In 2015, Mary J Blige gave an impassioned performance on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. The crowd watched her through the pouring rain, and as her most famous single, No More Drama, came to a rapturous end, she fell to the floor, and looked as if she was about to break down into tears. “I didn’t know so many people knew my songs,” she says, two years later, over dinner in a London hotel. “It was really emotional for me, for so many reasons that I can’t even get into. But life is revealing them right now.”
There’s a lot going on in Blige’s life. She’s just off the plane from the United States, and she needs fried food, so the artist known as the queen of hip-hop soul ends up picking at fish and chips and drinking a cup of tea. She seems tired. She keeps circling back to the end of her marriage. In 2016, she filed for divorce from her husband of 12 years, Kendu Isaacs, citing irreconcilable differences. He had also been her manager. She doesn’t want this interview to be “all about that one thing”, yet she can’t seem to help but talk about it, again and again. The past five years have been hard, but change is on the horizon. “This is a whole other chapter of my life,” she insists.
The previous chapters have been action-packed, to say the least. Blige grew up in Yonkers, New York, and was signed to Uptown Records as a teenager in the late 80s, after a tape of her singing an Anita Baker track in a shopping mall found its way to the label. She was a backing singer first, before she released her debut album, What’s the 411?, produced by Puff Daddy, in 1992. Her star rose fast. The album won multiple awards and went triple platinum, selling more than 3m copies. She collaborated with George Michael, U2 and Elton John, who said she had “one of the best voices you’re ever going to hear”. Her music was often raw, and laid out the suffering she endured in toxic relationships. She’d had problems with drink and drugs. In 2001, when she released No More Drama, there was a sense that she was drawing a line under the pain.
But Blige is not here to promote a new album, though she released one of her best records in years back in April, The Strength of a Woman. She moved to Los Angeles towards the end of her marriage in order to take acting more seriously. She’d acted before, doing bit parts and guest roles here and there, mostly in comedies, but today she’s talking about Mudbound, the new film she’s starring in, which tells an evocative story of racism and friendship on a farm in Mississippi in the period immediately after the Second World War. Blige is Florence Jackson, the stoic mother of a GI who returns from war to the same old prejudice. It isn’t a subtle story, but it’s deeply harrowing and has a hefty emotional grip that lingers long after it’s over. As Florence, Blige negotiates hardship, pain and fierce injustice with a surprising and gentle subtlety. “I believe it will have that effect on everyone, because of how close it is now to how we’re living in the world,” says Blige. She doesn’t want to be too political, she says, but there’s a reason that it resonates now, and she’s angry and articulate about the state of her home nation. “Look at what our leadership is doing. He’s exploding. It’s a nightmare. I’ve never seen anything like this. How did we go from President Obama, maturity and positivity and wisdom, to negativity and texting and twittering and all this bullshit, and blowing up and pointing the finger? It’s crazy.”
Mudbound is her first real chance at a meaty role, and she more than holds her own against a seasoned cast that includes Jonathan Banks and Carey Mulligan. Director Dee Rees has said she only wanted Blige for Florence; Blige said she accepted immediately, because the script moved her to tears. She hired an acting coach, who taught her to use what was going on in her life – “I always have a lot of stuff going on in my life,” she smiles. She set to work on shedding her pop star skin: “You can’t be Mary J Blige. You’ve got to be Florence, in the heat, in the mosquitoes, in the mud, in the little shack with all the kids and the husband. Mary J Blige don’t have a husband… any more.” Was it nice to not be Mary J Blige for a while? “Absolutely. It was liberating. I used to wear a lot of weaves and wigs and cover up my edges and stuff. Florence got me out here wearing my edges out. I was running around with no perm, no press, just my own natural hair, barely any make-up. It was good for me.”
In her diamond hoop earrings and black lace top, wavy blonde hair tied high, Blige is predictably glamorous, despite the fish and chips in front of her. (“What is this?” she asks at one point, prodding something small and round on the side of her plate. It looks like a pickled egg, I say. She’s appalled at the idea.) The film made her realise how vain she normally is. “I was angry about not having lashes! I was kind of hot about that, and then I was like, ‘Oh my God Mary, you’re so vain.’”
Where Blige grew up, in the housing projects of Yonkers, appearance mattered. “Everything was about how you look. Although you didn’t have, it was about how you looked. So when Salt-N-Pepa had the blonde hair, it was about that, it was about the sneakers, it was about the jackets. Then I became Mary J Blige, and it was really about that. She’s such a real person that I had to get rid of her to make sure that character lived.” I am briefly confused. Who’s the real person? “Mary is a real person,” she clarifies. “I had to really surrender from her to make sure Florence could live. Turns out Florence is even doper than Mary J Blige.”
The last five years were a disaster. I was having trouble in my marriage, hoping to save it – but it was already gone
Blige often talks of “Mary J Blige” like this, as if she’s a separate entity to the woman sitting across the table from me. Why? “Well, Mary J Blige is me, but she is a business, and separate. But she’s me.” It’s been 25 years since What’s the 411? came out, and the disconnect between the two – Mary the performer, the star, and Mary the human being – is so pronounced that she seems disoriented by it, even now. She grasps for the precise words to describe how it feels to go from poverty to riches, from the projects to such fame. “If you have a lot of money, you can cover up everything. When you don’t have a lot of money, it doesn’t cover anything. So you learn how to walk through embarrassment and shame. I appreciate it and I’m so grateful for it.” That gratitude is all part of her survival instinct, which has come in handy over the years. “You know how to weather that storm when you don’t have money. You know how to weather that storm when some embarrassing shit on TMZ hits you. It all teaches you tough skin.”
I wonder how tough her skin really is. She’s had plenty of dramas over the course of her life, despite declaring that there would be no more of them, but whenever I’ve heard her talk about the various scandals or controversies she’s encountered, she sounds genuinely upset by it all. Last year she interviewed the then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and was widely mocked for singing at her. “I thought that I was trying to help us to make a change,” she sighs. “This is me, this is Mary J Blige, I’m no journalist, I’m scared to death.” During their conversation, she offered Clinton a brief cover of Bruce Springsteen’s American Skin (41 Shots), a song about police brutality. “It affected me that people just cannot look at something positive and get on board. They’ve got to pick on you. No matter how positive it is, they’ve got to find some way to make a meme about it. It’s like – cool. You know what, fine. Fuck ’em. Right?” She laughs, drily. “That’s how you move on.”
Unprompted, she comes back to her divorce again. For the past year or so the couple have been going through a nasty court battle. When things were going wrong in her professional life, personal alarm bells began to ring. “I had the Burger King commercial [she starred in an ad that was quickly pulled when it was criticised for racial stereotyping], then my taxes and my business were all over the TV, and then it was this, then it was that. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on? Have I been abandoned? Yes.’ That was a big signal. I had been abandoned in my marriage.” What was the big signal? “Every single thing that was happening. It was one bad thing after the next.”
She started to see herself not only on celebrity gossip sites, but on the news. “On the ticker, at the bottom of the TV. Yikes. At the same time, there was something beautiful about that. It made me realise how important I was to the world. I’m that big of a star? Well, let me get my shit together then.” There’s that dry laugh again. “It’s not the things I did right that informed me. It’s all the mistakes I made that are helping me to better my life. Because that was a disaster. I didn’t know if I was going to make it.” Do you mean last year? “The last five years were a disaster. And then on top of that I was having trouble in my marriage, hoping to save it, when my marriage was already gone. I was left alone.”
Blige felt so lost during this time that she began to question whether she even wanted to make music any more. “I just wasn’t sure about anything. If someone chips away at your self-esteem and it’s so low that you don’t even know you can do what you do…” She trails off. She moved to London for a while, to get away, and in 2014 released The London Sessions, an album she made with Sam Smith and Disclosure, among others. “They helped boost my self-esteem and they helped me believe in my talent. They believed in me and I was like, ‘Well shit, maybe I should start believing in myself again.’” Hang on, I say. You’re Mary J Blige! Why do you need Disclosure to tell you how good you are? “It doesn’t matter, you know,” she says, sadly. “When you’ve been in something so long that you’ve been chipped away, and it happens little by little, and it’s a crazy thing. It was about seeing that someone appreciated me.” This year, she released the painfully honest The Strength of a Woman. “Yeah. When it comes to music now, I know my gut is great. That’s what I lost, my gut and my gift. But I got it back. It’s back now.”
Then there’s Mudbound, which is keeping Blige busy, and more acting to come. She’s got another couple of roles lined up, though she can’t talk about what they are yet. She’s taking care of her own finances for the first time in her life, overseeing every single bit of what comes in and what goes out, because she feels as if she can’t trust people enough to do it for her. She says that she kept meeting people and thinking they were decent, “and meantime they were robbing you just like everyone else was robbing you”. We end up talking about the recent Whitney Houston documentary. “Yeah. She was very lonely. She couldn’t have the person who she really, really loved around, because other people came in and moved that person out, and now she’s alone. So yeah. You know that saying, it’s lonely at the top? It’s not a saying, it’s true,” she says, softly.
Mudbound will launch on Netflix and in cinemas with Curzon on 17 November