It’s been 20 years since Mary J. Blige burst onto the scene with “What’s the 411?” and claimed the throne of the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.” It’s been 18 since her seminal “My Life” album, which dealt with turmoil in her life from an abusive relationship and substance abuse issues.
In the intervening years, the New York native’s life has changed dramatically thanks to a career highlighted by a passel of hits, nine Grammy Awards, a new record label Matriach, and closest to her heart, the cofounding of her charitable organization FFAWN, the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now, which helps women attend college.
This past fall Blige released “My Life II ... The Journey Continues (Act 1),” featuring a slew of guest stars including Drake and Beyoncé, and recently appeared in the film “Rock of Ages.” This September she begins shooting the Lifetime original movie “Parallel Lives” in which she’ll star as Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X and will serve as mentor to Adam Levine’s team on “The Voice.”
We spoke with Blige by phone from her home in New Jersey as she geared up for her tour with D’Angelo, which comes to the Bank of America Pavilion on Tuesday. (For the record, Blige is just as excited by the return of the long dormant D’Angelo as his fans are and says she’ll be in the wings watching him perform.)
Q. When you’ve toured in the past, you’ve done the big show with dancers and you’ve also just come stripped down with the band. What can we expect this time?
A. I’m always stripped down — not stripped, stripped down, I have lights, I have cameras, I have action — but I’m mostly with my band playing the great music that people love to hear. I tried to do dancers and to do everything that everybody says I’m supposed to do, and then my fans are like, “Why she use dancers?” And “Why she do this?” And I’m like, “Can I use anything?” And they’re like, “No, we just want you.” [Laughs.] And then my fans, they’re a big part of the show too because they really know me.
Q. It’s been 20 years since “What’s the 411?” Do you reflect on that time?
A. Absolutely, especially now. Every single day I think about how and why I even got into the music business, and how [Uptown Records label head] Andre Harrell came to my house, and if he hadn’t come what would’ve happened with what my goal was, which was to make sure my family was straight. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of liberating myself as well from everything that was a reality to me. Now it’s the same thing, but it’s not as bad as it used to be because I know how to weather the storm and get through the trials and tribulations.
Q. Have you heard from Chaka Khan about your cover of “Ain’t Nobody” on “My Life II”?
A. No! When I see her she loves me and hugs me. When we told her we was going to do it she was like, “Cool.” And I think the blessing to her is that I did what she asked me to do when I first met her: I learned how to sing on key. [Laughs.]
Q. That’s what Chaka Khan said to you the first time you met?
A. Yeah, she said, “First you need to learn how to sing on key, you need to get out of your own way, and you need to dye your roots the same color as your hair.” I’ll never forget it. And I took all that advice. But now dark roots are in so I don’t have to dye my roots. [Laughs.]
Q. Whose idea was it to team up with Beyoncé on “Love a Woman”?
A. That was actually Beyoncé’s idea. I love her and respect her so highly. I think she’s an amazing talent, period, but just knowing her? She’s really a beautiful lady. And for her to think about me and say “I want to do this with Mary” — that’s what her A&R people told me — I was like “Are you sure this is coming from her?” [Laughs.] Because I know how artists are.
Q. “The Living Proof” seems like it’s a full circle song from the original “My Life” album, a place of real triumph.
A. Completely full circle. With the “My Life” album I was taking all my pain and my negativity and singing about it and this says, again, you can take your life and turn it around from wanting to die to wanting to be the living proof that you can get through this.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish with FFAWN?
A. FFAWN means a lot to me. I didn’t get a chance to go to college and just to see a young girl’s dream come true . . . there’s a lot of women that they finish high school and they never go to college. It means a lot to me just to give a woman a second chance who has been abused or has low self-esteem or just can’t find a baby sitter to even go look for a job in the morning. I think education is empowerment. I think getting a job is empowerment. I think self-esteem is empowerment. All those things make us feel better about our lives and that was my whole reason for doing FFAWN. I wanted to see women succeed in life and not only that, the ones that feel like they didn’t succeed get a second chance.
Q. You’ve collaborated with a lot of great artists. Do you have a list of people you’d like to work with next?
A. I don’t have a list, but I know I need Stevie Wonder to write me song at some point. [Laughs.] I’m hoping he’ll want to do something with me!
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