We spoke to legendary singer Mary J. Blige about the state of R&B and what she’s trying to achieve with her Strength of a Woman Festival, which just had its inaugural showing over the weekend.
Mary J. Blige wants to extend the self-love she’s found in her legendary music career to the rising generation of Black women in music. During the Strength of A Woman Festival in Atlanta this past weekend, Blige spoke with Okayplayer and reflected on overcoming insecurities that once plagued her early in her career. “When I was [recording] What’s the 411? I had no confidence. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I walked really fast, I was afraid, I was too shy – I was just too many things and I didn’t have control over it,” she said. “I have control now over what it really is, how I really look, how I really feel, where I’m going and I move slower because that’s a part of loving myself.”
Blige also embraces passing the torch to the current era of R&B artists, as her latest album, Good Morning Gorgeous, features collaborations with Anderson .Paak and H.E.R., with songwriting from Lucky Daye, Tiara Thomas, and more. “Right now, I love the state of R&B because of people like Ella Mai, Kiana Lede, Summer Walker, H.E.R., Jazmine [Sullivan], SZA, Ari Lennox – it’s so much hotness out there,” Blige said. “I’m really proud of what Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars [have] done before they were Silk Sonic. Music is just going in the right direction, R&B is back. I remember one time I was worried about R&B, I was like ‘Uh-oh, we’re done.’ But no, the [new] generation has revived us.”
In partnership with Pepsi and Live Nation Urban, the inaugural Strength of A Woman Festival – aptly titled after Blige’s 2017 album – drew fanfare from dedicated fans of the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Although the summit portion of the festival was exclusively held at the membership club The Gathering Spot, it also received worldwide viewership through Amazon’s Twitch channel. A day prior to the festival’s ceremonial events, the City of Atlanta honored Blige at local eatery Rock Steady with her own “Strength of A Woman Day.”
There was a host of festivities throughout the weekend, including three concerts – two of which were sold out – a comedy show with all female comics, and a women’s empowerment summit. During the summit, Blige recalled dreaming of having an all-women’s festival at the start of her career.
“[I want] women from all walks of life [to] look at this program and say ‘I wish I was there. I think the most powerful thing is all these women being here and that’s the strength of a woman – seeing other women being empowered,” Blige said on the summit panel, alongside panel moderator Tamron Hall, radio host Angie Martinez, actress Tasha Smith, and beauty influencer Supa Cent. “[The] first strong woman I’ve ever seen was my mother, second one was my grandmother, so that’s the strength of a woman to me; women strengthening each other by example. We all lead by example. That’s what this whole event is about, us learning how to grow and uplift each other.”
Saturday’s opening summit panel was cathartic, with Hall holding back tears when Smith discussed formerly being an exotic dancer and suffering from drug abuse in her early years. Blige openly vented about her tumultuous divorce from former manager Kendu Issacs and finding refuge in religious sermons from evangelists like Joel Osteen and Bishop T.D. Jakes.
“When you hate yourself, nothing in this world can respect you. So I had to learn how to love myself and respect myself and now the universe and the world is opening up,” Blige said. “I learned how to love myself in a very, very dark place, when I was depending on someone to make me feel great. But T.D. Jakes said, ‘Nah, what you say about you is way more effective than anybody has to say about you.’”
Friday’s opening Strength of A Woman Festival concert, which was at the intimate venue The Tabernacle, featured Kiana Lede, Emotional Oranges, Sevyn Streeter, Rubi Rose, and more. The weekend’s long-anticipated Blige-headlining all-star concert at State Farm Arena welcomed a mix of throwback and current women in R&B and hip-hop, including Chaka Khan, Queen Naija, Xscape, City Girls, and Omeretta the Great. Atlanta rapper-singer Baby Tate surprised attendees with her mom Dionne Farris to perform her 1997 hit “Hopeless,” while special guests Ella Mai and Summer Walker appeared throughout the night. Usher, Method Man and Jermaine Dupri also surprised attendees to perform alongside Blige at the State Farm Arena concert.
Embracing up-and-coming women in R&B and hip-hop, Blige’s illustrious run in music is celebrated by fans and peers alike. Minutes before Blige sat down with Okayplayer at The Gathering Spot, Xscape member and current star of The Real Housewives of Atlanta Kandi Burruss popped in the room to hug and take a picture with Blige.
Blige trusts that R&B is in good hands, aware that her influence is resounding. With the release of her new album, Heart on My Sleeve, Ella Mai has spoken about studying Blige’s catalog while recording her sophomore effort, even collaborating with Blige on “Sink of Swim,” with Blige being an uncredited feature. Blige ends the track by offering her perspective on love, cautioning Mai to, “guard that heart” to avoid the pitfalls of heartbreak.
Although her legacy is undeniable, Blige appreciates newer R&B acts who have further validated her strength and prestige:
“It’s beautiful, I absolutely love it, because if they didn’t embrace me, where would I be?,” she said.