Sunday, November 16, 2008

Mary, Full of Grace
by Carl Hancock Rux

1.INTERIOR: Mid-town Manhattan Hotel Suite. Present. Angle on: Publicist, skipping about in simple suit and brownish hair tossed from desk to chair to phone, then nervously extending her hand and offering assurances that “Miss Blige is just down the hall...will be here any minute. She’s on time these days...hasn’t kept anyone waiting for interviews...doesn’t do that anymore”. Mary walks in promptly. She’s with large man (security guard?) and instructs him and the jumpy press rep. to wait in another room, then takes her seat. Her features are more pointed now than when we first saw pictures of her eight years ago, posturing in bouffant hairdo and fur coats like one of those glammed up Brooklyn girls vamping for Polaroid’s on the Duce. The golden blonde curls have been replaced by long jet black extensions streaked fire bird red. Her mouth shimmers pink; perfectly defined lips in dark pencil. A wide brimmed black leather hat threatens to hide her eyes. But it does not. The eyes are bright, wide awake, confidant...focused. Today we are faced with a new Mary with a new record soon to drop, and a new label all her own where she’ll develop artists of her liking. There are no traces of the temperamental Diva we used to read about. That cartoon is either myth or misrepresentation.
2.DISSOLVE TO GRAINY BLACK & WHITE FLASHBACK: Past. We remember Mary of vulnerability and attitude, soulful wails over hip-hop rhythms. Mary; torch singer and innovator of form. In an early 90’s era of Whitney , Toni, and Mariah vocals, Mary re-introduced that certain sound of suffering and romantic longing in the Black female voice. She forced herself to be heard above sampled beats, keyboard and drum programming, piano hooks... cursing hard like only the homeboys were supposed to do between record deals and rape charges. That summer, those of us who had settled for the annual temporary flirt and fling that handball courts and midnight jam sessions provided, listened closely to a voice affecting scats and gospel riffs, blasting from everybody’s open window. We raised our hands in agreement, an amen thrown back to that girl from Brooklyn? the Bronx? Yonker’s Slow Bomb projects? Those of us who had waited for somebody to build the bridge between the hard core hip-hop we needed and the smooth R& B we loved, gave props to Mary with her baseball cap turned backwards for hollering out loud. Mary earned her legacy, and that special place in our collective consciousness. She didn’t come like some ready made for superstardom sex symbol with Barbie doll looks and high octaves only astronauts could reach.
We remember Mary; Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, pushing Puffy’s sampled beats aside for the smoother R&B/Pop world of Babyface, bringing with her the no shame no bullshit aesthetic of her own reality in the presence of ODB, Nas, and Li’ll Kim. We remember her debuting at #1 with her third album, usurping Biggie’s “Life After Death”, as well as a wide array of country, pop and movie soundtrack contenders. No easy achievement. Mary did it with a skill many hadn’t recognized since Aretha first stepped out on stage in the wrong dress and the wrong wig and just sang. Mary did it with a voice as smooth as it could be raw and unpolished
3. CUT BACK TO: INT. HOTEL ROOM. Her jeans are sistergirl tight, nails are painted and long. Conversation is easy as long as the questions are clear. She’s not trying to be sweet. She’s not trying to be rude. When the legs cross, her body says she’s tending to business now. “These interviews used to be hard for me to do” she confesses, pouring herself a cup of tea, “but when you realize who it’s for you get a big smile in your heart.” She takes a moment to think about what she’s saying, like someone recovering from something, then continues, “If you want a successful career you have to do press. I used to be like I’m not talking to nobody. I used to be like I’m sleepy, hanging out and drinking, but everything is for me today. I’m pacing myself...taking little steps at a time. “
Once upon a time, all a Diva in distress could do was go crazy under the harsh light of public scrutiny, and the world loved nothing more than to witness a superstar haunted by personal demons . It’s what the legend of Billie Holliday is made of. These days, we take notes from survivors of the storm, like Tina. Public personalities who refuse to allow their private tragedies to entertain us as much as their music. “In the world of R&B I’m not battling anymore”, she says loudly, “I’m singing from my heart. Singing my experiences.”
She settles down, ready to talk about the new album again. When asked the title of her new offering she tilts back and laughs out loud, “So gonna ready for it?” The singer covers her mouth like a little girl with a secret and then let’s us in on the joke. “Mary. That’s it! Not Under the River and Through the Bridge! Just Mary! Simple as that.” The project is still in process, so Mary’s not telling any more than is necessary. “There’s still anthems for the women” she promises, “but this album is just about me being human. Something that people never realized all the years I’ve been in the music business...I’m human...I’ve been through the shit that I’m singing about.”
The truth of her humanity can’t be deciphered in an ever changing appearance, it has to be heard in her voice; those strained uneven chords, phenomenally calling out to us. Hard vocals stylizing notes-- like great jazz singers decades before her. “I never had vocal training except for the warm-ups I do now before shows”, she says, shying away from compliments about her talent. “My mother was a singer. She had gotten a scholarship to school for singing, but she never got a chance to pursue it so God passed it on to her children. All I ever did when I was growing up was listen to my mother’s records; Candy Staton, Mavis Staple, Gladys Knight... but even now-- people say I don’t seem to sound like anyone else except myself... and I’m glad of that.” Mary came to us like she’d always been right there with us. No, she didn’t sound like anybody else, and we were glad for that.
Mary will reunite the hip-hop soul songstress with producers Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, R. Kelly, and Babyface and she’ll sing duets with x-boyfriend, K-Ci and (rumor has it) Lauryn Hill... “When I look at her, I find something in me.”, Mary says, easing back into her chair as she thinks of Lauryn and their track, “I Used To Love Him” on Hill’s “Miseducation...” project. Before the international media hype of Lauryn’s solo album, Village Voice writer dream hampton denounced Hill’s entire record as unworthy of legend (an unpopular opinion at best) but even that noted music critic was forced to acknowledge the genius of one track-- the Hill/ Blige duet. Together, these women took all the gospel hip-hop soul they’d lived through and resounded like two evangelists on their knees at the alter, holding each other’s hands, testifying about redemption and men who done them wrong.
“You know Lauryn did her first New York appearance at the Paramount the other night”, Blige informs excitedly, “and I did a guest appearance with her-- so people got a chance to see us doing that song...” She stops for a minute to compose her thoughts, “and what it was for was like a healing process. She called me during a time when I needed to speak on something like this, and I really needed to say the things I was saying on this song. We just connected in a way that was a healing process for both of us. I like Lauryn allot. We’ve always connected. She’s someone you can look at and see who you’re supposed to be. She’s real firm in her decisions. She’s young but she’s firm.” The tears well up in her eyes but don’t seep over and a smile introduces itself on her face. “When I look at her, I find a place where I need to be. That’s how it was when I was on the stage with her the other night. I looked at her, and I could see God’s hand all over her life. She gave me something last night that made me wanna try to keep negativity outta my life...It’s hard for me because of what my surroundings are but I’ll be all right, knowing there are people like her in the world... She’s like a Maya Angelou to me. A singer Maya Angelou.” The eyes turn away for a moment...take a second to dry and re-focus, then they come back, redeemed. “Today I looked at myself and I said ‘I feel good’. That’ s where the beauty comes from. It’s an inner thing. Years ago, I was like-- around ugly things. Ugly things come out of you and become you. You start to look in the mirror, and say ‘Oh My God, it’s BECOMING me!’ Another spirit. People don’t know, this is a spiritual war we fighting out here. You have to keep a constant shield of protection around you.”

There had been women before her, women who demanded we hear them through the thickness of their lives, claiming royalty status while asking for directions back to God. But there have been few women, if any, like that since. This Mary comes without scandal. In fact, the most recent scandal connected to her has little to do with a temperamental hip-hop Diva’s devices. Having covered Stevie Wonder’s “As” from his “Songs In The Key Of Life “ album as a duet with singer, George Michael (on his soon to be released “Best of George Michael”) fans are complaining that Blige’s label (MCA) won’t give Michael’s label (Epic) permission to release the track on the U.S. version. Nor will they allow the highly acclaimed video, featuring the two stars cloned a million times over in a night club, to air here in the states. Exec’s at MCA aren’t talking, but some record company insiders have suggested since Mary’s last album went multi-platinum and Michael is struggling to regain his position as a Pop music superhero, MCA simply didn’t “feel obliged” to release the song here. Others have suggested Michael is a bigger international draw than Blige, and releasing the record in the international markets will be to MCA’s advantage. A simple case of one record label’s hand washing itself.
Some of the people who were once associated with creating Mary’s sound are no longer with her. “ It’s hard to let people go when you love them and it gets lonely for people like me who always get lonely...” she explains. Some of her people have left on their own volition, some have been asked to leave, and some have had no choice in the matter. “What I liked about Biggie”, she reflects, “ is that he lived it and we felt that he lived it. Allot of people rappin’ right now, I don’t feel it. I do feel Nas, and the song ‘Hate Me Now’, and I see his songs. I envision him saying ‘Give me a break’. I feel that. I feel JZ. Redman. Redman makes me laugh. I feel him because he’s telling the jokes from the projects, the ones that made you laugh with the forty’s. That’s all I can feel right now.” Mary is testifying to the latter, scaling down to only the people she can glean familiarity and positivity from. “The people that are with me, really with me ...from my hairdresser to my make-up artist--they the ones that are gonna be around me and on my side...And the ones who weren’t with me to begin with...they’re gone. Quick as they came in last week, a month ago, a year ago, they’re gone. I’m trying to keep it as real as possible.” She throws her hands up in the air, the way she does when she dances, like she’s ready to box or embrace, “When you love people, you don’t wanna let them go...because you love them. It’s hard to let them members, boyfriends, girlfriends...but you just gotta let them go because if you keep them around, they’ll drain you and try to hold you back. You gotta cut them off, because it’s important. I’m important to me now. My not going crazy.”
We watched her going down in black lipstick and heavy dark shades shielding the world from her madness (or shielding herself from the madness of the world). Can’t you see what I been goin’ through? she asked us, while we fell in and out of love with our hard-core cousin who’d moved us too deeply and revealed too much about herself in lyrics and interviews. When she proclaimed all she really wanted was to be happy, we threw our hands up in the air once again, rocked hard on the dance floor and cried a little bit for her and what we saw in those words, then distanced ourselves a little bit for comfort’s sake. It was too much. Easier to gossip about what she was wearing and believe what super models turned journalists had to say about her attitude.
“Allot of people say they look at me now and they see God in my life.” The mirror catches the reflection of this woman, talking matter of factly as if she’s in her aunt’s kitchen. A beautiful image. “I believe they see God because that’s who I’m trying to live for now. I’m trying to live to be a better person. Name my mistakes, name my faults and not beat myself down for them. No I didn’t finish high school , big deal. Allot of people didn’t finish high school. I’m taking care of that. No, I’m not the greatest singer in the world but I’m happy with what I have. It’s called accepting what you have and then people will see beauty in all of what they think they see in you...because you’re connected with yourself. You can call me whatever you want-- a hip-hop illiterate queen, or whatever you like -- it doesn’t matter because I love Mary.”
Loving Mary didn’t come easy. Like many people, Blige grew up in the church, “happy to be singing for God.” And like many people, she eventually strayed away from the church, wrestling with the stricture of it’s doctrine as it butted against the hard realities of daily living. “When you become a teenager, you want to experience stuff” she says, but also admits once she became a young superstar she sought after a refuge away from the limelight. “I went back to church one day-- I was in the music industry by then, and the preacher jumped all over me” she remembers, imitating the voice of fire and brimstone, “Coming in here with your earrings and tight dresses-! My hair was blonde, and the preacher was like you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that! That kinda turned me away from church for a while.” Spiritual transitions, such as the one Blige now professes, are accomplished without membership to gothic buildings. They’re achieved, often enough, in unlikely places, and unfortunately enough, as the result of hard blows and fast come downs. In her case, it took the harsh lessons the music industry had to teach her to really make a decision about spirituality.
“See, allot of people send mixed signals--no patience is being taught. Only thing being taught (in the music industry) is just get out there and get in that business and run and waste and be nasty and be grimy and be horrible...Nobody’s talking about longevity in the buisness. How to last out here, and not go crazy. I have a spiritual advisor now” she reveals, “ My godmother is a minister, and she’s been praying with me. Honestly, I never felt Christ like I feel him now. I feel closer to him than I ever did. It’s about fining you . Finding you is finding Him. When your decisions are firm and you know exactly what you wanna do and it’s positive... that’s God to fear. No hesitation. Positive, firm decisions.” She clasps her hands, almost as if in prayer and supplication. “God--man or a woman. I don’t know. But whatever this force is, it loves me and I love it right back. You gotta love yourself in order for anything to love you.” She takes a moment again to think about her words, as if every revelation she’s ever had happens only in these self imposed silences. These will be the last words today...everything that needed to be said will have been said. “You know...I’ve been knocked down and dragged enough through this music industry. Straight up stomped, cheated , beat on...but I’m glad. Right now I’m glad all this happened to me. I appreciate all the people who came in my life with all the nonsense, stealing from me, and lying to me. I appreciate them all, because I wouldn’t be here now...and I wouldn’t have a story to tell.” The rest of it is in the music.

Originally published in Honey Magazine, 1999
©Carl Hancock Rux all rights reserved

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