Mary J. Blige, R&B singer and Oscar nominee, turns 48 on January 11th. Here, an HG contributor reflects on Blige’s honest, healing music.
As much as I’d like to take all the credit for my great taste in music, I must admit that my parents deserve an equal part of it. Their musical interests rubbed off on me, including their deep love for Mary J. Blige. The first time I really listened to Mary was on her album The Tour, which she released in the summer of 1998. At the time, my parents had started a short-lived business selling CDs, and after I got a handheld CD player, I begged them to let me have a few discs to start my collection. They gave me that particular album, and I’m so happy they did.
I was about 7 or 8 when I first listened to it. I played it from front to back until I knew every lyric and ad lib. Of course, as a child, the subject matter—mainly love, heartbreak and pain—wasn’t something I connected to. Still, something in her music captivated me. She poured her heart out over a beat with beautiful background vocals and so much soul. Subconsciously, it inspired me, even if I was a little girl.
As I grew older, Mary J. Blige remained one of my favorite artists, so I became curious about her personal life. I was a teenager when I learned the story of the woman behind the heart wrenching music.
Mary J. Blige grew up in poverty, was a survivor (not a victim) of molestation and abuse, and she turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain during the earlier parts of her career. At first, I didn’t understand how someone who made such beautiful music could be hurting so much. Or how someone could endure tremendous pain at a young age and keep it all bottled up. What I didn’t yet understand was that Mary never kept anything bottled up—she released it in her art. She made beautiful music because of her pain, not in spite of it. Her music, all of the sad songs that we love so dearly, were her own form of therapy.
Mary J. Blige uttered these lyrics on her 2005 album The Breakthrough, where we saw a noticeable change from her familiar heartbreak-inspired music to songs evoking happiness and wholeness. Without a doubt, some of Mary’s best hits were recorded when she was battling drug addiction, staying in unhealthy relationships, and singing through pain. “Not Gon Cry,” “Time,” and “Deep Inside” are a few of my favorite Mary J. Blige songs in which she pours out her sadness for the world to hear. But by singing through her struggles, she uplifted others and herself, transforming her own life and the lives of her fans.
When something weighs heavily on my heart, I turn to Mary and other artists who have healed from their pain after expressing struggle in their art. I may not be able to hold a tune, but as a writer, I connect to Mary ‘s ability to create art through pain. If I may say so myself, some of my best writing happens when I feel the need to share a difficult story. A strained relationship with my dad, post-graduate depression, and the uneasiness of 20-something life are some of the many trials I’ve shared publicly through my art form. I felt alone during those experiences, but when I shared my story, I realized that it was therapeutic for me and for readers who have felt alone in similar situations. Helping someone else in the process of expressing your pain is the most gratifying part of being an artist.
There’s a certain boldness that comes with the ability to share your darkness moments and insecurities with the world. I’ve always admired that about Mary. In a way, that ideology has been ingrained in my own work. Art is a reflection of the artist and the qualities that separate them from everyone else. Whether or not you are an artist, embracing vulnerability and opening up is a necessary step towards healing. As I progress in my writing, I think about becoming a better version of myself and making a positive impact on others whenever I create.
To this day, if I can’t find the words or if I lose sight of my creative purpose, I tune into a Mary J. Blige playlist, realign myself, and start writing.