Mary J. Blige is receiving potential Oscar attention for her original song “See What You’ve Done” from the documentary, “Belly of the Beast.” But she received even more buzz when vice president Kamala Harris used her 2007 song “Work That,” from her “Growing Pains” album, as her campaign anthem.
After a few months, Blige finally got to see what everyone was talking about. In a conversation with Variety, the singer, songwriter, actor and wine connoisseur (she has her own line of wine, Sun Goddess) opens up about how the new VP inspires her, and shares her memory of the late Cicely Tyson as well. Blige also talks about writing her new song for “Belly of the Beast,” which tells the story of Kelli Dillion to illustrate the practice of illegal sterilizations taking place inside women’s prisons.
Talk about hearing Kelli’s story and the lyrical challenge that you cracked in writing “See What You’ve Done.”
The first thing for me was: What is going on in prisons? What’s going on? So that’s the first line of the song. Women are in prison and they’re being treated like animals. They have to fight to be a woman and for their womb. That’s what all stood out for me. Because now we have to fight to be women? We have to fight for the right to be African Americas, and now you get people to decide if you can bring children into the world — that’s what was going through my head.
There’s reference to the great Maya Angelou about the caged bird flying. How is Maya an inspiration to you, and how did that end up as a lyric referring to Kelli Dillon?
Anyone who knows who Maya Angelou knows (the poem) “Phenomenal Woman.” That is Kelli. She didn’t lay down. That’s also a lyric in the song. We all have scars and they are reminders. I have a scar on my face that I never talk about, and it was a tragic thing, but it’s a reminder of how strong I am.
Maya is a reminder of how phenomenal and beautiful we are. That’s what the beauty of Maya Angelou is. She helped us to see the beauty in us when there is no one there to encourage you, and you have to build yourself up, and remember that when there’s no one there to encourage you, you have to build yourself up every single day. There was never anybody to encourage me for years, and you have to find it in yourself to love yourself and pull yourself up. That’s what Kelli did.
Kelli has said your music got her through those tough times, and it’s not just her, it’s so many others. What does that mean to you as an artist to give people light and hope in their soul?
It means so much to me because I had no idea that I could do that. I was trying to honestly cry for help, and get someone to help me when I started writing all my songs. When I was writing the “My Life” album, that was my cry for help. I was trying to say to somebody, “Look into my life and see what I’m going through. I want to be happy. I want someone to love me,” not knowing that I wanted myself to love me.
That was the beginning of the relationship that I started with my fans. When people say they got married to my song or this song stopped them from driving off a cliff, it’s humbling. It’s a responsibility. It’s beautiful and it makes me smile. I give the glory to God; he would never leave me. We go through so much hell, but it’s not for no reason. It’s to share so someone else who is going through hell can know that they are not alone. And I think that’s been my assignment since I’ve been 5 years old.
Switching lanes for a moment, we lost a great, Ms. Cicely Tyson. I remember seeing her at the Essence Brunch you hosted in 2019. Talk about her legacy and what she meant to you.
For every African American woman, if you knew who Cicely Tyson was, she, against all odds, stood up for who she was. The roles she decided to play were inspiring to us.
I met her twice. Every time I met her, it was by ourselves. Oprah was holding a luncheon; Coretta King was there. We all had to ride a car with someone and we didn’t know who we were riding with. My car rolled up, and she was in it. She said, “You are incredible, and you haven’t seen anything yet.”
When I hosted these brunches for Essence, I wanted to honor her because she spoke these beautiful words into my life, and I wanted to honor Cicely Tyson. That was me paying the beautiful words back into her life. I loved her dearly and she was a true queen. She cared deeply for us. She was a true inspiration.
We have the new administration, and vice president Kamala Harris was sworn in. What was it like for you to see that historic moment on Inauguration Day?
I can’t describe the happiness, and I was just overjoyed for her. She was the first Black woman. The first. It was phenomenal to watch. Knowing how she used “Work That” on the campaign trail puts me in a position where I have more responsibility.
She was dancing in the rain to that song, and it was amazing to see.
People were always calling me, and I kept missing it. I finally caught it and I got to see it with my own two eyes. I love her. She has encouraged me with her love for my music and my journey.
Have you been writing new music?
I have. I am way into it. I have so many amazing songs. I have music from this experience we are having. They’re not all happy, they’re not all sad, they’re not all “my man has left me,” and they’re not all about “my man is with me.” Maybe people will dance. Maybe people will cry.