Academy Award nominee Mary J. Blige revisits her landmark album, 1994’s deeply personal My Life, in a new Amazon Prime Video documentary out June 25. But no examination of her career would be complete without Andre Harrell, the Uptown Records founder who discovered Blige and signed her straight out of the Schlobohm housing projects in Yonkers, New York.
Harrell, who passed away on May 7, 2020, is featured in the doc via interviews recorded prior to his death, and Blige tells The Hollywood Reporter that she still “doesn’t have enough words” to describe his influence on her life. “Andre is really my father in this music industry. If he hadn’t come down that day to those projects to my apartment, I wouldn’t be here right now,” she said, adding that the label was “blazing” at the time with chart-topping acts like Jodeci and Guy. “There was so much talent, and he came to hear me — that will mean something to me for the rest of my life. He showed us that there was hope. He told me I was going to make it.”
The Hollywood Reporter caught up briefly with Blige over Zoom to discuss Harrell, how her success in Hollywood has impacted her career and how it felt to revisit so much pain and trauma for the My Life documentary.
Why did you decide to narrow the documentary’s focus on the My Life album and that time in your life?
Because this album is the most important album in my life. It was such a pivotal point in my life when I knew I didn’t want to live, and I didn’t know how my life was going to turn out. In expressing myself and writing down my feelings and singing it and putting it into this album, and then all the fans, 4 million people responded and said, “Me too.” It started a movement. I had a fan base on [her 1992 debut album] What’s the 411?, but this created something way more powerful than just a fan base.
Two years ago, when I was on tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of My Life, Time magazine named it one of the 100 most important albums and Billboard gave it [a similar distinction]. So, I said, “This is the time to do it because everybody’s celebrating it. Now is the time.”
My Life covers so many heavy topics like child abuse, trauma, substance abuse and physical abuse, things you experienced long before people were so openly talking about those issues they are today. How comfortable are you now stepping out and discussing what you went through?
Well, for this documentary, I had to be comfortable, and I was at a strong place in my life. I had just come out of a divorce. I had just come out of the hell of my life. It just kept feeling like hell after hell, but that was probably the last one that I’m going to allow myself to go through. I think it was necessary to travel back to show people where all the pain came from in the My Life album, where all the trauma, depression and suicidal thoughts came from, and explain what happened to that little girl. It was painful to go back and live through it again in order to tell people.
At the same time, you do it respectfully. There’s a moment in the documentary when you say that there are some things you’re never going to share and in another part, you only nod to the abuse you suffered during your relationship with K-Ci. Why did you hold back?
Because everything is not everyone’s business, number one. Two, I don’t believe in hurting people. Some things, if said, could really hurt somebody or make them want to hurt themselves. I don’t want to hurt K-Ci. That’s not my reason for doing this. I’m not doing the documentary to hurt him. I’m doing this to tell the story of where all this pain came from. I’m very mindful of that. I’m just that kind of person — I don’t like hurting people or being malicious. Some things you have to take to your grave if you’re a woman of standards and dignity.
There are also powerful men featured who supported you and lifted you up, men like Andre Harrell, Diddy, Quincy Jones. Can you talk about Andre’s influence and impact in your life and what he meant to you as a friend?
Andre is really my father in this music industry. If he hadn’t come down that day to those projects to my apartment, I wouldn’t be here right now. He really cared about music and R&B. At the time, Uptown Records was a huge deal. Everything was successful and blazing with acts like Jodeci and Guy. There was so much talent. He came to hear me — the CEO of Uptown Records. That will mean something to me for the rest of my life. He came down to the projects where there was no hope and he showed us that there was hope. He told me I was going to make it. I don’t even have enough words, because if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be sitting here doing this interview right now.
Who’s that person for you today?
That person for me today is my mom. It has always been my mom, and myself. I have to depend on Mary now to get Mary through.
One of the joys of reliving that early time in your career is seeing all of your iconic looks. Do you own any of those pieces?
I definitely don’t have any of that stuff. I don’t know where it is. The influence came from the streets. It came from the inner city. It came from walking out of our buildings in the projects and seeing the drug dealers there with their coats, or the guys with their hats turned backward. Someone was always dripping in jewelry and blonde hair. Salt-N-Pepa was an influence on us too when we were growing up. The influence just came from watching all of our heroes, and a lot of our heroes were drug dealers who had everything.
You’ve had success in Hollywood in recent years with multiple awards and two Academy Award nominations. How has your success in Hollywood impacted the next chapter of your career?
My success in Hollywood has been just so inspirational. It is just pushing me because it was so unexpected. The two nominations for Mudbound was a surprise out of nowhere. I didn’t think people thought I was that great. It was like, “Whoa, OK, so, they like me. Now I’ve got to work harder. I’ve got to work with acting coaches and work to be the best because they want to see me.” I want to be the best to make sure that I am happy with it. It has pushed me upward in such a positive way.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.