Mary J. Blige 'Just Sang' to Get Through Her Childhood: 'The Environment Was Terrible'
"I sang a lot. It made me feel better. I’d wake up in the morning singing and go to bed singing," Mary J. Blige tells PEOPLE
Mary J. Blige will never forget where she came from.
The nine-time Grammy-winner teamed up with Google Maps in honor of its 15th anniversary and shared some of her favorite places to visit in her home state of New York. PEOPLE caught up with Blige, 49, and the superstar opened up about how she used singing as her escape while growing up in a tough neighborhood, her upcoming television role and the making of one of her classic hits.
“New York is just amazing and people need to know how amazing it is,” the vocalist tells PEOPLE. “There’s too much fun, too many things to eat, too many places to go and so many places to shop in New York.”
“Brooklyn Chop House, which is at 150 Nassau Street and owned by one of my really good friends Don Pooh, is one of my favorite restaurants,” Blige says. “It’s an Asian-fusion cuisine steakhouse and it’s amazing, all the food is really good. My other favorite is Nobu, of course.”
The Queen of Hip Hop Soul dished on a few of her other favorite spots in New York including a recording studio, cupcake shop and pizza joint.
“I have a really heavy sweet tooth! There’s this cupcake place by the name of Molly’s that may have the best cupcakes in the world — they’re so soft and moist and supple,” Blige says.
As for pizza, “Ray’s has a good slice.”
When it comes to naming her favorite borough in New York, Blige says, “I just love New York period. I love Manhattan. I love Harlem. I love Westchester, where I’m from. I love Brooklyn. I love Queens. I love Staten Island, Long Island. I just love it. It’s not even a favorite borough; it’s just New York is one of my favorite places.”
Though she doesn’t have a favorite borough, the singer does have a favorite neighborhood.
“The Meatpacking District would be the most fun for me because everything is down there,” she says. “Clubs, restaurants and some of the best stores like Jeffrey, which has everything, are down there. Paige Denim is in the mix. Everything is right there.”
Blige knows exactly where to go for mesmerizing views of the city’s iconic bridges.
“At night, you can see the George Washington Bridge from anywhere, no matter what building you’re on, you can see it,” Blige explains. “You can see the Brooklyn Bridge from anywhere. If you’re high somewhere, you can always see it and it looks so nice at night.”
Blige was born in Fordham Hospital in the Bronx and spent the first five years of her life moving between cities. By the time she was 5, the star says Yonkers became her home.
“Growing up in Yonkers was very, very hard but we had to make fun to make it easy so it was good and bad,” she tells PEOPLE before revealing what she did to make the hard times a bit easier. “As kids, we played tag and we’d make up games like ‘Steal the Bacon’ and dodgeball and whatever we did.”
It was through her struggles that she found her voice. “I sang a lot. I just sang,” she recalls. “It made me feel better. I’d wake up in the morning singing and go to bed singing and it just made me feel great.”
“What made it hard was the environment,” Blige tells PEOPLE. “It was a lot of people hurting — trying to survive and the environment was just terrible. That’s all I can say. Everybody did what they had to do to survive.”
In the ’90s, Blige recalls enjoying the authentic New York nightlife. “New York was fun in the ‘90s,” she recalls. “In 1996 when there were clubs in New York were popping, it was always a fun memory. We were always hanging out with the celebrity friends that I had and it was a good time.”
Throughout her decades-long career which has earned her more than 30 Grammy nominations, there’s one song that still means the most to Blige and it’s “My Life.”
“‘My Life’ is one of the most important records of my life,” she says. “It’s definitely one of the most important and it’s one of my favorite songs ever sampled which is Roy Ayers’ ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine.'”
Blige says the success of her album also titled My Life came as a complete surprise. “I didn’t know what that was gonna do,” she says. “I had no idea.”
As for her 1992 hit song “Real Love” — which is still a fan favorite today — the Oscar-nominated star says it was sampled from a jam that she used to rock out to at parties.
“I didn’t know it was gonna be a fan favorite but I do know that the particular sample was Audio Two ‘Top Billin.’ Before I was even Mary J. Blige in the music business, we were dancing so hard at clubs and block parties in the hood,” she recalls. “That song was a monster before ‘Real Love’ was anything. That was one of my favorite records in the club, I used to go crazy dancing to it. Then when Puff [Daddy] brought me to Mark [Morales] and Cory Rooney to make ‘Real Love,’ it was just like — I can’t even believe this is happening. That was one of my favorite records. I think that was everybody’s favorite record,” she says with a laugh.
Blige, who wants to thank her fans for supporting her jewelry line Sister Love, is starring in the upcoming spin-off of Power titled Ghost Power Book II.
“Acting is a little harder because you have to make something that’s not living at all exist,” Blige explains. “But I love the challenge and I love creating.”
The singer plays a drug lord in the forthcoming series. “She’s a badass, she’s a Queen Pin, she’s a drug dealer,” Blige says. “She’s really running the whole business, it’s crazy. She’s a little crazy like most women would be if they had a job like this on their own.”
Blige is celebrating Black History Month this February, and she has a message to her fans.
“Black History Month means so much to me because it’s a time we get to celebrate us,” she tells PEOPLE. “We have this one month and we have to take advantage of it by understanding how important we are to the universe and to ourselves.”
“Treat people the way you believe you want to be treated,” Blige says revealing that she follows this as her golden rule. “Always treat everyone like someone because you never know who is going to end up being who.”
And for new artists, Blige says, “Don’t become a needle in the haystack — meaning following everybody and becoming manufactured and you look like every other car that’s coming out on the lot — do something different.”