For the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, which kicked off this week in New York City, Mary J. Blige came out in full force — not only premiering her eagerly anticipated film documentary, but for also turning the Beacon Theatre into a standing room only concert experience.
“Man, it was my first time and it was just amazing,” the singer/songwriter many know as “The Queen of Hip Soul” told NBCBLK during an interview at The Smyth Hotel Friday. “Just the fact that my documentary was shown here and I was just not here as entertainment but a person that contributed to the film festival with a film means so much to me.”
“The feeling of it all was just unreal,” Blige continued, adding that the project — which follows her journey in tapping into a new sound for her latest album, also entitled ‘The London Sessions’ like the film — was a great way to reconnect with her fans.
“By doing this, it means my fans can understand why I even did everything in the first place.”
Directed by first-time filmmaker Sam Wrench, the 45-minute documentary follows the platinum-selling diva over the course of ten days in London where she recorded her 13th opus, her first for the legendary Capitol Records. Shot in black & white, the film features a behind-the-scenes look at Blige’s work sessions with some of Britain’s hottest young recording artists of today, including Sam Smith, Disclosure, Emeli Sandé, Naughty Boy, and Sam Romans.
It wasn’t the Yonkers, NY native first time across the pond. With a career spanning 25 years, she’s frequently visited and has become quite a draw over in the United Kingdom (having previously collaborated with some of the region’s most legendary artists, including Sting, Bono and Elton John). “I’ve been to London several times and it always has been one of my favorite places because it kind of reminds me of New York in the early 90s,” she said with a chuckle. “That was a time when it was great music everywhere and so promising, I can’t even really describe it to you the feeling but it just felt like that.”
"It was a huge, humongous wake up call for me to say ‘Look, you don’t need any of these people around and I’m going to make sure that you see how fast they run when this happens."
During Thursday night’s concert, the nine-time Grammy Award winner (she remains the only artist to win the coveted awards in multiple categories such as: R&B, gospel, rap and pop) talked briefly about how going overseas and making the new music helped overcome the obstacles she was experiencing stateside; up until last year, the ‘No More Drama’ singer endured what seemed like an endless stream of very public drama (from a major backlash for appearing in a Burger King commercial singing about “crispy chicken” to the New York City tabloid media reporting stories about financial impropriety with her philanthropic endeavors, and even being evicted from her lavish condo, amongst other things.)
“Well, I don’t really know why a lot of it was happening,” Blige reflected about the scandals, adding that “it was just time for it to happen and it was time for it to happen to me, so it could push me to another level and another place.’
She is arguably the only artist to come out of the early 1990s “new jack swing” scene who maintained and sustained a viable career path -- enabling her to stay relevant among her core base and broadening her reach to new audiences. Beyond the hit songs and trend-setting fashion style, a large part of her success can be attributed to her connectivity to her audiences — thanks in large part to her raw and honest energy.
And that’s one thing that hasn’t changed for the ‘You Remind Me’ songstress, who first got the music world’s attention as a featured vocalist on Father MC’s 1990 hit ‘I’ll Do 4 U.’
“A lot of things were true and a lot of things weren’t,” she confessed about the controversies. “A lot of things just pushed me and it shook a lot of people away. And it just made life much clearer to see through. It pushed me to this level of wanting to be on another level.”
"I’ve been through hell but with today’s social media and the news and it was something so big and disastrous it had to be for something good.”
“It was a disastrous,” Blige, 44, added — owning up to her accountability. “And a lot of it came from not paying attention; a lot of it came from just trusting the wrong people. And it was a wake up call, it was a huge humongous wake up call for me to say ‘Look, you don’t need any of these people around and I’m going to make sure that you see how fast they run when this happens.’ And it was just the biggest wake up call ever.”
“I’m grateful for it though and it hurt like hell because it was public and it all over and I was like ‘good Lord.’ It was very, very painful because back in the day, I’ve been through hell but with today’s social media and the news and it was something so big and disastrous it had to be for something good.”
“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m Hercules. When you have so much negativity at one time over something that didn’t even have to do with anything, it’s a lot to take in because it’s all energy.” she furthered.
“And when you see the amount of it, you get to see exactly who you are. And it’s how you respond to it or react. And what I learned is that I really respond well because I don’t pay it any mind but the fact is that a lot of it hurt. But at the end of the day, you wont know it hurts. So, I just learned my strength in that. I learned my weaknesses and it’s a whole other level from back in the days. I’m somewhere else in my life. It’s a whole other strength that I learned that I had.”
“I’ve always heard the term “strong woman” and ‘Oh yeah, she’s a strong woman’ and that’s what people thought. But now, I think it and I believe it!”
Bitten by the film bug once again (previous film roles include ‘Black Nativity,’ the Lifetime biopic ‘Betty and Coretta,’ the Tom Cruise-fronted musical ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘I Can Do Bad All By Myself’), Blige said she’s going to focus more in working on her thespianism.
“Oh, that’s definitely my next thing. I’m going hard after the acting.”
“That’s my next way of expressing myself just like I did through music,” she said. I’m going to do it through acting and I’m going to study for it and that’s where I’m going next.”