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Saturday/Sunday, December 15, 2007.


By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


Mary J. Blige's music is the music of Black women. Although the younger ones are currently into Keyshia Cole, big time. But I see Keyshia as another iteration of Mary J. Blige.

What we’re talking about is black working-class women singing for and about black working-class women. Those conditions, that reality, the particulars and daily predicaments.

Look at the picture of Mary J. when she was being hailed as the queen of “hip hop soul.”
It’s not quite exactly my image of a queen. Moreover, I don’t think queens are appropriate for our future. That whole aristocracy stuff is bullshit on a real tip, over-compensation trying to pump up some racial self esteem that has been deflated by the hard ass day-to-day realities.

Mary J. has been going through changes since her early days over 15 years ago in the pop music industry. Indeed, fifteen years is a lifetime and a half for a pop artist. That Mary J. is still here is a miracle, but then that’s black women. Still here. A Miracle.

* * *


"Basically, The Breakthrough is Mary J. Blige not being what everybody else wanted her to be. You either like me or you don’t: This is who I am and f— if I’ve lost fans. I’ve made the choice to be happy — it’s a choice that you make. This is the only place where I’m going to survive, and that’s what The Breakthrough is about: making a choice to survive, to hell with everybody that has something negative to say."

"If I’m not sad, I’m not going to pretend to be sad to make a record. I’m going to go back to my experiences and grab something from the pain, or grab something that people never even heard about from me and put it on paper. But I’m not going to lie to my fans because my fans are not stupid and I do not look at them as stupid. I look at them as they’re me, so I give them the real deal."


"And it’s like, Mary’s happy. Mary has problems too, but Mary chooses to be happy because Mary could also choose to be miserable. It’s a bigger deal than just people — it’s about what God thinks. He’s given me all this, and I’m not going to spit in his face."

RATING: "I would give this album a 10 because I have broken through. I’m in a place where people can relate to me if they are ready. I know we did a great job. We put a lot of hard work and time into this."

—Mary J. Blige

* * *

Her 2005 album, The Breakthrough, set all kinds of records and had sales of over 5 million (including 3 million overseas—obviously her audience extends far beyond the women Mary directly addresses). In truth she has no current peer in terms of the longevity of her career in popular music.


One can only hope that her accomplishments will serve as inspiration for others to produce honest music that specifically addresses the concerns and needs of the black working class. Although the specifics of our individual conditions are unique, the larger truth is that millions of people worldwide can relate to the systemic exploitation we suffer. There is certainly a racial aspect to our struggle but at its deepest level, our struggle is a human struggle.
It’s not easy being a queen in the ghetto. Ten years or so of hard knocks ain’t no easy going down. It wears on you, wears you down, and generally, eventually wears you out. After a decade of dealing with the dragon, most find it impossible to keep up the youthful looks, maintain optimism in the eyes, and keep a real smile on the face.

Mary’s new music is about those changes—going through the changes and what going through the changes does to you. For example: “Good Woman Down.” Mary J. calls it “my gift to you”—you being all her sisters.

Mtume mentioned I said something about wishing Mary would get some musical help. Actually, as Mtume correctly pointed out to me, she did get help. Her music has not only survived, it has also matured. Where she is today is a long ways away from where she many years agao.

I’m still not a number one fan but I’m a deep appreciator of who Mary J. is and what her music means.

Stylistically, what Mary J. has is a healthy blues moan up in her throat (actually it comes from bone deep). There’s a tone in her oooohhhs and aaaahhhhs that is as real as real comes (and goes).


They can’t teach you to reach into yourself and dredge up the pain and express it through music. Of course, first the reality has to be experienced and then expressed. If you’re trying to look cute, you can’t sincerely sing about being broke down. Ain’t nothing cute about being broke down.

So like when Mary drops a psychological strip search song like “Baggage” or especially the brutally hard news of “Father In You,” well this is far, far beyond some shake your booty music. This is the kind of stuff you put on repeat in the middle of a lonely night or all morning long one holiday weekend when all your emotional ends are weak and it looks like the three days off is just an extra long period of agony.

Mary J. is singing for herself and herself is thousands of others going under in the trouble waters of growing up poor, black and female in modern
America. Mary might not look like it but this is a tough battle against the uglies.
So, I’m lisening to (and not just looking at) these pictures of Mary J. and I know there’s a struggle going on. A deep struggle. She’s trying to look queenly, but she singing about some common ass shit.

I saw her at Essence Festival about six or seven years ago. In the parlance of the street, she looked like she was letting herself go. These recent portraits picture someone who is doing well, someone being pampered. But you know all the money in the world don’t mend broken hearts and busted egos. And so finally, it’s about this woman who’s struggling to be a queen but who is also keeping it real in terms of expressing the real deal on the streets.

I don’t know exactly how she does it but I know she’s doing it and I salute her. Salute her fortitude, her beauty, honesty and forthrightness. I salute the fact that regardless of what stage her career is at, what stage comes up next, Mary J. stands firm in her black woman self, in relating directly to her sisters, mothers, aunts. The baby girls and sister ladies who literally populate our lives, keep us together, keeps our species going on.

Mary J. Bilge. All hail black women.

* * *


You are a fresh flower
bursting boldly
into a hard world
with a softness
strong as steel

Reaching for sunlight
you raise yourself
up from down under
out of the degrading dirt
society has so routinely
dumped on women,
you have transformed
manure, muck and mire
into fertilizer

Spring self assertedly
past winter weather
you bring a sweet fragrant
incense and inspiration
into musty places
stale with the stuffiness
of misogynic sexist
status quos

You blossom, you bloom
you expand and grow
raising beauty
to a bedazzling higher
and healthier level of
light, life and love

Grow on Black rose
Black woman grow on!


* * *
Stay tuned.


Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


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