By Terrance Turner
May 15, 2022
Tonight singer, songwriter and actress Mary J. Blige received the Icon Award at the Billboard Music Awards. It was the culmination of a 30-year career in music — into which she has poured heartache from a hard, harrowing early life.
Blige was born in 1971 in the Bronx but spent her early years in Atlanta, Georgia. Her mother Cora was a nurse; her father Thomas was a musician and Vietnam War vet who suffered from PTSD. My mother went through awful abuse from my father,” Blige once recalled. “He left us when I was 4, but he’d come back from time to time and abuse her some more.”
Hoping to escape from her father, Blige and her mother moved to the Schlobohm Houses, a public housing project in Yonkers. The projects offered only more horror: “I’d hear women screaming and running down the halls from guys beating up on them. People chased us with weapons. I never saw a woman there who wasn’t abused.” Blige herself was sexually abused at age five by a family friend.
“When I was five years old I was molested and just, you know…I remember feeling, literally right before it happened, I just could not believe that this person was going to do this to me,” Blige told VH1’s “Behind the Music”. “That thing followed me all my life,” she added. “The shame of thinking my molestation was my fault – it led me to believe I wasn’t worth anything.”
Blige turned to alcohol and drugs to numb her pain, which led to addictions that continued for years. Through it all, her saving grace was music. Blige sang in church and grew up loving jazz and soul. As a teenager she went to a mall and recorded a karaoke cover of Anita Baker’s “Caught up in the Rapture”. Her stepfather played the tape for Jeff Redd, an A&R rep for Uptown Records. The tape got to Andre Harrell. (Andre Harrell founded Uptown Records; he is credited with pioneering the genres of “new jack swing” and “hip hop soul”.) He signed Blige in 1989.
Blige debuted in 1992 with her album What’s the 411? She connected with fans immediately due to her raw, emotive voice and her streetwise hip-hop style. When other female artists were polished and primped to within an inch of their lives, Blige was a tough girl from Yonkers — a “round-the-way girl”. What’s the 411? went triple platinum and sparked the hit single “Real Love” — the first of a string of multi-platinum singles that would cement Blige’s status as the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul”.
For her second album, “My Life”, Blige began songwriting, channeling all of her pain. Dealing with drugs, depression, and an abusive relationship with singer Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey, Blige was rapidly heading for rock bottom. “I was just in a vulnerable, horrible state of mind — depressed, ready to die. I just didn’t know what to do with this pain; it just all became too big for me and I needed to put it somewhere,” she told Buzzfeed News.
Blige contributed lyrics to 14 of the album’s tracks — and cried her way through recording them. “It was painful,” she said to Buzzfeed. “I was in so much pain, singing. I was really in so much pain. I was crying singing a lot of those songs, because I would have to leave the studio and still deal with whatever I was dealing with in real life.”
That pain resonated with listeners. Powered by strong songs like “My Life”, “Be Happy”, and the hit single “I’m Going Down”, My Life also went triple platinum and was critically acclaimed. It marked an artistic turning point for Blige, as she began expressing herself through songwriting.
“You have sang our joy, you have sang our pain, and you gave a girl like me from southeast D.C. from the hood, a story and a voice,” said actress Taraji P.. Henson. “I feel so grateful for Mary J. Blige and her legacy,” said Oscar-winning singer/songwriter H.E.R. “All I can say is ‘All Hail the Queen’,” rapper and visual artist Missy Elliott said.
Legendary artist and Billboard Icon Award winner Janet Jackson presented Blige with the award. “The way the world is now, I think people think icons are born that way. They become a legend overnight. But that is definitely not the case. It take a lot of time, a lot of work, survival, trial and error to achieve greatness,” Blige said in her acceptance speech. “What an icon means to me is overcoming obstacles, to accomplish the unthinkable, and be widely admired for having influence over a multitude of people.”
“I’ve been on this journey for a long time — one that didn’t always look the way you see me now, one that is filled with a lot of heartache and pain. God helped me to channel a lot of those emotions and experiences into my music,” she said to the crowd.
She also talked about her style. “I was ghetto fabulous, and I still am,” she said. “And people were threatened by that. And now everybody wants to be ghetto fabulous.” But underneath the street style was an important message. “The message in my music has always been that we are not alone in our struggles,” she told the crowd.
I finally found a ‘real love’, and that real love is me,” she told the crowd. “Who’s managing Mary J. Blige now? Me.” She hastened to add: “There’s no I in team, so I want to thank everyone on my team. She started with God: “Without His love and guidance and protection, there’s none of this,” she said. She thanked her parents, her siblings, and her godson. She thanked her friends and employees. “Andre Harrell, I miss you so much,” she said. She thanked Diddy, who “continues to be one of my biggest inspirations. Thank you Jimmy Iovine, I thank you so much.”
“Be blessed. Be great. Good night.”