From Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to Oscar-Nominated Actress: How Mary J. Blige Conquered Hollywood
How did the 46-year-old R&B icon become a respected actress? Let's take a look at the history of Blige's career
It’s no secret that Mary J. Blige can do it all.
The Grammy Award winner, celebrated for both her singing and songwriting skills, has also been acting for years in TV and film.
But this year the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” has taken her acting career to the next level: Blige was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Mudbound — a Dee Rees film adaption of the 2008 novel — where she plays a mother-of-four dealing with racial prejudice on a Mississippi Delta farm during the Jim Crow South.
Blige also scored a best original song nomination for “Mighty River,” which was featured in Mudbound.
How did the 46-year-old R&B icon become a respected actress? Here’s a look at her journey.
A Rough Childhood
Blige was born in the Bronx, NY, and spent her childhood living in Georgia and Yonkers, NY. In past interviews, Blige has spoken about getting into fights while living in the projects.
In an episode of Behind the Music that aired in 2011, Blige opened up about her struggle with depression, alcoholism and grappling with the child molestation she experienced at age 5.
“I remember feeling, literally, right before it happened, I just could not believe that this person was going to do this to me. That thing followed me all my life,” she said. “The shame of thinking my molestation was my fault, it led me to believe I wasn’t worth anything.”
Throughout her childhood, singing was always Blige’s safe haven.
“I definitely used singing as an escape from the environment we were living in,” she told ESSENCE in July. “I felt like I had wings, like I could fly and get away from any situation, like I was alive.”
Karaoke Got Her a Record Deal
When Blige was 17 she recorded a cover of “Caught Up in the Rapture” by Anita Baker in a mall karaoke booth in White Plains, NY. When the founder and CEO of Uptown Records, Andre Harrell, heard her rendition he was in awe. Harrell signed Blige to Uptown Records in 1989, and she released her debut album What’s the 411? in 1992.
The hit album was produced by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs (then known as “Puffy”) and featured a collaboration with Busta Rhymes. What’s the 411? charted as high as No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and went on to sell more than 3 million copies.
It was after releasing this album that Blige gained her musical nickname: the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.”
One year later, Blige released a follow-up album, What’s the 411? (Remix), which included new versions of the entire album’s discography and featured different producers and collaborators.
Blige followed up her debut records with albums My Life (1994), Share My World (1997), The Tour (1998) and Mary (1999).
The Little Screen, The Big Screen and The Stage
The “Family Affair” singer made her acting debut in 1999, when she starred alongside Jamie Foxx on his sitcom The Jamie Foxx Show. A loose reflection of her own childhood, Blige played a young girl who wanted to move her singing career beyond gospel music.
But although The Jamie Foxx Show was Blige’s first official acting role, her first film role actually happened two years later, when the singer starred opposite Q-Tip in the 2001 indie drama Prison Song.
Shortly after that, Blige made her stage debut in 2004 when she starred in off-Broadway show The Exonerated, which drew from interviews of 40 former death row inmates, according to Playbill.
Guest Bits on TV and Movie Soundtracks
In the following years, Blige’s music career did not stand still. Her album The Breakthrough — rated as the best R&B album of 2005 by Rolling Stone — featured upbeat ballad “Be Without You,” and her famous duet with U2, “One.”
But Blige also continued acting as a guest star on various popular TV shows — sometimes as an only-speaking character and sometimes as a singer/performer. Between 2003 and 2009, Blige appeared in several shows, including The Wire, The Sopranos, Entourage and 30 Rock. She later appeared in episodes of Grey’s Anatomy (2014) and Empire (2015).
Blige’s music also appeared on the soundtrack’s for many popular films, including Bad Boys II (2003), Death Race (2008), Precious (2009) and The Help (2011).
Her song “The Living Proof,” which was part of the soundtrack for The Help, was also included on her 2011 album: My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1).
Singing with Tom Cruise
Before Mudbound, Blige’s most high-profile film role was opposite Tom Cruise in the 2012 musical comedy Rock of Ages. The film is an adaptation of Chris D’Arienzo’s 2006 Broadway musical, and its screenplay was partially co-written by actor Justin Theroux.
Starring a cast of A-listers including Alec Baldwin and Julianne Hough, Blige was able to act and sing in the film, performing songs like Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” and Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night” as her character. The film received Grammy, Teen Choice, AARP and GALECA award nominations.
The Wiz Live! Leads to Mudbound
Following her appearance the 2012 film, Blige starred alongside Queen Latifah and Ne-Yo in the 2015 NBC special The Wiz Live!, in which Blige played the iconic character of the Wicked Witch of the West.
When Mudbound Director Dee Rees spoke to The New York Times about casting Blige in her film, she said she made her decision partly because of the superstar’s performance in The Wiz Live!
“I imagined [Blige’s character Florence] as this woman who had to have this exterior reserve, but this raging emotional inner life and really deep sense of empathy,” said Rees. “If you can be the Wicked Witch of the West, you can do anything. And in her musical work, her lyrics, she’s not just recounting or singing lines at you; she’s living every experience.”
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Working Through Divorce on Mudbound
While Blige was filming Mudbound, she was going through a difficult time in her personal life.
In July 2016, Blige cited irreconcilable differences as grounds for divorce from Kendu Isaacs, and asked to terminate the court’s ability to award spousal support to her ex. According to court documents obtained by PEOPLE, Blige claimed Isaacs spent more than $420,000 during their marriage on “travel charges” that involved a woman he was having an affair with.
“I used a lot of my own heaviness from my own misery that I was living in that horrible marriage,” Blige told Variety. “I was just dying in it. I knew something was wrong. I just couldn’t prove it. I just had all the heaviness of not feeling right, not feeling good. I gave it to [my character] Florence.”
Since the film premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it has since been the subject of Oscar buzz. And even more: If Mudbound does receive Oscar love, it would mark the first time a Netflix film is included at the Academy Awards. Blige is favored to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
Mudbound opens Nov. 17 in select theaters and on Netflix.