Singer, songwriter, actress, activist, and reigning Queen of Hip-Hop Soul Mary J. Blige has been both a role model and role-player throughout her 30-year career. The Grammy-winner has inspired two generations of Black women with such gritty, confessional albums as My Life and Share My World, as well as with her equally fearless onscreen performances — including a star turn as Florence Jackson in the World War II drama Mudbound, which earned her historic Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for both Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song in 2018. But it was the Strength of a Woman diva’s portrayal of bad-ass assassin Cha Cha in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, for which she insisted on performing many of her own stunts, that made her want to join Gold Bond’s #ChampionYourSkin campaign and advocate for the performers she believes deserve their own Oscar category: Black stuntwomen.
“I’m just that type of girl. I don’t mind getting dirty and getting roughed up. … I learned how to fight and move when I was younger and I was broken up, and then I had a lot of situations in my real life where I had to fight men — so I learned how to not let them catch me,” Blige matter-of-factly tells Yahoo Entertainment, when asked about her seemingly risky decision to do her own stunt work. “But my adrenaline was up so high when I was fighting my [Umbrella Academy] partner, who was huge, that I didn’t realize how bruised up I was until I got home. I had taken a lot of hits. So, imagine the stuntwomen, the hard work that they do on the regular — they’re rolling, they’re falling down flights of stairs!”
Around that time, Blige had just divorced her husband (and manager) of more than 10 years, Martin “Kendu” Isaacs, after a protracted, public, and acrimonious legal battle. She’d told Variety in 2017 that she drew on “a lot of my own heaviness from my own misery that I was living in that horrible marriage” for her portrayal of Mudbound’s Florence, but she now tells Yahoo that playing Cha Cha and beating up bad guys, while also cathartic, was much more enjoyable. “I loved it, because I just felt like doing that to a certain person,” she laughs. “I loved every moment. I was telling my partner ‘hit me!’ — and I hit him back harder. I just loved it.”
Blige is known for fully bodily throwing herself into her musical performances as well, often exorcising her demons through her intensely personal lyrics that chronicle her experiences with depression, addiction, heartbreak, and abuse; this is a major reason why she’s connected with her fans over the decades, and she almost sees this as a sacrifice, an act of service. “The beauty about performances is I think I’ve been blessed with a gift to relive things — relive because it really happened,” she ponders. “And when you hear those lyrics, it lives again; when you sing those lyrics, it lives again. And I think I’ve been blessed with the gift to do that and not get harmed by it. My doing that, my reliving that onstage, is helping someone else to heal. And I don’t mind that being my job on this Earth. If that’s what I’m supposed to do, then that’s what I’ve been doing.
“I hear so many stories. People come to me all the time and say, ‘This song saved my life’ or ‘this song got me through college’ or ‘this song helped me to not kill myself.’ So many stories about people getting ready to commit suicide, or in a bad relationship and they’re getting a divorce, and my songs helped them to get a divorce,” Blige continues, citing “My Life” and “No More Drama” as her songs that seem to connect with fans the most. “I met a girl who said my song stopped her from driving off a cliff — it was ‘My Life.’ This other girl, with her mother, told me a story about her daughter being mangled by a dog and she never spoke again — and then she heard ‘No More Drama’ one day in the car, and she started speaking.” Blige admits that this is sometimes a heavy “responsibility that I just don’t even like to take on,” but she humbly stresses, “My song saved your life. I didn’t do it. It was the medicine in my song.”
Blige just received her first Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination, appearing on the most woman-heavy ballot in Rock Hall history (as well as its most racially diverse in 15 years) alongside Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, and Dionne Warwick. She’s more focused on acting at the moment, with her hit Starz series Power Book II: Ghost and her upcoming role as Dinah Washington in the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, but Blige does have a new album in the works. And she may soon earn another accolade, her third Oscar nomination, for her music: Her ballad “See What You’ve Done” from Belly of the Beast, a documentary about illegal sterilization practices in women’s prisons, is on the Academy’s shortlist of Best Song nominees. Blige explains that she knew she to be a part of the film — another important project advocating for marginalized women’s rights — once she saw its disturbing and moving footage.
“Man, when I saw the documentary, I was really mad,” says Blige. “I could not believe what I was seeing. I could not believe that women were being treated like that. They were being sterilized, and their right to be women and birth children was just being ripped away from them. And some of them didn’t even know it was going on. It just blew my mind, and the song ‘See What You’ve Done’ is exactly that: ‘Look what you’ve done. This bruise may never heal, because I can’t have kid now.’ You know, it’s deep.”
As for what life and global events will inspire the lyrics of Blige’s much-anticipated 14th studio album — which the singer says fans will be “hearing about soon” — she will, of course, always keep it real. “The majority of the world has been going through a lot of stuff since my first album, and the My Life album; the majority of the world is kind of sad,” she muses. “There’s beauty in triumph after tragedy, and people love that too, but I have to live from a real place. I can’t do what people want me to do. I have to do what’s honest to me, so I could sleep at night and so I can really help someone heal with my honesty. So, if I’m feeling great, it’s not like I’m feeling the greatest, because I still have trials. I’m still dealing with things. But guess what? I’m getting through it. I’m optimistic. I’m hopeful. And if I’m just going through hell, then I’m going through hell, period. There is no optimism. And I’ve had that too. But I have more of ‘OK, I’m optimistic — but here comes this trial.’ That’s more of my life right now. … And the inner work has to be done every single day, in order to stay chipper.”
The superstar, who recently celebrated her milestone 50th birthday, concludes with: “I’m just learning how to be more confident and more patient, really more confident with who I am, what I am, in my own skin. It’s been a process, and I’ve gotten really, really far in that. And so, any time there’s a negative thought about myself, about my life, I turn it off, turn it off, turn it off.”
f you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by John Santo