As the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige has left an indelible mark on fans and the music industry alike. But it’s her laser focus on self-love that we find truly inspiring.

By Bethany Heitman
September 08, 2020
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“Life can be only what you make it.”

If you recognize that lyric from the Mary J. Blige hit “My Life,” it’s no surprise: The triple-platinum album of the same name has been riding high on best-of-all-time lists since its release in 1994. Mary admits the words resonate with her all these years later. “That song is really emotional to perform,” she says. “It speaks to me still about what life is—life can be only what you make it.” And what an incredible life Mary has made for herself.

Born in the Bronx and raised primarily by a single mother, Mary had an early life that was not the stuff that dreams are made of. She has revealed that she was sexually abused as a child, and that singing got her through the pain. In a twist of fate, singing is also what changed her life. In 1989, at the age of 18, Mary became the first woman—and the youngest artist—that Uptown Records had ever signed.

It’d be easy to say the rest is history, but that would gloss over a lot of important things. Brief highlights of her illustrious career include selling more than 50 million records worldwide, winning nine Grammy Awards, and receiving three Golden Globe and two Academy Award nominations (Best Supporting Actress and Original Song for 2017’s Mudbound). The 49-year-old has been working nonstop since she hit the scene, making music and acting in movies and on television. You can currently catch her in Power Book II: Ghost on Starz. Recently, she's also been hard at work on her brand new wine label, Sun Goddess—which is available nationwide.

ITAYSHA JORDAN

That’s a lot of success right there, but it still doesn’t reveal the work Mary has put in to achieve professional success and personal happiness. Early in her career, she managed to untangle herself from both addiction and an abusive relationship. In 2018, she finalized a very public divorce. And while she’s a fairly private person when it comes to the more intimate details of her life, her music is as raw and vulnerable as ever. Here, she opens up to Health about the lessons she’s still trying to learn, her thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement, and her trick for staying positive—because as far as Mary’s concerned, life can be only what you make it.

What has being in isolation during the pandemic taught you?

I’m going to take away a real appreciation of this me time. I was already liking me, and now I have grown deeper in love with myself because I love my own company. I don’t think any of us realized how fast we had been moving. I really appreciate this rest and this silence, so that I can hear more clearly what’s going on. When you’re by yourself, you’re either going to be your own best friend and be honest and real with yourself, or you’re going to be your own worst enemy and deceive yourself. It’s been so clear to me that I am my best friend.

One of the things you’ve used your voice to support is Black Lives Matter.

The killing of George Floyd was atrocious—words cannot even describe it. At the same time, it was the catalyst for some change. It put a mirror up in front of all of us, but we still have such a long way to go. Racism has always been a problem, and this was the breaking point and caused a reaction around the world. There are so many things I want to see change, and things are changing, thank God.

ITAYSHA JORDAN

Can you share how it has affected you?

This has affected me the same way it has affected the world. So much emotion, outrage, and anger has caused us all to respond the only way we knew how. It was traumatizing to see them kill this man for no reason—and so many of us every day for so many years. We have had years of frustration and years of being ignored, but all of this has brought change. We still have a long way to go, and this is why Black lives will always matter.

When you were a little girl, did you ever dream you’d have the life you have now?

I didn’t have big dreams and goals. I think because of the environment we lived in, it was hard to dream. Because if you dream or you smile too much, people would hurt you. Hurting people hurt people. But I was a singer, and people would always ask me to sing. I didn’t know that it was going to become this. I just thought God gave me a gift to survive, and that was my survival tactic, to sing. I would feel better about my environment; I would feel better about how we were living. I would feel better about everything if I just sang.

You’ve never shied away from being vulnerable with your music—singing about things like heartbreak and other sensitive topics. Is it difficult to be that open?

I don’t believe that we go through things to keep them a secret and then one day die of a heart attack because we have secrets festering inside of us. I think that we go through stuff to speak about it so we can help someone else heal. That’s the gift God gave me as an artist, to be able to be transparent and say: “You know what? It happened to me, too.” I don’t have any of the answers. That’s why I keep having to do so much work.

ITAYSHA JORDAN

You also have an accomplished career as an actress. Now, people can see you in Power Book II: Ghost on Starz. What made you want to take on the role of Monet?

I’m probably one of the biggest fans of [the first series] Power. And I’m a huge fan of [the producers] Courtney [Kemp] and 50 Cent and how they painted a picture of what we saw growing up as kids living in the projects. I still have girlfriends that are like Monet. Monet is a queenpin. So what made me want to take on that role is knowing those women and knowing that I’m actually one of those women because they’re not just drug dealers—they’re women trying to save their children. So I respect the role of Monet because there’s a lot of women out there just like that.

In early 2021, you’ll be playing singer Dinah Washington in the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect. Is it tougher to play someone who existed in real life?

Yes. It’s more intimidating, but I had fun playing her as well because she was so mean to Aretha Franklin. I think she was mean to her not because she didn’t like her but because she wanted her to be a better artist.

Did you have anyone in your life like that when you were coming up in the industry?

Yeah. We had Ms. Franklin before she passed. She was like that with all of us. She was hard on us. When I met her, she called me Choppy. She said, “How you doing, Choppy?” I went to somebody and said, “What she mean by that?” They said, “She’s giving you a compliment. She’s saying you got chops.” She was not always the happiest to see us—but she loved us. Chaka Khan loved me too. It wasn’t always pleasant, but she gave me some good advice. Some of the best advice she gave me was that I needed to get out of my own way. I have used that ever since.

Let’s talk about wellness—do you like to work out?

I don’t like it, but I have to do it. I like to look a certain way. So I have to do what I have to do. I do a lot of weights—heavy lifting. It keeps everything firm.

ITAYSHA JORDAN

Are you a healthy eater?

Well, one of the reasons I work out is because I love food. I eat a lot of protein. I drink a green juice every day. I’ve been a vegetable eater since I was a kid. If I am going to indulge, it’s a Coke float—vanilla ice cream and Coke. Or a fudge cupcake.

How do you care for your mental health?

I meditate and I pray on the things that are positive, not on the lies that are negative. Every time a negative thought comes, I push it down. I’m like, “That’s a lie. I rebut that. I don’t receive that.” It’s a practice, and you have to do it all day because negative thoughts come. If you’re not sleeping, they’re coming every second of the day. It’s a constant job, and you have to stay on it.

What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned?

How to love ourselves. It’s still hard, but it’s getting better because I’m starting to understand where all the tricks come from. The tricks come from the things that were in the past—the lies that you believe about yourself that you do not have to believe if you love yourself.

Can you expand on that?

Self-love is the hardest thing to feel because we live in a world where everybody is hurting. Until you get satisfied with who you are, other people won’t ever be satisfied. That’s the growing process. That’s learning how to love and hug yourself and say, “You know what? I love you, Mary. I love you, Beautiful. I love you, Gorgeous. I love you, Smart Woman. I love you, Talented Woman.” That’s a practice I do every single day.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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