Mary J. Blige, otherwise known as the "queen of hip-hop and soul," paved the way for future musicians with her strong powerful vocals and hit albums. Over the course of her career, the New York native has become one of the most influential award-winning singers and songwriters, taking home nine Grammy Awards throughout her career (per her official website). A trailblazer in the music industry, Blige single-handedly changed R&B music by pouring her heart and soul into each of her albums and iconic singles, such as "Real Love," "Be Without You," and "Family Affair."
As much as Mary J. Blige has become an absolute icon in the music industry and is adored by many of her fans, she hasn't always had the easiest life. She is no stranger to overcoming adversity, and she faced plenty of hardships throughout her childhood and time in the spotlight that pushed her to become her current successful self. You may be familiar with bits and pieces of Blige's life story, but if you are not, allow us to break down the parts of her past you may not know.
She had an incredibly tough childhood
From a very young age, Mary J. Blige was exposed to endless amounts of violence, alcohol, and drug abuse in the environments she lived in. Her father, Thomas, was abusive and left their family when she was just 4 years old (via Biography). Blige and her mother, Cora, soon moved to public housing projects in Yonkers, New York. Sadly, she often witnessed abuse towards other women around her, and she watched her mother struggle with alcoholism. Blige revealed during an episode of VH1's "Behind the Music" that during this time she also suffered from sexual abuse from a family friend (via New York Daily News). She said, "The shame of thinking my molestation was my fault — it led me to believe I wasn't worth anything."
In her teenage years, she dropped out of high school (via The Washington Post) and turned to sex and substance abuse to cope with her traumas. "I ended up becoming my environment," she told Parade magazine in 2007 (via New York Daily News).
In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Blige spoke about reliving some of the traumatizing moments in her childhood for her documentary, "Mary J. Blige: My Life." "That was painful because the most painful part is, 'Why so much stuff, so much stuff had to happen to a little girl?'" she said.
She was the youngest female artist to sign up with Uptown Records
Given Mary J. Blige's rough upbringing, the story behind how she entered the music scene is pretty iconic. The soul artist has always had a passion for music growing up and spent a lot of time listening to her mother's soul records and singing in a Pentecostal church in her free time.
One day, Blige took a trip to her local mall just like any teenager would, and sang a cover of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture." Impressed by her authentic talent at just 17 years old, her mother's boyfriend at the time shared the recording of her rendition with Uptown Records' Jeff Redd, who later showed it to the CEO, Andre Harrell. It is safe to say they were blown away with her voice because Blige became both the first female artist and the youngest artist to sign with the label in 1989, ultimately kickstarting her career (via Lifetime). With producer Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy) guiding her into stardom, she started off singing backup while she was still living in the projects before her debut album "What's the 411?" was released in 1992 (via Vanity Fair).
Each of her albums outlines a different season of her life
Over the course of 29 years, Mary J. Blige has become a powerhouse in the music industry. She's produced eight multi-platinum albums and released numerous No. 1 hits, including "You Remind Me" and "Real Love," per her official website. If you are a longtime fan of Blige's soulful, emotional, and passionate tunes, then you know that each album outlines different stages of her life.
For example, in an interview with Vanity Fair, Blige described how the album "My Life" came to be, saying, "I was going through a lot, so this was my way of speaking and trying to get all this stuff out of my heart. ... kind of a cry for help."
Blige also explained how she normally names albums after "the things that I'm living through or attacking," which is what led her to "No More Drama." "I was tired," she said. "I was sick and tired of being sad and depressed and hating myself." Regarding her 2005 album, "The Breakthrough," Blige shared that, after starting the healing process during "No More Drama," she just "needed a breakthrough in this healing."
She found love and a lot of heartbreak
Mary J. Blige found real love when she tied the knot in 2003 with Martin "Kendu" Isaacs. According to People, Blige filed for divorce from Isaacs in 2016, ending their 12-year marriage as he was allegedly unfaithful to her and spent more than $420,000 on "travel charges" for him and his girlfriend. Isaacs claimed that during this time he was hospitalized from the stress of their public breakup, which People reported could have been an attempt to receive financial support from the "Family Affair" singer. Their divorce ended up taking a whopping two years and wasn't completely finalized until 2018.
Since her divorce, Blige has been focused on building herself up and keeping her head high. In an interview with Taraji P. Henson in an episode of "Peace of Mind with Taraji" in December 2020, Blige opened up about her feelings of loneliness since the split. "It gets lonely and it gets sad, but, you know, I just gotta thug this out until something excellent comes along," she said. Although those times have been tough, she made it clear to her fans that she isn't going to hold herself back from finding love once more. "I'm not gonna deprive myself of living ... I'm not gonna deprive myself of romance if ever it shows up."
She started her own organization to inspire women
Mary J. Blige had high hopes for the launch of her organization The Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now. Her goal is to use her personal life experiences to inspire struggling women in similar situations and provide them with education and resources to get better help (via HuffPost). However, in 2012, the charity was hit with multiple lawsuits after some suspicious financial activity resurfaced.
The New York Post reported that Blige's charity not only didn't have an office or official telephone number, but it also didn't file any tax returns in 2010 and was missing hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. According to TMZ, TD Bank sued the "Real Love" singer after a $250,000 loan was taken out in June 2011. The bank claimed the organization agreed to have the loan repaid by December 2011, but the bank only received $368.33.
Since this incident, the singer has hired a new team of managers to run her organization and took matters into her own hands after claiming her charity was not run by the right people. "As founder and CEO of FFAWN, I am ultimately responsible for anything that goes wrong," she stated. "The problem is that I didn't have the right people in the right places doing the right things. This should have never been allowed to happen, but it did and now we are fixing it."
She made her TV debut on The Jamie Foxx Show
By now, you may know that Mary J. Blige is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to her music. But did you know that she's also a trailblazer in TV and film as well? The timeline of her acting career dates all the way back to 1998 when she made her first televised debut as an actress on "The Jamie Foxx Show" (via IMDb). At this time, she was already a well-known and established artist, so her premiere on the '90s sitcom was highly anticipated (via Billboard). Blige played the role of Ola Mae, the preacher's daughter in the "Papa Don't Preach" episode, in which she performed two musical numbers, including a rendition of the original song "Share My World." According to People, her character was loosely centered on her upbringing and how she wanted to break into the music industry.