Mary J Blige: “My rebelliousness really messed up my education”

Mary J Blige on her ‘mistake’ of dropping out of high school, growing up in the Bronx – and why music has the power to build or destroy

Music has surrounded me my entire life. When I was a little girl, my father was a musician and my mother was a singer. When I was four or five years old, I would hear my mother singing old soul songs and gospel songs – and she would sound just like the record. My dad was a bass player and he’d also play the piano. They had every record you could think of. I was surrounded by it.

The first thing I would say to 16-year-old me is – stop playing yourself down because you are going to be someone that people love and admire. I know you don’t believe that right now but trust me. Don’t dumb yourself down to please everyone else as you’re never going to be able to please everyone. Just believe. Believe in yourself.

My dream was to sing, but it was just a dream. I was really just trying to survive

I was just a typical teenager – not listening to my mother and not doing the right things. When I was 16, I wasn’t thinking about anything, really. Really just singing. Wanting to sing. My dream was to sing, but it was just a dream. I was really just trying to survive.

Music was going to be the escape route for me and my family. Of course you want it to happen immediately, especially when you live in an environment like we lived in [Blige grew up in The Bronx in the 1970s]. You want it to happen so you can get your mom and your family out of the projects. You want to make money, so that everyone can get out of that bad environment. You want it to happen quickly and not to be squandering it.

Mary J Blige

Being in our environment and what it was, music was the thing that made us happy – singing in the house or at the block parties. It really was all about music. It was very hard to get the songs you loved and heard the DJs play at the block parties. It was, “How do we find that song? That song was hot! How do we find out what it was?” It was very hard. Now everything is every way that you can get it at any time. There was no Spotify where you could go off and listen to one song off the album. You had to go get the album and listen to it – unless it was a single. We really appreciated it at that time.

The music that saves us, I don’t think we look for it – it finds us. I was five years old when I first heard Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. When I was five and I heard that album for the first time, it just found me. You feel so good listening to whatever lyrics that Stevie is singing.

I felt like that was my music. It didn’t feel like it was my mother’s music or my father’s music; it felt like it was my music. Mostly what catches me is the lyrics and the vocals. That is why Songs in the Key of Life was so important to me. There was a page with the lyrics and me and my sister would go off and learn the lyrics to Knocks Me Off My Feet, Pastime Paradise and Summertime Soft. And then when I heard Anita Baker’s Caught Up in the Rapture, it was one of the most beautiful love songs I had ever heard. The same with Chaka Khan’s Everlasting Love. When I was growing up, that was the music that found me.

I was always singing at home. I would have a brush and I would be singing Teena Marie songs into the mirror we had in the bathroom. The brush was my mic when I was a little girl and I would be singing in the mirror – like a lot of little girls do right now who have a brush and are singing to Beyoncé. I was singing to Anita and Chaka and Melissa Morgan. I guess I was a performer then – or a practising performer then. I loved to do it.

You cannot be on top of your business if you can’t read the contracts properly or speak to your manager

I was seven years old when I got on a talent show in elementary school. I sang Peaches & Herb’s Reunited. My music teacher, Miss Sweeny, was the one who pushed me to be in the talent show as I never wanted to be in the front; I was always trying to be in the back. It was people pushing me. Friends would always ask me to sing, sing, sing. That is something I had to grow in confidence to do.

Singing turns you into a better person. When you can open your mouth and something comes out of it that makes you feel confident and good, it turns you into another person – a better person. It gives you confidence. When I was younger, I could sing way better than I can sing right now and I could mimic anybody. Any. Body. Any male or any female singer. It gave me confidence. It gave me strength. It gave me freedom.

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My rebelliousness really messed up my education. When I was in 11th grade, I dropped out of high school. I definitely regret it. I really wish that I had finished getting my education. Then again, I look at it and ask myself if I would be this person if I had finished school. Would I be this Mary J Blige today?

I am not ashamed or embarrassed [about dropping out of school], it was just a mistake that I made. I would tell anyone who is trying to make it in music, especially the younger people or those trying to get into the business, to get their education first. You cannot be on top of your business if you can’t read the contracts properly, speak to your manager or deal with people properly if you don’t have good education. I own [my mistake] but I am not embarrassed. It was just a mistake. That’s it.

If I’m going through something negative and feel like venting, I have to make sure that it’s not going to hurt anyone else

I would tell my younger self that not everyone is going where you are going. You can’t share everything with everybody. Everyone is not always happy for you and everyone is not going where you’re going. I did learn that one early.

I’ve learned to be careful with music – it either builds or it destroys. I have done 13 albums in my career and what it has taught me is this: music is one of the biggest forms of communication. You can build something with it or you can destroy something with it. Our words are super-powerful. I have to be careful with what I am putting out there because there are people out there listening to music at home and it’s helping them to stay alive or helping them to get out of a bad relationship. Even if I am going through something negative and feel like venting, I have to make sure that it’s not going to hurt anyone else. So I have to pray and make sure that my message is strong.