If you ask her today, she’ll admit she never planned to become royalty, but to say that Mary J. Blige is merely another talented R&B singer-sista-friend is a considerable understatement.
She is the grand dame Queen of the streets, the pioneering Soul heiress to Aretha, Chaka, and Whitney’s throne. Her voice and words live openly as the beacon by which many Black women have overcome depression, addiction, relationship drama, rape, and domestic violence.
It’s been twenty years since Mary made her very first appearance on BET as a backing vocalist on Father MC’s “I’ll Do 4 U,” and she’s been a mainstay in the industry ever since. Mary boldly rose to stardom amid a cookie-cutter industry which sought to regurgitate the sounds and image of other successful artists.
She wasn’t having it.
The arrival of Mary J. Blige meant the glitter and sequence was finally taken off of contemporary R&B and replaced with the look and style of the streets.
She emerged in 1991 as the identifiable B-Girl from the Schlobohm projects in Yonkers, fully adorned in ghetto fabulous garb: large, gold, hoop door knocker earrings, platinum blonde hair, combat boots, jeans and baggy puff coats.
I still remember huddling around the TV to watch Donnie Simpson’s Video Soul in 1992, only to be intrigued and hypnotized by this woman dressed in men’s clothing. “Real Love” was the first time I’d seen a female singer bold enough to adorn such an authentically defiant outfit in a music video.
She looked like the B-girls I saw everyday on the school yard at recess.
After the colossal success of “Real Love” and What’s The 411?, it was clear that the first lady of Hip Hop Soul was courageously redefining femininity for Black women across the globe. Her ability to sing love songs like “Reminisce,” “Love No Limit,” “You Remind Me” and Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing”, dressed as a rapper no less, blazoned a message for young girls to remain true to their naturally raw selves.
Mary’s second album was perhaps a masterclass on depression. To this day, women (and men in the dark) run to grab My Life off the shelf and pop it into a CD player in the midst of troubling circumstances.
She wrote songs specifically for that album which would resonate in the streets. “Be Happy” and “My Life” were her odes to survival, offering heartbroken women pieces of songs teaching them to communicate low self-worth, depression and hopelessness, while maintaining there would always be a rainbow at the end of those rainy days.
My Life became a bible for young Black women, offering scriptures to ease wearying circumstances. Her cover of Rose Royce’s “I’m Going Down” hit us directly in the guts, even more than the original version—we knew her circumstances.
We saw the drug abuse, tumultuous relationship, and the large dark Fendi sunglasses on top of heavy foundation at her appearances. We all watched as she gave us the saddest my-man-done-me-wrong song, “Not Gon’ Cry,” and we knew it was real.
Mary searched to define herself as a woman amidst an increasingly problematic relationship with Jodeci pioneer, K-Ci. She became a victim of domestic violence, adding her name to the list of battered Black female entertainers who were beaten when the cameras stopped rolling.
Tina Turner suffered through years of publicized muggings from Ike Turner, and legendary songstress Whitney Houston talked to Oprah about how she survived an increasingly violent marriage to Bobby Brown. Most recently, superstar singer Rihanna was choked unconscious and beaten nearly to a pulp by her boyfriend Chris Brown.
While all of these women have worked to reclaim their lives post-domestic violence, none of their experiences have been as accessible to young Black women as Mary’s (See: “Deep Inside” from Mary).
When No More Drama was released ten years ago, the music industry was shaken down to its bone. Mary was fresh, energized and emotionally lighter since she ditched K-Ci and a slew of other unhealthy people from her camp.
No More Drama signaled a shift in Mary’s artistic paradigm, encouraging women to take an introspective look within in search of wholeness. “Rainy Dayz,” “Testimony,” and “No More Drama” taught Black women to abandon stressful relationships in search of inner wealth.
On her aptly titled album, The Breakthrough, Mary did just that. She allowed the sum of her experiences to be lessons for Black women on overcoming personal failures in search of satisfaction.
By the time the album was released, Mary had opened up to the world about being molested as a kid growing up in New York. She taught Black women the power of expelling secrets and difficult trials—writing that she’d finally reached a place where she could truly call herself a queen.
“Good Woman Down”, “Ain’t Really Love,” and “Take Me As I Am” are the mantras she taught scorned Black women to repeat while looking in the mirror. Those anthems were about healing the mind and refocusing her own life to look exactly as she’d always dreamed.
Now, 20 years after the young woman from the projects in Yonkers stepped on the scene with a defiant attitude and style, we have a catalogue of triumph. We have a Mary Jane Blige who is willing to relive those turbulent moments, on stage, in hopes of inspiring Black women to love themselves completely.