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
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
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
“When women lose their self-esteem,
they lose themselves in a spiral
down to insecurity,” Blige says.
“My whole movement has been to
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
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
“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
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