“I just want to remind everybody how far we’ve come,” Blige said, “because everybody can get so down on themselves. And we’re not perfect. We’re never going to be perfect.” The title is a nod to her 1994 sophomore record, “My Life,” released when Blige was just 23 and figuring out her place in the world. “I started speaking about what I was dealing with through my music, and 4 million women responded and said, ‘Us too, Mary,’” she said. “And I didn’t know that everyone was hurting like I was hurting. I had no idea.”
What Blige was dealing with – in frank and sometimes raw terms – was the sexual abuse she experienced when she was five at the hands of a family acquaintance. Her music struck a chord, and propelled her to the top of the hip hop and R&B charts. Blige had arrived, but wasn’t entirely comfortable with fame. “I’ve read that the younger Mary J. Blige could be sometimes difficult to deal with,” said Pitts. “How did you get from that person to who you are now?”
“Well, the younger Mary J. Blige, I would call her, she was very unaware, ignorant,” Blige said. “She didn’t know how to sit down and give an interview and respect the interviewer, and the same, you know, stupid questions that they would ask over and over and over again,” she laughed. “What you do is what you do, and I can’t get angry about, you know, you asking me the same stupid questions. I’ve grown up a lot in that area.”
“Are you calling my questions stupid?” Pitts asked. “Not yours! ” she laughed. Hoping to smooth out the rough edges, her record label sent her to an etiquette class.
“I don’t know how I knew that whatever I am – which is broken and unarticulate, and I didn’t know that – would help people. Because I didn’t know I would grow and evolve to this. But I just was completely like, ‘I don’t want to take no etiquette.’ I didn’t care about taking an etiquette class.” Blige also put her foot down when record executives suggested she change her name, to Mary Brown.
“It’s like I didn’t want to get rid of anything that meant something to me,” she said. “My name is all I had. That’s the only thing I can identify with, and my culture.” Blige’s father left the family when she was 4, and her mother Corinne raised four children in a public Housing project. “When I was a kid, I needed to sing because it makes me feel good about myself,” Blige said. “It makes me feel good, period.”
“You needed to sing?”
“I needed to, because when I was having like a down day, I mean, I would come down here, right down to the pier, and sing, like really loud. It would just lift all the oppression and depression and sadness and make me feel better. It does the same thing for me now.” When a tape of a 17-year-old Blige – recorded in a karaoke booth – made its way to music producer Andre Harrell, he immediately signed her up.
“I was street, I was every single thing that every little girl from the ‘hood can relate to.” “That was something that I was happy about, because it’s all I had in identity,” she said. “You know, I didn’t know who I was. So if ghetto fabulous and keeping it real and all of that was what I was, I was cool with that … until I learned that I can be more than that.”
After years of drinking and cocaine use, Mary J. Blige shed the drama in her life, with the help of her husband and manager Kendu Isaacs. And although she and Isaacs have been married for eight years, Blige initially had some doubts about the relationship: “Even after I was married, I still couldn’t believe it, that it was real,” she said. “And he really did love broken down, little old me. ‘Cause I just never saw myself like the woman that a man like him would want.”
“Explain that? Because?”
“Because my past was just horrific. I felt ashamed about everything. Me dropping out of high school, me not, you know, just not being beautiful enough. I just didn’t feel like I was smart enough or beautiful enough, you know, for years.”
But after almost two decades in the spotlight, 40-year-old Mary J. Blige has finally made peace with her past, present, and future. “I’m Mary Jane Blige. Jane Blige! You know, that’s it. I know who I am. I am not perfect. I’m not the most beautiful woman in the world. But I’m one of them.”
Good for Mary!