As the Spirit Moves Mary: The Life and Art of Mary J. Blige

Mary J. Blige
My Life II: The Journey Continues

“There are certain women singers who possess, beyond all the boundaries of our admiration for their art, an uncanny power to evoke our love. We warm with pleasure at mere mention of their names; their simplest songs sing in our hearts like the remembered voices of old dear friends, and when we are lost within the listening anonymity of darkened concert halls, they seem to seek us out unerringly. Standing regal within the bright isolation of the stage, their subtlest effects seem meant for us and us along: privately, as across the intimate space of our own living rooms. And when we encounter the simple dignity of their immediate presence, we suddenly ponder the mystery of human greatness.”

— Ralph Ellison, “As the Spirit Moves Mahalia”, 1958

During the promotional press tour for her latest album, My Life II: The Journey Continues, Mary J. Blige appeared on the British talk show, Later with Jools Holland. Filling and flattering a pink dress with the grace of a statue wearing stone, she stood next to a black, baby grand piano. With the aid of stiletto heels, she towered above Holland as he played the notes of “Need Someone”. Her blonde hair was laid into waves that parted for the brilliant beauty of her mahogany face. She sang through the bittersweet love letter without any accompaniment besides the sparsely arranged keys of the piano.

Her rendition is hypnotic in its subtlety and soft nuance. She bends notes, allows her voice to fade out on the more mournful words, deepens her voice as the plea gathers drama, and changes phrasing, according to some internal melody that possesses more purity than anything on the stage, with such natural grace that the only indication that she needs to put effort into her performance is the pain on her face. The pain on her face, which gets prettier and prettier, communicates the internal struggle for love and redemption that Blige is able to channel through enormous talent that makes excellence appear easy.

The performance of “Need Someone” has not and will not have the forceful impact of the ferocious “No More Drama” she delivered at the 44th Grammy Awards in 2002. With her hair cropped short and in a gold suit, which resembled Elvis Presley’s ’50s gold lame, she stomped the blues on stage with her heeled, white boots, and her voice that rose to cathartic, but tuneful screams. The anger and passion of her proclamation of emancipation from the “demons in her life”, both of the self-made and externally invasive variety, flushed out in hellacious shouts that borrowed equally from the church and from the blues. She jumped, stomped, threw her hands in the air, and punched at the air in a wave of emotional outburst that left her visibly exhausted as the audience gave her a well-earned standing ovation.

The two performances, separated by nine calendar years, but an emotional lifetime, demonstrate the multiple gifts and multiple personalities of Mary J. Blige. The two performances also demonstrate how she can coherently connect those multiple personalities by using those multiple gifts to present the life of a woman who is troubled and saved and lost and redeemed from note-to-note. She is beautiful, wonderful and inspirational all the more because she can project herself as a fine figure of feminine elegance and as a street songstress whose serenade is as tough, unforgiving, and hard as the swollen knuckles on a boxer’s fist.

Most impressively, she can do both without contradiction. Within the emotional world that her art constructs, “Need Someone” and “No More Drama” are the opposite, but they are the same.

Blige was born in the Bronx in New York City. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a jazz musician. Her father was the first to encourage her to sing, before she started in church choirs, but eventually abandoned her and her three siblings when she was just a young girl. Her mother moved the family to a housing project in New York, and her childhood would quickly fill with terror and trauma. She was sexually abused by a family friend on a regular basis. She grew up in a neighborhood where bullets fly and families collapse. Like too many poor, black youth, she dropped out of high school in the 11th grade.

The sexual assault would begin a vicious cycle of degradation and dehumanization at the hands of men who beat her in relationships and, like spiritual looters, exploited the original theft of her innocence that took place in the projects. It was the generosity of a man, however, that helped launch her career. Her mother’s boyfriend worked to get a demo tape of a 17-year-old Mary covering an Anita Baker song into the hands of an A&R man at Uptown Records. She began as a backup singer, and would eventually go on to headline, recording albums and releasing singles that millions of listeners would grow to love.

The success, measured materially, and greatness, measured artistically and spiritually, of Blige is evidence of the power of affirmation. A black, female high school drop out from the poor part of town is likely the last person that most people would expect to possess the brilliance and strength required to lead a massively successful career of artistic achievement, financial independence, and personal integrity.

If people receive love, encouragement, and support – the gifts of affirmation – they can overcome the phony limitations placed on them by forces in America who still attempt to define people according to lazy stereotypes, which Stanley Crouch calls “assembly line identification.”

Despite proving herself worthy of opportunity, Blige didn’t become the moving portrait of erotic power, emotional strength, and spiritual regality from which her audience can draw inspiration when she first signed a record deal. Through the early years of her success, she found it impossible to defeat those demons, always laughing sardonically in her ear. She continued to choose abusive partners, and began the process of self-abuse that narcotics and excessive alcohol facilitate.

It was through self-annihilation and perdition that her second album, My Life, now rightfully regarded as a classic, was born. It was an album about the struggle to love one’s self even when one feels unworthy. It was saturated in sadness and surrounded in darkness. Blige’s gospel styled vocal delivery of wailing, shouting, crying, and soft, smoky speak-sing masterfully communicated the chaos of life when sickness, depression, and near-death experiences become ordinary.

“Be Happy”, “Never Wanna Live Without You”, the album’s title track and her superior cover of “I’m Going Down”, aurally sketched a woman fighting for every breath, but like the best of the blues, which imbues the spirit, if not the style of My Life, the songs possess an energy and uplift that makes the listener feel better. If Blige could not find strength anywhere in her personal life, she found it in her performative life. She found it in those songs. The songs explore hell, but they find heaven.

In a recent interview with Ebony, Blige said that she “could have easily been Amy Winehouse,” referring to the untimely drug-driven death of the pop singer. (“Making Happy – Mary J. Blige finds—and holds—a quiet joy”, by Allison Samuels, October 2011.)

The fact that she did not end up like Amy Winehouse is, in itself, an achievement. Longevity and responsibility may not have the glamorized mythology of a burning flame, but its light is filled with far more glory, wisdom, and luminosity.

She credits her survival, continued growth as an artist, and current state of quiet joy to finding happiness in herself after rediscovering her faith in God and newly discovering the power of love after meeting and marrying Kendu Isaacs. She told Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes that she was able to liberate herself from the harassment and brutality of violent fools once she learned the “art of self-respect.” “I hold them responsible for what they did,” she explained, “but I had to realize that as long as I was resentful and hateful and bitter, I was only going to attract people who were resentful and hateful and bitter.”

The complex combination of pride and humility that is self-love allowed her to transform into a better version of herself – a version worthy and prepared for healthy marriage. Armed with her Christian faith, she was an entirely new woman. “My Testimony”, one of her best songs from the album No More Drama, delineates the spiritual pillar on which she leans without falling into the sentimentally arrogant trap of proselytizing. Her passionate celebration of the Christian solution to her spiritual problems provides artistic renewal to listeners like me who also believe in that solution, but is sufficiently personalized to serve as a story evidencing the durability of the human spirit for her secular audience.

The songs of “My Life” eventually gave way to “No More Drama” and “My Testimony,” and those songs gave way to the urgency and ecstasy of “Be Without You”, a love song to her husband (a stunning live performance at the 2007 Grammy’s earned her a standing ovation of equal avidity to 2002’s “No More Drama”), and the celebration of life on “Just Fine”, her best foray into dance pop.

Along the way of her spiritual and artistic migration, Blige created Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now), which gives college scholarships to high school students and brings programs into inner-city schools that encourage self-confidence, ambition, and personal responsibility. She has also opened a women’s career center in New York City.

The scale of her transformation makes it fitting that she calls her newest album My Life II: The Journey Continues. Sonically, it flirts too heavily, at times, with dance pop trends, and structurally, it brings in far too many guests (five of its thirteen songs feature another headlining performer. None of them contribute anything noteworthy).

My Life II, despite its flaws, is an immensely enjoyable and impressive album. The four song, mid-album set of soulful R&B, featuring both her new single “25/8” and a cover of Chaka Kahn’s “Ain’t Nobody” is pure pleasure for the ear, unfiltered stimulation for the body, and mood enhancer for the heart. The closing trio of ballads, including “Need Someone” and the soundtrack single from The Help, “The Living Proof” demonstrate the singer’s ability to capture the magnificent mysteries of adult emotion in her vocal phrasing.

If My Life gave people insight and empowerment who shared the singer’s despair, My Life II is the amplification of three of the most important words in the English language: It is possible. Those are the three words that give Blige’s story such epic majesty and profound beauty. Those are the three words that imbue the beauty and majesty, as opposed to the cruelty and brutality, of American history, and those are the three words that make the human condition, in its worst moments, which Blige experienced, livable. Her personality imprints her art with a story of a life won against suffering, but the quality of the work manages to depersonalize the art, making it an entertaining model and manual for those also working toward redemption.

America’s cultural addictions, at this turn in its story, are the low-lying fruits of pessimism and cynicism. Young people are given pop examples of people measuring happiness and molding identity under the auspices that one can “possess one’s soul through the possession of commodities,” as Cornel West warns against. They are told to believe that their best self is dependent upon the next fashion trend, diet fad, or surgical improvement. They watch the elevation of egoists, who flash their wealth and power, and advocate the same model, while discouraging the free contemplation of dreams, joy, and beauty. Very often the most awarded art is dark to the point of reckless nihilism.

Early in her career, she was branded the “queen of hip hop soul”. Then producer, Sean “Diddy” Combs, had hoped to nickname her the “queen of ghetto soul”, but accepted the change made by his supervisor at Uptown Records. It’s clear that Combs is still set on casting Blige into the role he championed, without having the imagination or awareness to understand that she fills a multiplicity of roles. He told Ebony, “She was the girl next door in the inner city,” explaining why she became a superstar. Although Blige maintains loyalty to her roots, and takes direct philanthropic action to improve the lives of young women with the same roots, she has simultaneously fulfilled and gone beyond the “queen of hip hop soul” tagline. She is soul, and that’s it. She’s got it, she sings with it, and she lives it.

She also resists and rejects the ignorance of defining authenticity down. It’s important that someone within hip hop demonstrate that “being real” doesn’t mean presenting one’s self as an unrepentant thug or a greedy nymphomaniac. There are other resisters, but Blige is by far the most public. Her honesty is an alternative to the “authenticity” addiction of hip hop, which comes out of the same dangerous impulses of America’s materialistic, narcissistic, and pessimistic addictions.

Mary J. Blige is presenting the same path to sobriety for America that enabled her to overcome her addictions. Upon consideration that she survived and that she continues to allow us to see, hear, and feel the sweep of her spirit, we can be nothing less than grateful.