Mary J. Blige
When doing phone interviews, my standard opening is to ask the interviewee what they have planned that day. Even if there’s nothing noteworthy to talk about, at the very least it allows them to settle in to our chat, and not feel as though I’m trying to ambush them from the very start... So when Mary J. Blige replies that she’s in L.A. doing an interview with me, and shows no inclination to expand on that – “ Um, I’m in L.A. Los Angeles, California. Doing an interview with you. That’s what I’m up to…” – I start having a bad feeling about this.
It’s not as though we don’t have anything to talk about. After twenty years, nine Grammys, eight multi-platinum albums and fifty million albums sold, Blige is making her way Down Under for the very first time to headline the Ragamuffin Festival alongside Jimmy Cliff and The Original Wailers. But don’t read anything in to this r’n’b diva doing a reggae show; she tells me she’s not planning any reggae-fied versions of her famous back-catalogue, or confessing her love for her herbal namesake... The reason a reggae festival is what finally enticed Blige to Australia, she says, is because “they asked”.
It’s certainly not because of a deep-seated fascination for the land down under, where apparently we’ve all gone to friendly school. She wants to “see some things”, and seems genuinely surprised that the food here is “American cuisines” like Italian, Chinese and Korean.
More importantly, Blige is also working on a new album with – as we’ve come to expect – a roll-call of the top producers in the hip hop world like Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz, Ne-Yo and Q-Tip, as well as many others. But we already know what it’s going to sound like. “I mean, basically it’s the formula that I do all the rest of my albums with,” Blige reveals. “Where I’m at right now, what’s around me, what I’m coming through, what I am victorious in... People expect from me what they want from me. So I just make what people want.”
“What people want” has, for much of Blige’s career, been to hear her sing about overcoming the hardships in her life – be they abusive relationships, childhood torment or substance abuse. The basic template is catharsis-by-numbers, with Blige battling her demons over swelling string arrangements and r’n’b production. And it’s the content of the songs as much as the style itself that has endeared her to so many for so long.
“I think people, in general, just want to know that they’re not the only one suffering,” she muses. “So if you have someone that you love, like Mary J. Blige, or Michael Jackson, or Janet Jackson – when Mary J. Blige speaks to you, and she’s this huge superstar, says to you ‘I’m going through this, too’ or ‘I went through this, too,’ it makes people feel better. It makes people look at you as not so untouchable. And now you become loveable.
“You become touchable,” she adds, “and when they see you they’re not thinking about killing you, they’re thinking about hugging you. They are thinking about giving you something that you gave to them.”
Here, then, is the centre of the Mary J. Blige world view: it all comes down to respect and reciprocity. Do unto others, stay neutral, and get along. It’s a philosophy that encompasses everything, from her frequent collaborations with hip hop and very non-hip hop stars (including Sting, Elton John and Andrea Boccelli), her detachment to any of the famous rivalries and ‘beefs’ throughout the rap history, and her tendency to work with lots of producers at once (there are seventeen producers listed on her last album Stronger With Each Tear – and only twelve tracks).
The longer the interview goes on, the more answers Blige gives that are seemingly devoid of any real interest in the subject matter. With Blige, I can’t shake the feeling that there isn’t a lot of real passion at all. She’s playing a reggae festival because they asked her, rather than any deep emotional connection to the genre; she tells me that she features on other people’s songs “because they request [her] presence”; she works with countless producers because “they all have something different to offer”, rather than reinforcing her own artistic vision.
This last one is especially significant, because her artistic vision seems to be making what people want to hear. And then Blige makes it easy for me, explaining that she enjoys doing guest vocals on other people’s songs because she likes “to work with people that have great personalities” – and I realise that, despite talking to her for ten minutes, I have absolutely no sense of what she is like as a person at all.
Yet fifty million Mary J. Blige fans can’t be wrong. And in an industry as ego-dominated as the music world, and particularly the hip hop world, Blige may well have hit on the perfect method for winning friends and influencing people: do your work, do it well, keep your head down, and don’t say anything that might upset anyone. It certainly seems to be working for her.
MARY J. BLIGE headlines RAGGAMUFFIN 2011, alongside reggae luminaries Jimi Cliff, Maxi Priest, Sean Paul, The Original Wailers, The Black Seeds, Ky-Mani Marley and The Red Eyes, at The Sidney Myer Music Bowl on Saturday January 29. Tickets from ticketmaster.com.au and 136 100, and all other info is at raggamuffin.com.au.