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Things are looking up for Mary J. Blige.
It’s no secret that the queen of hip-hop soul has seen her share of tough times, including the recent dissolution of her marriage to longtime manager Kendu Isaacs, but she’s moving past all that and starting 2018 on a very high note. Not only did she just receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (on her birthday, no less), but when the Oscar nominations were announced on Jan. 23, she made history by becoming the first person to receive both an acting nomination and a song nomination — for her work on Netflix’s Mudbound — in the same year.
Her moving portrayal of Florence Jackson, the wife of a black sharecropper in rural Mississippi at the end of World War II, earned her a best supporting actress nomination. And along with co-writers Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson, she received a best original song nomination for the film’s uplifting end-title track, “Mighty River,” which she also performs.
Blige didn’t know she would be contributing the song until after the film was complete, but long before that she knew she wanted the job.
“I couldn’t wait,” Blige recalls. “I didn’t want to ask [director Dee Rees for the opportunity to write the song] because Dee had given me so much already by offering me the role and just blessing me with that part, but I couldn’t wait for them to come to me and ask me to sing the end-title song. It was like I was just laying in the cut, waiting. And when they did, it was right up my alley. I was like, ‘Yes! This is too good.'”
It was the end of 2016, and Blige was touring with fellow R&B artist Maxwell when she got the call. Right away, she thought about collaborating with Saadiq. They had worked together a number of times over the years, and they had co-produced and co-written the original song “I See in Color” for 2009’s Precious.
“I just think Raphael is amazing when it comes to these types of songs for these movies,” she says.
Eager to begin working on the track, in the middle of the tour Blige went home and went right to the studio.
“Of course I’d seen the film, so I had all my notes typed down about what moved me in the film to these words,” she says. “I went over to Raphael’s and I showed him my words, and before you knew it we were in the studio recording these words and writing these words, writing together.”
Replete with soulful harmonies, “Mighty River” harks back to Blige’s gospel roots. She grew up singing in church, and the chorus taps into the gospel tradition of call and response, with Blige driving the song forward and a choir of background singers answering back.
“I believe that’s a lot of what gospel is. It’s a lot of call and respond — it’s a lot of basically crowd participation in church,” she explains. “When people are in church, it’s a lot of responding to what the pastor says or responding to what the choir is singing, rejoicing to what they’re singing. So I don’t know if it was so conscious; it’s just something that we do. Even in R&B we do it.”
The song’s river theme also speaks to a long history of hymns and spirituals in which water — and rivers in particular — serve as a force of absolution and healing, a force as urgently needed in today’s America as in the Jim Crow South so poignantly depicted in Mudbound.
“Water is cleansing and a river is strong, a river is powerful. So it’s going to take something really powerful to come through and cleanse everything,” Blige says. “It’s not going to take rain, because rain is great and it’s good, but a river is mighty and it’s going to sweep through. And when I say ‘cutting through a rock’ [in the lyrics], it cuts through rock. It cuts through hatred, and that’s why it’s a mighty river. And I believe the mud is a representation of the hatred. In Mudbound, the mud was everywhere, like hatred’s everywhere. But love is everywhere too, and love is more powerful than hate. That’s why love is representing the mighty river, because love is way more powerful than hate, I believe.
“Unfortunately for a time like this we need a song like this. We need a movie like this,” Blige adds. “The movie is so important, and the song is equally important, because we need these things, and the timing is everything. This is the time. I couldn’t plan this. It’s what it’s supposed to be.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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