Mary J. Blige: From the Projects to Hip-Hop Soul Queen


June 22, 2006 — -- The "J" in her name may stand for Jane, but she is no plain Jane for sure.

From Yonkers, N.Y., to Hollywood, Calif.; from 411 operator to queen of hip-hop soul; from rags to riches, Mary J. Blige is a star in American pop culture who many can relate to on some level because her road to stardom hasn't been an easy one.

Blige has come a long way since her first karaoke-style demo tape from 17 years ago that she put together with a few friends at a mall.

The 34-year-old has gone from a tough Brooklyn brunette, to a short-haired, sassy bombshell, to a sultry blonde. One thing, though, always seems to remain at Blige's core: a drive to achieve.

Blige is a true American success story. The title of her 1992 debut album, "What's the 411?," was probably no accident. Before Blige recorded that album, she used her cords working as a 411 operator.

Before earning the enviable title of queen of hip-hop soul, Blige emerged in the early '90s as a young R&B singer closely tied with hip-hop artists and producers. The singer helped to muddy the distinctions between those genres, along with other artists like TLC and Salt-N-Pepa.

This rags-to-riches story that Blige embraces is exactly the reason why the MAC cosmetics company chose the hip-hop soulful singer as its AIDS Foundation Viva Glam pinup girl.

It didn't all start out quite so glamorous for Blige.

"She had a rough childhood, and she is able to express that very uniquely. That's why people relate to her," said Blige's publicist Jim Merlis of Geffen Records. "Her emotions are very raw and on the surface."

Just a couple of decades ago, few would have predicted that this woman, raised in the Schlobam Housing Projects of Yonkers, would now be harmonizing with the likes of rock superstars U2.

"She's a lot more mature now. She deals with her emotions better. She lashes out less. She knows the world isn't fair and rolls with it," Merlis said.

Blige's launch to top-of-the-chart stardom was in part ignited by her upbringing in one of New York City's poor neighborhoods.

"Every day I would be getting into fights over whatever. You always had to prove yourself to keep from getting robbed or jumped," Blige said in an interview with Essence magazine. "Growing up in the projects is like living in a barrel of crabs. If you try to get out, one of the other crabs tries to pull you down."

In her 2000 tour, "The Mary Show," Blige dressed up as superheroine "Protector of the Hood" to reflect her rags-to-riches reality, giving inspiration to others.

"Having been raised on the hard streets of the city. … The chance to be transformed into a 'Protector of the Hood' sends a powerful message to my fans that your community is what you make of it, that you can be a superhero every day," Blige told Jet magazine.

Growing up with an older sister and two younger brothers, Blige had music in her blood. Her father was a professional jazz musician. His presence during her youth, however, was sparse, as he left the family in the mid-1970s.

The family depended on Blige's mother, Cora, a nurse, for financial support. Blige told hip-hop magazine The Source. "Watching my mother struggle to raise us and feed us made me want to be a stronger woman."

Blige's religious background also played into her passion for music. She sang with her mother and sister in the House of Prayer Pentecostal Church choir. "We used to go to church all night. Everybody would be real good to us," Blige told Vibe magazine's Emil Wilbekin.

In her teen years, Blige enjoyed solo spots in the choir while making the rounds of local talent shows. She grew up listening to R&B, soul and funk, including Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight.

As a teenager, she experimented with alcohol and drugs, eventually dropping out of school in the 11th grade.

At age 17, Blige recorded that first karaoke demo, an amateur recording of "Caught Up in the Rapture."

Her mother gave the demo to her boyfriend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to R&B singer Jeff Redd. He passed it off to Andre Harrell, an executive with Uptown Records, who added Blige to Uptown's growing roster of young R&B talents.

When Uptown Records was gearing up for Blige's debut album in 1991, she was lucky to be mentored by hip-hop legend Sean "Puffy" Combs. After "What's the 411?" came out, Blige was on a roll, eventually releasing about a dozen more.

Blige married music producer Kendu Isaacs in 2003, whom she credited with helping her to overcome her drug and alcohol addiction.

Blige depends on her spirituality and humor on a daily basis.

"My God is a God who wants me to have things," the R&B singer said to Blender magazine. "He wants me to bling. He wants me to be the hottest thing on the block.

"I don't know what kind of God the rest of y'all are serving," she said. "But the God I serve says, 'Mary, you need to be the hottest thing this year, and I'm gonna make sure you're doing that'."

Beyond loving bling -- hip-hop slang for extravagant jewelry -- Blige's self-indulgence stops there.

She's been praised as a star who gives back to her community, often times through a portion of album or ticket sales.

"I always said if I were to get some money one day, I would go back and help," Blige said to Jet magazine. "I know I can't help everybody, but if I can help a few. … That would be nice."

Blige has been very involved in AIDS awareness and education initiatives, particularly in black communities.

She's helped foster economic and technological development in communities across the country. As a former high school dropout, Blige now recognizes the importance of education and urges kids to stay in school.

Blige didn't initially get into singing for the money. In fact, she says she never thought she'd make a living out of it.

She always knew singing brought out a different side of her. In a 1993 Rolling Stone interview, she revealed how shy she was. "I'm just not a very open person. The most open I am is when I sing."

It's now abundantly clear Blige can make more than just a living from singing.

Off her most recent album, "The Breakthrough," released at the end of 2005, the first single, "Be Without You" -- charting for 15 weeks -- was the longest-running No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart since 1965.

Blige is about to promote "The Breakthrough" on a summer tour that kicks off July 1 in Houston.

Regardless of her ever-changing hair color, cut or style; no matter the genre of music; or who may accompany her on a song -- be it P.Diddy, 50 Cent, or Bono -- she has a core mission.

"I've survived a lot of things, and if I can help one person survive a bad place in life by being a spokeswoman for any charity, I'll be there."

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