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The “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” vowed a long time ago to break through the cycle of abuse toward women that she witnessed—and lived—as a child. Mary J. Blige may have gone through fire to do it, but she is today living proof of the power of will, belief, and the determination to achieve her full potential.
Born in the Bronx, Blige spent her early years in Savannah, Ga., where she began singing in a Pentecostal church. She was only 4 when her father abandoned the family, and they moved to the Schlobohm Gardens housing projects in Yonkers. She was only 5 when she was sexually abused by a family friend.
“From the beginning,” she says, “as far back as I remember, I do not remember women being treated good by men—except maybe for my grandma. From the time I was 4 years old to adulthood, I have vowed to never see a woman hurt.”
That promise has informed much of Blige’s work today with women, and undoubtedly helped her own ascent from a troubled childhood to her undisputed position now as music royalty.
Blige dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. Her future may have played out in a numbingly predictable—and bleak—pattern of poverty and hopelessness, had she not found herself “in the right place at the right time”—a karaoke recording studio at a local mall.
Blige recorded a cassette of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture,” which her mother’s boyfriend played for a friend of his. That friend happened to be an Uptown Records recording artist. He liked what he heard, and in 1989, Blige was signed to the label. She was 18 years old.
For the next two years, Blige was in the background, singing backup for more well-known acts on the label. But in 1991 she was “discovered” on the TV show Showtime at the Apollo. The following year, she made her national debut on MTV. The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s career was launched with an album overseen by Sean “Puffy” Combs, and she had a string of hit singles.
Despite the impressive success, this period was also a dark one for Blige, contributing to music often described as “confessional” in tone. She was battling depression, drug addiction and alcoholism, as well as an abusive relationship—a personal history that Blige believes made her who she is today—and led her to establishing a foundation dedicated to helping women.
The Mary J. Blige and Steve Stoute Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now Inc. (FFAWN), based in New York, was founded in 2007 with the following mission: “To inspire women from all walks of life to gain the confidence and skills they need to reach their individual potential.”
The foundation’s Mary J. Blige Center for Women, a partnership between FFAWN and Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS), offers a wide range of opportunities for women who need a hand, from adult education and GED preparation to career exploration, parenting education, college readiness and life skills training. The center also offers health/wellness services, sex education, self-empowerment groups, mentoring, mental health services, and support for victims of domestic violence and abuse. The foundation’s “3E Workshop Series” stands for “empowerment through education and encouragement” and covers a broad array of everyday topics. The foundation also provides grants to other organizations with similar objectives, as well as vocational training and educational scholarships.
“When women lose their self-esteem, they lose themselves in a spiral down to insecurity,” Blige says. “My whole movement has been to empower women.”
But first, Blige had to empower herself.
“As painful as it is, you have to look at yourself,” she says. “You may not like it, but you have to deal with it…. If you want better for yourself, you won’t stop looking at yourself. You will try to change things. You either have a chance to fi x it or you can soak in it for the rest of your life. As for me, people depended on me.”
In 2003, Blige married her manager, Martin Kendu Isaacs, whom she credits with helping her overcome her addictions. She says he was the answer to her prayers, that “when [God] sends someone, it is usually in the form of a mirror.”
“When anyone comes into your life, they challenge you to be better,” she says. And better is what Blige became, day by day. She continued to gain momentum as an R&B artist, winning multiple Grammys, American Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards. Her latest album, Stronger with Each Tear, sold more than 330,000 copies in its first week. Despite her ascent into superstardom, she looks back on her darker days as instrumental in her current role as an advocate.
“What you see as a child—that environment—is most of the time what you become,” she says. “It was a kind of blessing that I morphed into these things. I didn’t go through all of this for nothing. Now I have a testimony that will help so many other women. I came out the other side pretty good, but there are still challenges. I’m not what I used to be. My goal is to get people to feel you care about them regardless of where they have been.”
Blige still works, still tours, and has ventured into acting and television. She performed at the Obama Inauguration Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial and was honored at the 2009 BET Honors Ceremony. She was a guest on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and a guest judge on the 2010 series of American Idol. And she has no desire to slow down.
“I can’t,” she says. “I just can’t. It’s not about me and my career. I can’t f latline. I would be letting everyone down. It would be selfish to just coast. I didn’t go through so much hell to coast. This isn’t about me. Success is about sharing. It’s about other people. It’s about who you are going to share this with.”
Part of her own self-acceptance has also been in knowing who she isn’t. Blige thinks fame can be as misleading to people as it can be rewarding. She says you have to stay humble and you have stay practical.
“So many people worship you and say, ‘You’re the best,’ and ‘You’re the greatest,’ ” she says. “You have to have a real good balance to know who you are, not to over-exaggerate your own importance. What I love about my past is that it put me in a position that I never heard good stuff about me. I never heard it from anyone, so when I hear it now, I believe it to a certain extent but it’s not everything to me. Being a person who walks in love is everything to me.”
It is that love that underscores Blige’s involvement with her foundation. Although she continues to enjoy her successful career, she looks forward to doing more good these days, starting with her hope that the foundation could expand “worldwide.”
“I would like to make sure the foundation does what it has set out to do, to take women to the next level spiritually, educationally, intellectually and career-wise—to make sure we can all get there. It will not happen overnight. It will be hard work.”
Hard work has defined Blige’s life, from those early struggles to the present, when she is committed to helping others overcome their particular problems. In the end, she says it is all about giving back.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” she says. “When you have been given so much, you have to give back. It’s especially true when you see people who don’t have anything. It feels good for me because I remember when I didn’t have anything to give. You can save a life. When I hear someone tell me, ‘You saved my life,’ that makes me ecstatic.”