My earliest memory of a Mary J Blige song is of her hit “Real Love”, a track that featured alongside her first ever album What’s the 411? Along came other singles like “No More Drama”, “Rainy Dayz” and “Be Without You”. Blige, 49, has been the friend that we all wanted, holding our hand as we go through the tough times and empowering us to love ourselves.
Her career took off in 1992 with the release of her first album. She had been signed onto Uptown Records as a backup vocalist four years earlier and was the record company’s youngest and first female artist.
Blige had a rough childhood. Her father, a war veteran who suffered from PTSD, left when she was just a young girl leaving the young Mary and her two siblings in the hands of an alcoholic mother. She was sexually abused by a family friend at the age of five. She turned to alcohol, drugs and promiscuity to deal with the pain of her experiences.
Her "powerful, soulful voice and hip-hop attitude" is all about real life experiences like love, heartbreak and finding oneself. Her third album, My Life, for instance, was recorded while she was in an abusive relationship and as she struggled with depression. It went on to be listed in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.
Blige, who has augmented her music career with stints in the acting world most recently in Power Book II: Ghost, credits her triumph over addiction, depression and toxic relationships to looking within.
“We numb ourselves with drugs and alcohol and people and shopping and shit, to cover up what’s really going on inside,” she said in an interview with Self.
Her music prowess spanned the corridors of politics. The crooner performed for Barack Obama both in 2009 and 2012. In 2020, newly-elected vice president Kamala Harris even walked out to “Work That” during the campaigns and when she was giving her victory speech.
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Her albums have received both positive and negative criticism and yet through the years, she has continued releasing album after album. She has had 10 number one albums on the R&B/Hip Hop Albums charts. She is also the only artist to have won Grammys in the R&B, hip hop, pop, and gospel categories.
Among other accolades, Blige was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 BET Awards for her extraordinary contributions to the music industry.
Blige’s resilience as well as her relatability might have led her to international fame but it has also seen many through the toughest moments of their lives, a fact that she is no stranger to.
“People are watching,” she said to Self. “So much painful, embarrassing, public stuff has happened from the time I came out in this music industry. This stuff happens so that we can talk.”