second acts

Mary J. Blige Makes Me Want to Be Happy

Illustration: by Paco May

“Second Acts” is a series about making big changes later in life.

Mary J. Blige is a rare exception to my “Celebs are just okay” rule. Her precise articulation of Black-girl feelings is unparalleled, something I greatly admire as someone who also works to share Black-girl feelings with the world. But when I consider the full trajectory of Blige’s life, admiration gives way to aspiration, as the iconic multi-hyphenate has achieved my greatest dreams. In fact, for the past month or so, I have been singing her sophomore album, My Life, like my life depends on it.

Let’s start where Mary and I begin.

My Life is Goddess-tier music. If you have not heard the recently released 25th-anniversary edition that features Blige’s commentary, you absolutely must. On it, the Yonkers native describes being in a relationship with a man whom she is literally begging to love her, to “see” her, over the course of this album, which is still clearly difficult for her to speak about after all these years. Yet, in the midst of her sadness and self-loathing and her commitment to the idea that that man represented an end to her sorrows, if only he could love her back, she manages to call out to the universe that she wants something much, much greater for her life. 

I was 11 when I first heard My Life: too young to understand much of what our good sis was singing about, but old enough to feel something deep in my bones when I listened. Inspired by Blige’s invitation to “take a look at my life and see what I see,” I even wrote a play inspired by the album that my class staged for the entire fifth grade. While I loved What’s the 411 — and wanted very badly to have younger parents who might understand why I, a second-grader, needed to dress like a 20-something New York woman — it was My Life that gave Mary J. Blige permanent residency in my heart.

My first adult My Life moment came during my pregnancy in 2012. As I have a literate, internet-savvy child now, I’ll only say that “Be Happy” was a mantra in and out my mouth like an ancient chant for nearly nine months, and that I was grateful to have it. Since then, I have returned to the album on an average of every nine months or so. I burn a hole in it, give it a break, and run back when I need to recharge. My understanding of the title song is devastatingly advanced now:

“If you looked at my life
And see what I see (Oh, you will see I’m so blue)
If you looked at my life
And see what I see
(Down and out, crying every day, don’t know what to do or to say)”

Only 23 when My Life was released, Blige boldly told the entire world that she was sad as hell … on the title track for the follow-up to her massively successful debut. She famously attended — and quit — charm school, refusing to pretend to be more content than success had made her. By her own accounts, Blige was battling depression, suicidal thoughts, and an unhealthy,  tumultuous relationship with another well-known singer during the recording of her second album. With all the makings of personal and professional ruin before her — the eventual downfall of her famed now-ex-boyfriend is a tragic example of what easily could have been — she instead delivers what is widely regarded as one of the most important albums of the 20th century.

Despite her own grief, which she literally shouted out for us to hear, despite the historical precedent for Black-girl feelings being met with summary dismissal, she managed to issue guidance for the rest of us that surely served as an intention for herself:

“Life can be only what you make it 
When you’re feeling down, you should never fake it
Say what’s on your mind and you’ll find in time
That all the negative energy, it would all decease
And you’ll be at peace with yourself
You won’t really need no one else
Except for the man up above, yeah
Because He’ll give you love”

She spends the album trying to convince her man to love her, and herself that his love will heal her heart, when all the while she knows that the true source of joy is above and within. It’s this sort of relatable contradiction that establishes Blige as an important teller of Black women’s stories in so many ways. At our core, we know that the men aren’t the way, the truth, or the light. We know that the answer lies within us, collectively and individually, in community with our sisters and with God. But we want that romantic kind of love so, so badly that we’ll look the other way.

At the time My Life was released, Blige was one of the first people I’d ever heard openly discuss living with depression; Janet Jackson would be the other one. The way I remember it, there was a collective detachment to this news, as if they’d opened up about struggling with asthma. It isn’t that people didn’t wish them the best, but their reveals didn’t seem to make depression something important to talk about or think about or reflect on. (And hey, maybe that’s because we weren’t think-piecing our every thought back then.) I could be wrong — I was a child — but I do not think that the fact that one of the most important figures in Black music told us that she was “down and out, crying every day” was treated with the sort of importance that it should have been. Especially considering that the history of popular music is filled with stories of artists whose battles with mental health would be the precursor to great tragedy.

There is a noble continuum of Black women who are beloved for their masterful articulation of our unique trials and tribulations. In that regard, Blige belongs on a list with the likes of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Zora Neale Hurston, Ntozake Shange, and Nina Simone (anyone who takes issue with that might need to reconsider the confidence with which they describe Black woman storytellers). However, while audiences are entertained, and ideally, informed by their testimony, it is rarely the case that the world pours back into Black women what it takes out. Fame does not necessarily protect one from that. Too many of these truth-sayers have died young, poor, and/or without being appropriately cited, compensated, and celebrated for their work.

By comparison, Blige, who turned 50 this January, serves as a walking prayer for Black womanhood. No matter what she wears, she seems as if she is dripping in gold. She exudes good health and self-preservation, as well as the possibility that our milk and honey are not to be treasured only once our earthly work is done, but that we can access the other side of trauma and emerge much more powerful and potent than before. She is not only alive, but also seemingly well. While her success allows her access to methods of coping (and skin care!) that the average sister might never have, it is worth considering that Blige is one of one. If being a famous woman could make you a Mary J. Blige, then there ought to be more of them.

When she was hurting the most, she cheered the rest of us on. The woman who gave voice to our collective suffering is now an embodiment of our collective hopes and dreams, for what else do most of us — not just Black women, but the rest of y’all too — want aside from to “be happy?” As Karen Good Marable wrote of a 2000 performance in South Africa, Blige’s music guides us “through dark, frightful places where it’s just you in the mercy seat, face-to-face with your God.” Whenever I take my place in that seat, I ask that I, too, might tap into the grace, the conviction, and the perseverance it takes to get to where Mary got: to “happy.”

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Mary J. Blige Makes Me Want to Be Happy