Mary J. Blige

By Ernest Hardy

Originally published on Advocate.com November 16 2007 1:00 AM ET

Mary J. Blige has
a fantastic body, fit and surprisingly curvy. Today
it’s poured into a pair of formfitting jeans, a chic
orange turtleneck, and dark leather boots. Huge, dark
sunglasses set off her trademark blond bob wig.
She’s curled up in a chair in a small room at the
Beverly Hills Hotel after our lunch downstairs, her
legs dangling over the arm. She stares out the window
as her husband-manager Kendu Isaacs puts a CD-R of
songs from her new album, Growing Pains, in the
room’s outdated CD player. As the beat-driven music
starts to play, Mary drops her head slightly forward
and nods hard to the beat. Her entire upper torso
jooks in classic B-girl style. She sings along to the
words, going into her own zone. This is career-high music
for Mary -- some of her best singing, strongest
songwriting, and most inspired production ever. But
it’s likely to further alienate many of the fans
that vibe to Miserable Mary, Addicted Mary, Depressed and
Suicidal Mary. The new material is a continuation of
the process begun on her Grammy award–winning
2005 album, The Breakthrough -- Mary’s
chronicling of her new and hard-won states of mind and
being. She’s happy. When told that the album,
which was then a month and a half from being released,
would likely inspire grumblings of dissatisfaction
among some of her old fans, Mary swings her legs around,
sits up straight, and says in that globally famous
no-bullshit voice, “Thank you. That’s
honest, what you just gave back. I like that.”

Actually,
throughout our conversation, honesty is what Mary J. Blige
gives me. It’s well-known that celebrities come to
this magazine to send a little love to their big gay
following, but often enough, that’s just
business. This is different. This is deeper. “The
majority of my fans are gay,” Mary says
matter-of-factly. “The majority of them are, and I
have to really make sure that they know I’m
paying attention to the fact that they support me, and
I support them.”

Asked at what
point she realized that the children had made her their
own, she immediately replies, “I realized that
years ago. Like, probably during...was it Share
My
World or Mary? It was probably during
the Mary album that I realized I had so many gay fans,
because one of my managers at the time was gay and him and
all his friends were die-hard Mary fans. And then
there’s a lot of gay women that love Mary J.
Blige -- a slew of gay women. And that’s never been
something to bother me. Never. Because we’re all
people at the end of the day.” She pauses for a
second, then continues.

“When I
was growing up,” she says thoughtfully, “my
neighborhood was full of everyone -- black, white,
Latino, gay, straight. A lot of people that I knew
were gay, but they were great people. They were good
people. It’s not like they were alien. They
were just people. That [acceptance] was just something that
was always in me. I’ve never been a judgmental
person because I have been through so much hell
myself…”

And you yourself
have been judged, I say to her.

“Exactly.
I’ve been judged so much that I’d be a fool,
or I’d be dead wrong to myself, to have
something negative to say about anyone that’s
doing anything that’s their choice, you know
what I mean?”

In the fight
against AIDS, Blige has done more than support from the
sidelines. She has jumped in on our side. Longtime fans know
of her involvement with AIDS organizations and
awareness programs like Minority AIDS Project and her
being a spokeswoman for MAC cosmetics’ Viva Glam III
and IV campaigns. The death of her friend and songwriter
Kenny Greene (who was responsible for many of
MJB’s early hits, most notably “Love No
Limit” and “My Love”) was her personal
impetus for involvement in the cause. But it was
noticing the silence around the disease that finally
prompted Blige to take action.

“I was
motivated,” she says, “by the fact that it
came and was so huge, and then all of a sudden it
disappeared, and it was the thing that everybody swept
under the rug. It was the elephant in the room that
nobody’s looking at. It made me be like, Oh, this
is right at our front door. This can touch us.
So
why wouldn’t I want to get involved with
something that can help save all our lives, save
everybody’s lives? That’s why I wanted to get
involved, because I knew that…” She
pauses. “I had friends that… One of my gay
friends that was a songwriter with me, Kenny Greene,
was one of my really good friends and he died from
AIDS. I was like…” She sighs deeply and falls
silent before resuming the conversation. “And
then everybody was just dropping off, dropping off,
dropping off, but no one was saying anything.”

Of course, part
of that silence is rooted in homophobia, either inflicted
or absorbed. Or both. And while much mainstream conventional
wisdom (catch the layered oxymoron there) has it that
the African-American and hip-hop communities are more
homophobic than whites, Mary doesn’t see it
that way.

“The
real hip-hop,” she stresses, “the real
people don’t even care about that. They’ll
love you and accept you no matter what because they
know who they are. There are a lot of people trying to
figure out who they are and what they’re gonna be.
There’s a lot of confusion in that. Confusion
causes a lack of identity.

“I’ve heard a couple of guys say foul things,
and those guys are not around me anymore because when
they say things like that, I’m looking at them
like, What makes you so scared? You don’t
know who you are?
I guess it all boils down to them
not being sure about themselves and what they wanna
do, whoever that is. I won’t say any names. And
I don’t dislike them or anything -- it just makes me
wonder about them period. ’Cause if
you’re not sure about that, then you ain’t
sure about a lotta things!” she laughs.