Mary J. Blige is the queen of hip-hop soul, a sound she created more than 10 years ago when she began to sing soulful melodies over the driving hip-hop beats of rap music.
As Correspondent Ed Bradley found out when he interviewed her last fall, Mary J. has become to her generation what Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner were to theirs: singing the story of her life, the struggles and triumphs of growing up hard in the inner city, and making music that touches fans from the inner cities on out to Main Street.
The life of a recording star isn't all music and song. There are complicated things like meetings and contracts that this hip-hop diva and high school dropout admits she often doesn't understand because of her low reading level.
"It hurts a lot when you cannot really comprehend what a person is saying in a meeting or you don't even understand what you're reading in your contract," says Blige, who left school in the 11th grade and reads at only an eighth-grade level.
She admits she used to be ashamed to ask questions for fear of being thought "stupid," but not anymore.
"I just drop my pride and say, 'You know what? I don't understand what you just said. Could you explain it to me?'" says the two-time Grammy Award winner. "I find myself learning more."
Blige also discusses her storied past, from which she draws much of her art, including abuse she took from boyfriends and her former use of drugs and alcohol to overcome insecurities.
Mary J is Mary J. Blige, the queen of hip-hop soul, a sound she created some 10 years ago when she began to sing soulful melodies over the driving hip-hop beats of rap music.
She writes most of her own songs, and makes her style accessible to people who don't normally listen to rap and urban music. It's the No. 1 sound among young people today.
Blige has become to her generation what Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner were to theirs, singing the story of her life - the struggles and triumphs of growing up hard in the inner city, and making music that touches fans from the ghetto streets to Main Street. Correspondent Ed Bradley reports.
"I don't know, only God knows where the story ends, for me," says Blige. "But I know where the story begins. It's up to us to choose whether we win or lose and I choose to win."
What makes a Mary J. song?
"I always want to be a messenger, a person that, you know, that's not afraid to pass on wisdom," says Blige. "I got to give them something other than some little stupid record. You know, I want them to dance. But I want them to also know that it's something in there for you, some gift in there. It's a hidden message in there, but it's a beautiful hidden message. It's not, 'Go, kill your parents.' It's, 'Let's be free.'"
When Blige talks about getting free, she means letting go of the insecurity, abuse, betrayal, and self-destructiveness she grew up with in the thug-dominated culture of the projects. And when she sings, she touches a nerve in her fans - fans who at first were young, black and urban, but today are all races and all ages.
Blige grew up in poverty in the drug and crime-infested projects of Yonkers, a New York City suburb where she lived with her mother and sister after her father abandoned the family. She says there was a lot of violence in her life that frightened her.
"It kind of, like, put us in shock, because we used to just stand there and look at it, like, wow, but then you see your Mom get hit. And then it's like, 'waaaaah!' Like you'd just go, used to start screaming and crying when you see your mother get hit," says Blige.
"And, you know, men, it seemed like they didn't have any mercy. They hit you like you were a man. Like, I've seen women get their heads punched through walls. As a kid."
But it wasn't just violence against her mother. She also sings about things that are very personal, like the time she was molested when she was 5 years old.
"For a long time that's something that I was hiding. For a long time, that's something that made me do drugs and drink. And as a artist I had to share it," says Blige.
Her concerts are a combination of revival meeting and hip-hop opera. She preaches, cajoles and struts through songs that chart the ups and downs of her life and express her many different sides and many different moods.
"A lot of it comes from when I grew up. My mother was the man and the woman. She had to be the lady, and she had to be, you know, the protector and the provider. So I carry a lot of that still," says Blige, who admits that music was her only escape from the dysfunction all around her.
She started singing in school talent contests when she was just 7. By 17, she had a recording contract. Her first CD "What's the 411?" in 1992 spawned five top-10 singles and a new musical genre, hip hop soul. Blige was the original ghetto fabulous - part goddess, part street tough - a fashion style that would become widely imitated.
Her next two CDs went platinum, but she describes them as cries of pain as her life unraveled. She says she lost her voice, money and dignity, not only because of her abusive relationships with men, but also because of her increasing drug use. She says she was her own worst enemy.
"You start drawing to you what you are on the inside -- insecure, jealous, mad -- and you start drawing these men that are like that and they start whipping on you," says Blige.
And even though she bore the bruises, she says couldn't face the truth about the men in her life: "You know, it's scary when they tell you who they are, because it's someone that you probably always, always suspected … But they really didn't love you."
Some of the men she went out with physically abused her, but Blige says she doesn't blame them for what they did.
"I don't blame them because I allowed it," she says. "It's not my fault, but the only way that I could get out is to stop being the victim. I had to stop saying, 'You did it. You, you, you, you. It's because of you, you, you, you.' I had to sit down and say, 'You know what? Something is wrong here because every man that I get is doing the exact same thing to me. So maybe it's something wrong with me.'"
Taking responsibility for yourself is one of Blige's strongest messages. Self-acceptance is another. And her newfound faith in herself, she says, is part of her renewed faith in God.
"If I don't accept the scar on my face, the lips that God gave me, the big giant feet, the long legs, whatever it is that I'm deformed with, I got to love it so everybody else can love it. And I started loving it," she says.
But she admits that, at the time, she needed a substance to keep her feeling confident about herself: "I had to use a substance to keep me feeling sexy. I had to use alcohol to keep my mind off of the fact that somewhere deep inside of me, I was still ugly."
She chose alcohol and cocaine. "I was buying boulders of it. Chopping it up, staying up all night long. Go to sleep, wake up. Try to do it again," says Blige. "Then do it again. And it was all to keep my mind off of my insecurities."
Now that she's straight, she says that she's "learned that I'm stronger than what I thought I was. And I learned that I am beautiful, inside and out."
At 32, Blige is hitting her stride. Her latest CD, "Love & Life", hit the charts at No. 1 this fall and has already gone platinum. She now has a total of six platinum CDs, 17 top-10 singles and two Grammies.
Blige is also learning how to work again with her first producer, Sean "Puffy" Combs, whom she met when they were both unknowns. He produced her first two critically acclaimed CDs, but after a falling-out that lasted five years, they reunited and he produced her latest CD.
She says he's like a brother: "Our chemistry is that Puff knows basically what's going to make people dance. I know what's going to make people cry."
In the recording studio, Blige is a perfectionist. She says songwriting comes naturally, but Puffy helps refine what she writes.
"I can see the music. I know what it looks like. I know what color it is. The words come easy, the tears come easy, and the joy comes easy. The music tells you what to do," says Blige.
Life has smoothed out since she met Kendu Isaacs, a music producer who is now her fiancé. She says it was Isaacs who reconnected her to her Christian faith, and prompted her to get clean and sober and stay that way. He even threatened to leave her if she didn't.
"He's not afraid of me. He's not intimidated by me. He's very confident and I think that's one of the reasons why I'm still with him," says Blige.
They live in a big house in New Jersey, just across the river from the projects, but a world away from where she grew up.
"When you finally understand who you are, ages 6 through 60 will understand who you are," says Blige. "Because when they see a person that's come through all that I've come through, still standing, it's amazing."
Since 60 Minutes last aired this story, Blige married Kendu Isaacs in December. She also won another Grammy award.
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