In conversation, Mary J. Blige is warm, polite, and considered. The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul is no less obliging to her fans, with whom she’s shared a 21-year-long musical discussion. Fittingly, then, just in time for the holiday season, she has released a gift of sorts with her first yuletide LP, A Mary Christmas, produced by Celine Dion hitmaker David Foster. And while Blige acknowledged during our chat that the title’s play on words was too good to pass up, the seasonally themed LP also invited a certain amount of year-’round introspection.
Mary J., 42, spoke with us about what it takes to wear the crown. Here she is, in her own words.
I was conscious about not hurting myself to save the lives of my fans.
When I took control of my life and I said, “No more drama,” it was during that time of the No More Drama album, when I was done with drugs, I was done with alcohol, I was done with living a life where I hated myself. I chose not only my life, but my fans, I chose them, too. People love Mary J. Blige, and if I hurt myself or commit suicide — because I was very suicidal then, before I said no more drama —my fans, that can hurt them. That can even kill some of them. So I made the shift thinking about not just my life, but four million people that came with me in this music business and said, “Mary, you saved our lives. We love you.”
Whatever rehab, whatever prayer you gotta do, if it means that much to you, you gotta make a change.
I loved Amy Winehouse, and [her death] just really hurt me, because that could have been me. It just reinforces, “OK, Mary, stay strong in this and continue to inspire the people to want to live another day.” Because I know how that feels. I know how Amy felt. I know how it feels when you wanna die. But there’s so much responsibility when you’re an artist or a mom or a dad. You have other people to think about. You have 15 million fans out there to think about, people that really love you. So you gotta get selfless, hard as it is.
Music is therapy.
It’s like working out. If you go for a three-mile run and you were feeling grumpy before you went, you come back and you just feel like, “Aah.” You write a great song, and you’re in the studio with someone, and they’re bouncing off of you, and the energy is great, and you listen back to what you did and it’s amazing — it’s exhilarating. It heals from the lyrical content to even just the color of the music and the way it feels.
It just turns the session all the way up when you have chemistry.
When [producers] really get you and are not faking, it just makes you feel good. It’s the chemistry that makes the session go even further, ’cause now you get each other. It’s like when there’s a good basketball game, and the team is playing really good, and everybody’s winning. It’s like that, with the spiritual component, which is the energy in the room. So it just makes it super-exciting when a person is sitting down after you did something amazing and they’re like, “Oh my God.” They’re looking at you like you’re not even human.
I take the responsibility to inspire.
Getting that label [Queen of Hip-Hop Soul] so early, it’s the queen of something, right? And that’s a leader, and it has been a huge responsibility. If you stay stuck in one thing — like hip-hop soul and hip-hop loops and all of that — then you’re stuck, you’re stagnant. You’re not a leader. But if you lead, you can’t be afraid to step out and do a song with Bono and make a Led Zeppelin cover and have Elton John play the piano on your “Deep Inside” song and do what you love to do, and the heck with what people have to say or whatever boxes they want to put you in. You have to grow.
It’s very important to show people a lighter side of you.
Especially for me, because everybody thinks I’m so hard and so strong and serious. That’s not the case. If you ask my sister or my mom or my friends, they’ll be like, “Mary’s fun and funny.” It’s good, so you won’t be so threatening to people for them to see that side of you.
I know what my fans want. I know what they don’t want.
I don’t wanna say what movie it is, but there was something that was pitched to me recently that everybody was like, “Oh, you should do it.” And I’m a woman that stands up for women completely, and this role was like, “You gotta be kidding me, I’m not doing this.” I’m not gonna do anything that degrades women or makes us look bad, even in an acting role. I’m very careful with everything I select. Even in songs, I have to be careful. I just know in my gut. It’s instinct. I just know right away what to shoot down, and I’ve been doing that all my life, and that’s what saved me. That’s why I’m here, because I think about what’s right for my fans.
For men, if they’re open and vulnerable, they pull back.
Far as me being open and vulnerable, it’s just made me touchable and relatable to everybody. If [men] speak their life story out there about their personal things, I think because of how they are, they just won’t let you in, and so they appear to have mystique, when they’re just really afraid. It’s harder for men to appear vulnerable, ’cause in the world, if you cry too hard or you show too much emotion, then you’re soft, but I think a strong man is a man will pour his heart out to you. Women love a man like that, because he’s confident with his feminine side, the side his mama raised him in.
I want love to guide my life. I want peace to guide my life.
God is love, and we are supposed to love each other. If we love God, we won’t judge people for being who they are. If you judge, then you’re judged, so if we wanna live a life where people are not coming down on us, we have to love and respect everyone for who they are. And that’s that. That’s the love I wanna walk in. I don’t wanna treat people bad because they might be living a different life from mine. That doesn’t mean it’s better or it’s worse. It just means that we’re different, so we just have to love each other, unconditionally. We put conditions on everything. “Oh, you’re a little slow, so we’re gonna judge you and pick on you.” “Oh, you’re gay, so we can’t hang out with you.” No, people have hearts and families and love inside them who are different all over the world. We gotta just love them, because they have so much to offer, and we have so much to offer.