“I see my influence in all the chicks,” says singer-actress Mary J. Blige as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s “Awards Chatter” podcast. Blige earned the moniker “The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” over the 25 years since the release of her first album, during which she’s released 12 others en route to nine Grammys encompassing R&B, rap, pop and gospel songs; been chosen as one of the 100 greatest singers of all time by both Rolling Stone and VH1; and been honored with the Icon Award at the 2017 Billboard Women in Music Awards.
Blige, 47, is speaking about her work in music when she says, “There are so many that have come and gone, and there are so many now, that are influenced by Mary J. Blige. I’m very happy, very proud, to still be inspiring women.” As for her more recent transition into acting — past credits include the 2012 movie Rock of Ages, the 2013 TV movie Betty & Coretta and the 2015 TV special The Wiz Live — she is a bit less sure of herself, which is why it meant so much to her that her performance as Florence Jackson, a 1940s wife and mother on a plantation in Mississippi in Dee Rees‘ drama Mudbound, has received so much appreciation.
In recent months, Blige garnered a Golden Globe nomination not only for best original song (“A Mighty River” plays over the film’s end credits) but also for best supporting actress, making her only the seventh person in history to be Globe-nominated for acting and music in the same year. She also won the best breakthrough actress Hollywood Film Award and was nominated for the best breakthrough actress Gotham Award and best supporting actress SAG, Critics’ Choice and Independent Spirit awards. On Thursday, she also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “I’m just so grateful,” she says. “I’m just praising God, and I’m just thanking Him and thanking Him, because it’s just beautiful.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 53:20], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Thomas Doherty, a Brandeis University professor and noted film scholar, about historical precedents for the sexual misconduct scandal engulfing Hollywood, the rise of political correctness on college campuses and Doherty’s seventh book, Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC and the Birth of the Blacklist, out April 10.
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Blige was born in the Bronx to a nurse and a funk band musician, and raised in the projects of Yonkers. “It was like prison,” she recalls. “You were struggling for your life every day.” Blige’s father left the family when she was just 4, and a year later she was molested by a caretaker, a traumatic event that has shaped much of the rest of her life. Her saving grace, even back then, was music. “Music was everywhere, all the time,” she says. “It helped me to fly away from all of my negative situations.” Blige sang in the church choir and school talent shows, and even was part of a drumline. As for making her career in music? “I didn’t think it was a possibility for a long time,” she acknowledges. “It wasn’t something that I went after. It was something that came to me.”
Blige’s life began to head in a particularly bad direction when she was 15. She started hanging with contemporaries from a neighboring project who were bad influences, introducing her to drugs and alcohol. She dropped out of high school. And she was kicked out of her home. “I was going through so many different things,” she says mournfully. “I’ve been sexually harassed and abused … since I was a child all the way up into adulthood. These are the things that made me rebel and made me drink and made me do drugs. I just wanted to forget that episode from 5, and then I wanted to forget what happened at 9, and then I wanted to forget what happened at 16, and then I wanted to forget everything that just kept happening.”
In 1988, when Blige was 17, she and a friend were visiting a mall in White Plains, New York, when they came upon a karaoke machine and Blige recorded a tape. Her mother’s boyfriend listened to it, responded enthusiastically and shared it with a friend who worked at Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records. Within a year, Blige signed with Uptown and was placed under the tutelage of its A&R head, Puff Daddy. “I guess I was different,” she reflects. “There were so many women that were coming out at the time, and everyone was beautiful and poised like Whitney [Houston] or Mariah [Carey]. They were just these beautiful, flawless women, and I was this ghetto, wild girl from the projects who could sing, and who had a story that was compelling for people to hear. And I guess that’s what Andre and Puff saw.”
Blige’s first album, What’s the 411?, was released in 1992 and introduced a new genre of music that came to be known as “hip-hop soul.” (She explains that she was just “a rapper that could sing.”) With it came massive fame and fortune — but not happiness or peace. “Success and fame just made [her substance abuse problems] worse.” She sees her second album, My Life, which was released two years later, as “a cry for help.” Different from her first in that she wrote or co-wrote almost every song on it, it was, she says, “my diary at the time,” and it cemented the special connection that she has with female fans who admire both her toughness and her vulnerability. She helped them and in turn they, she says, helped her: “What helped me was the fact that I found out that so many people felt like me and were living like me.” Rolling Stone later chose My Life as one of the top 50 albums of all time.
Over the ensuing few years, Blige’s career continued to explode. Her third album, 1997’s Share My World, included the single “Not Gon‘ Cry,” which topped the R&B charts and went platinum; her fourth, 1999’s Mary, featured duets with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Elton John; and her fifth, 2001’s No More Drama, was highlighted by “Family Affair,” which became her first single to top the Billboard Hot 100. Meanwhile, in 2001, she also made her big-screen acting debut in the indie Prison Song. “Acting was something I always wanted to do,” she says. “I liked expressing myself.” (She volunteers, “Queen Latifah is a huge inspiration of mine. She is a hero. She was a rapper who can absolutely sing for real and act, and that was impressive to me. … She inspired me to do what I’m doing.”)
In 2003, Blige married her then-manager, Kendu Issacs, and, at least for a time, was happy. That same year, she put out her sixth album, Love & Life, which reflected a different outlook from what her fans had come to expect from her. “I lost a million fans because I created this fanbase with the darkness of ‘I don’t want to live no more, this is what I was dealing with,'” she says. “And when I decided to choose life and choose a husband, everybody was saying things like, ‘Oh, we liked the miserable Mary better.’ But all I could think about was, ‘OK, if I created this fanbase with this darkness and this self-hate, then if I check out [of that mindset], maybe some of them will too.’ I chose life so that I could save some lives.” (As part of her new lease on life, Blige in 2010 went back to school and got her GED. “I hate being uneducated,” she says. “It’s the most terrible feeling. It makes me feel bad if I can’t articulate myself. It makes me feel bad when I don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s embarrassing to me.”)
By 2011, though, Blige felt as if her life was crumbling around her, and this was reflected in her 10th album, My Life II … The Journey Continues (Act 1), which she describes as “another cry for help.” Above all else, she felt that she couldn’t count on her husband. “It was one bad thing after the next,” she says. “Every single day, there was something awful being said about Mary J. Blige, and I had to carry this weight all by myself. The world was crucifying me and my fans were running and they were laughing and I was carrying this alone. He wasn’t helping me carry it, he was running, and I was carrying it. And I needed to get out of the United States.” Blige fled to London, where her work on her 12fth album — The London Sessions, which eventually was released in 2014, and on which she collaborated with the likes of Sam Smith — somewhat boosted her self-esteem. She chose to forge ahead, but saw what “easily” could have been her fate when her contemporary Whitney Houston died of a drug overdose in 2012. “People just let you do what you want to do because they want to keep getting paid,” Blige says. “It’s easier to deal with you if you’re drunk and you don’t know what’s going on and you just want to party. They’re yes-ma’am-ing you to death. And if you don’t have something in you that recognizes this or that wants to survive this, you’re not gonna survive.”
After Blige returned from London, she divorced Isaacs — whom she eviscerated on her 13th album, Strength of a Woman, released in early 2017 — and moved to Los Angeles. “I moved to L.A. because I wanted to start my acting career, to really, really focus on it,” she says. “This was a change I thought I needed to make.” Fortuitously, she soon heard from Rees, who had seen her in The Wiz Live!, wanted to work with her and sent her the script for Mudbound. “I never received a script like this before — never,” Blige emphasizes. “I was ecstatic, once I read the script, because I was gonna be a part of something really important.” She adds, “The thing that really, really struck me was the silver lining of how love was threaded all through it and how love can save the day.”
Before heading down to New Orleans to shoot Mudbound over 28 hot, sticky, muddy days in the summer of 2016, Blige prepared with the help of an acting coach, Tasha Smith, learning to channel her pain into her work. She also thought about both Rees’ grandmother (whose journal entries she was allowed to read) and her own grandmother (who lived a similar life on a farm). She worked on communicating through her eyes, as opposed to words, as Florence largely does, during exercises that Rees arranged for her with castmates. And, at Rees’ insistence, she reluctantly shed her vanity — her eyelashes, her makeup, her textured hair — in order to play a woman who had none. Then, she says, something remarkable happened: “Once I gave everything to Florence, Florence gave me some new confidence. I didn’t even know that I was beautiful on my own, but Florence was getting hit on! People were whistling!”
Blige’s life hasn’t been the same since Mudbound was unveiled a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival. “I cried so hard because the movie just looked so beautiful,” she recalls. “I cried during the whole movie because we were all a part of something so very important.” Many moviegoers didn’t — and don’t — even realize that Blige is in the film until the end credits roll, at which point they usually put two and two together. Blige responds, “I was happy to hear that! I was happy to hear that people were looking for me. I said, ‘Good, mission accomplished!'” After Sundance, Blige got her wish to make a musical contribution to the film as well, providing Rees with a song about what it would take to wash away the mud — namely, “A Mighty River.” But don’t misunderstand her — going forward, she’s not looking to do singing instead of acting but rather in addition to it. “I’m definitely gonna do some more acting,” says the No More Drama singer. “And it’ll probably be a lot more drama!”