For nearly three decades, the prolific Mary J. Blige has given us everything.
From What's the 411? to My Life, Share My World and beyond, the 50-year-old has given women — Black women especially — who couldn't find their own words, the lyrics, and the music to make sense of every raw emotion that comes with happiness, love, heartbreak, and pain. As well as what it means to eventually move past all the drama.
Although expressing, or even going through the process of understanding those feelings isn't always pretty, what Blige has always done is keep it real with us — and we're all better for it.
She has also covered classics, true classics, like Rufus featuring Chaka Khan's 1975 "Sweet Thing" and Rose Royce's 1976 "I'm Going Down." And despite the fact that these tracks were each released about two decades before she put her spin on them, she still found a way to make the songs all her own and bring these sounds to a new generation, all while paying homage to the musicians (many of whom are women) who came before her.
That's why it wasn't surprising to me to discover that Blige has partnered with Gold Bond for the brand's new #ChampionYourSkin campaign. Together, the pair are working to bring visibility and stand up for yet another group of women who have often been overlooked: Black stuntwomen.
"As Black women, they really ignore us," she tells me over our Zoom call. "So we have to fight to be seen, to be heard, to be represented, to be recognized. It's so much of them ignoring us that we have to stick together, we have to fight for each other. And that's what the stuntwomen do for us all the time. They come in and they take the blows, they catch on fire, or fall down the stairs — whatever they got to do — so we can come to work the next day."
When Blige first broke out onto the music scene in 1992 with What's the 411?, she was signed to Uptown Records, founded by the late Andre Harrell. The label was the first to fuse hip-hop and R&B, creating a new, yet familiar sound that would go on to inspire some of the biggest hits of that decade. And while not everyone was initially on board, the mix of soulful voices and rap lyrics would later prove to last the test of time.
That said, Blige has seen a lot throughout her career in entertainment. She was there when it was "acceptable" for misogynistic men to harass, gaslight, and silence women — regardless of their level of power or fame — behind closed doors. Blatant racism was often swept under the rug, and not taken seriously. And if you were susceptible to both, you likely found yourself having to leave behind all that you worked for for peace of mind, or you just kept your mouth shut and put up with it.
She's also here now, during a time when women are slowing starting to shift things, stand in their power, and demand what's rightfully theirs. More and more we're starting to see a zero tolerance stance on racism, although it often takes public pressure to get there.
The entertainment industry, and nearly every other front-facing industry in the U.S., has claimed to stand in solidarity with women in the general sense, but especially with Black women and other women of color to ensure equal representation, and eventually, pay. However, what goes on behind-the-scenes is largely unknown to those outside these fields —and likely even to many who are on the inside.
So I ask Blige, how long she thinks it will take for us to get to a place of true equity, where we're not only seeing ourselves in front of the camera, but also in every other facet of the business. A place where we no longer have to have these exhausting diversity and inclusion conversations, many of which have clearly fallen on deaf ears.
"Realistically, it's going to take a long time because people are set in their ways, and the people that are high up are white — maybe, probably older white people that are just stuck in their ways," she tells me candidly. "This is the way it is for them and this is how they feel about us."
She then goes on to emphasize how important it is for us to keep pushing, even on the days when it feels the most draining, because eventually, someone will have to listen.
"If we don't fight for what we believe in, we will never be heard," Blige says. "If we don't make noise, no one will hear us. Because we don't really exist to these people that are ignoring us."
VIDEO: Mary J. Blige Interviews Hillary Clinton
With all that Blige has poured into her fans over the years by sharing her world, her art, her triumphs, and her heartache, it was nice to hear that she's finally pouring back into herself.
While she tells me she didn't always have a beauty routine or even set time aside to wind down after long hauls at the studio or on set, she's making it a priority now.
"[I had a] breaking point and then it was a process," she says of her journey to happiness and putting herself first. "There was so much damage that was done to my self-esteem that I had to make myself believe that I was actually worthy of caring for myself or wanted to care for myself. I had to pay myself the highest compliment even when I didn't believe it, but I did it anyway."
As always, Blige keeps it very real by adding that just because she may have reached the destination, it doesn't mean the act of truly loving herself isn't something she's working at every day.
"You have to keep yourself built up, because we live in a world where people are hurting and they hurt you sometimes," says the singer. "Sometimes wounds are open, still, that you have to continue to put medicine on by saying, 'No, that's not who I am. I'm beautiful, I'm strong, I'm smart. I'm an amazing woman.' It's getting easier, but it's work. It's the inner work that keeps you in a place of confidence."
Now, when Blige returns home, she takes the time to run a bath, grabs a glass of her Sun Goddess wine, and slathers her skin in Johnson & Johnson Baby Oil and, of course, some Gold Bond lotion once she's out of the tub. She also spends a lot of time listening to the music that inspired her to become an artist in the first place.
"I have to go to a Roy Ayers place, I have to go to a Stevie Wonder place, I have to go to a Chaka Khan place, I have to go to A Gap Band place," she shares. "It just makes me feel comfortable. It heals everything."
On that note, Blige's next big screen role will be playing the legendary '50s singer Dinah Washington in Respect, a film that will chronicle the life of the great Aretha Franklin, played by Jennifer Hudson, set to be released on Aug. 13, 2021.
Washington, like many women in the spotlight, had her ups and downs when it came to her personal life. However, when it came to her career, she was very strong-willed, which is all the more admirable considering the time she rose to fame. It's also an area where Blige found herself relating to the late musician most.
"I'm influenced by jazz as a singer, and just as a person, I'm not taking anything when it comes to my career," she rightfully states. "I know what I want now, and I'm assertive. Whoever doesn't like it, it's too bad. Respectfully, just stay out of my way and let me do what I'm doing."
And with that said, Mary, live your life, girl.
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