee, the lounge has an extensive collection of vinyl, spanning numerous genres and eras, with guest DJs playing sets exclusively with vinyl records.

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