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From Rock Bottom All the Way to the Top, @MaryJBlige Pours Her Soul Into 'The Help'

August 12, 2011
Becoming a powerful black woman isn't easy, and Mary J. Blige is living proof of that. With a tough childhood which lead to a powerful drug addiction, she had to hit rock bottom before her faith in God helped her rise to the top. When she saw Disney's drama The Help, she was so moved that a song began pouring out of her soul. The beautiful artist sat down with Buzzine to talk about her songwriting process, what aspects of the film moved her the most, and how faith and friends have given her countless gifts in life...


Izumi Hasegawa: How did you get involved in this film?


Mary J. Blige: I was asked by Tony Seyler, who was the head of Film and TV at the label, and my management. I was asked to see a screening of The Help, and I went to see the screening. I loved the movie; I cried, I laughed, I got angry, I went through all these different, honest emotions, and while I was sitting in the theater watching the film, I would type different things down in my pager that would make me cry, that would make me laugh, and different things that were being said, so I started writing a song. And then I requested to see it again, and I saw it again, and I went through the exact same thing again, and then I just typed down everything. By the time I got to the studio, the song was almost basically written.


IH: What were some of the things you were jotting down?


MJB: I was jotting things down like when she was saying to the child, "You're smart, you're kind, you're important." The fact that they were raising the children, nobody really looks at who's at home raising the children and who's taking care of your children. And walk in love, like walking in love and forgiveness, and a lot of things she said at the end, when she was like, "To forgive your enemies is hard to do." That really struck a chord because it is, and she was smart, but love saved her. Walking in love, using your head, love is the key...there were so many things. I wish I had my pager, I would show it to you all.


IH: Do you write a lot of your songs? And was the process different, writing for a movie? Was this the first time you did a movie song?


MJB: Oh, I write a lot. I've written a lot of my songs for all my albums. It's the same because you have to have something to draw from; a real situation to make people relate to you in your song, so yes, the same process.


IH: You talk about how quickly this song came to you. Is that typical for you, or can you take weeks or months to get a song out?


MJB: The thing is, if a song doesn't come naturally from the word or the situation that you're drawing from, you should scrap it and come back, because if it's not just flowing, I don't think it's going to work, because it hasn't worked for me like that.


IH: When was the moment you really knew you needed to relate to this movie to write the song? What did you relate to in the film?


MJB: In my own life, I can relate to being a survivor. Aibileen was a survivor. She made it out, and she had the opportunity like I made it out of the situation we lived in growing up. I get a chance to write the story about how it was, how it is, and how we got out. It's the same thing with her, and that's why I called the song "Living Proof," because I feel that I'm the living proof that you can definitely turn a bad situation into something good.


IH: Were you familiar with the book before the film?


MJB: No. This was my first time ever seeing the movie. I heard about the book through somebody really, really famous that was telling me about it a long time ago, and then all of a sudden the movie just fell in my lap.


IH: Have you talked to people who have heard your song? Are you aware of how people are reacting to the song?


MJB: Around here, they love it, so that's a good thing. I Tweet a lot, and I kind of get an honest feel, because those people look at me either really, really mean, or really, really kind. They quote lines, lyrics, from the song on Twitter already, so I'm guessing that they would probably like it.


IH: Watching the movie over and over again, was there any particular moments that really captured your heart, or even moments that made you laugh and cry, back and forth?


MJB: The moment that really grabbed or captured my heart was when, before all the maids didn't want to speak, they were afraid to speak, but when the lady got arrested unfairly for being set up with a ring or something, when that door opened to Aibileen's house and all those maids were in there – I'm about to tear up right now – that part really messed with me. It was like, "Wow." Just to see women pull together just to help another woman, to save us all, that meant a lot.


IH: You were involved with the movie after it was completed. Does it help increase the passion of being involved with a film, being able to see the finalized product, and does it make you want to take on other roles in the film industry?


MJB: I want to be in movies. I don't know about producing, I don't know about that part, but I would like to write more songs if the opportunity presents itself. I won't go knocking down everybody's door saying I want to do a song. I would like to be in movies, and I have two movies that I'm in that I'm going to be in soon.


IH: At one point, does the melody come to you? Is it while you're writing the lyrics, or is it afterwards?


MJB: It's afterwards. Once you get in the studio, the music bed is what gives the lyrics, so as Harvey Mason and I -- the producers -- as we were watching the end credits and listening to the music, the music is what creates the color of whatever your melody is going to be.


IH: How do you decide what instruments will be used? Do you try to throw in some sounds that are of the period?


MJB: I'm not the producer, but I was there, and what was told to us is that it's a period piece, so the music would have to be somewhat what the music was then.


IH: Where did you grow up? And did you experience any of this kind of thing, either among friends or relatives? Did you know about these situations, or were you from a big city background?


MJB: Both my parents are Southern -- they're both from Savannah, Georgia -- and I was born in the Bronx, raised in Yonkers in a really terrible housing project called Schlobohm, and every summer, my mom would send us down to Savannah, Georgia, and my Aunt Larabelle was a maid. She worked for a wealthy white family, and the children loved her, the family loved her, and I remember her bringing the children to play with us, and the children really, really loved and respected my aunt. I don't know if she used a bathroom outside or anything like that like in the film, but I know she helped those children probably be what they are today, because of her love and support.


IH: You mentioned you connected with when Aibileen says to Mabel, "You're smart, you're kind, you're important." If you could say something to the little girls growing up today, or the young women who are just beginning their adulthood, what would you say to them?


MJB: I'd say, "You're worthy, you're beautiful, you're smart," and everything Aibileen said. Kind, important, all that stuff.


IH: What in your life has been the key to giving you strength to help you overcome obstacles?


MJB: I think, when you hit rock bottom -- everyone hits rock bottom -- they want to know where God is. That's what my thing was – where are You? If You're here, if You're real, help me. Send me someone. Because I believe God works through people. He sends people, and that's what happened. I hit a place where I needed help, and I just started praying for him to send someone to help me. You can't do it alone, because when you don't have any strength, you don't have any strength to do it.


IH: The film is about finding your voice, and in your own life and regarding what you spoke about earlier, when was the moment that you felt like you found your voice?


MJB: I found my voice when I said no more drama. I knew that when...I can't live like this anymore.


IH: How do you keep yourself grounded so you don't go back to that life?


MJB: You gotta choose life or death. Being a complete drug addict, stoned out of my mind all the time, was death. That's the thing that made me hit rock bottom in the first place. Choose one. Once you make a choice, you gotta know your limits. You gotta know what you can and can't do.


IH: Looking back, do you know how you got into that position? Do you have any messages you wish you could go back and tell yourself?


MJB: The reason that I believe I ended up in such a bad place is because of being a little girl and not being protected. My mom was a working woman all the time, and she loved me to death, but she had to make a living, and she would leave us with people and things would happen to us, and those things that happened to us, we wanted to numb ourselves, to not ever think about them again. By the time we got to Schlobohm, everything we needed, from drugs to alcohol to friends that would supply it, was there to keep us numb from this abuse that happened to us when we were children. It just kept going. By the time we were adults, it's something that never leaves, but you gotta keep pushing it back. It just sits there, and to this day it's there, but I can't let it rule me or run my life. We have to make a decision to say, "It's not your fault and it's not my fault, and I forgive my abuser." That was one of the hardest things I had to do.


IH: When did you find music? Was it when you were really young?


MJB: I found music when I was four years old. That's the first time I heard Roy Ayers, "My Life." That's the very first time I heard that song. It was like, what is this? It just made me feel crazy – at four -- and I've been listening to music ever since.


IH: Did you start singing when you were that young?


MJB: I probably was singing early, but I don't remember. My early memory of singing is: I was seven years old in a talent show, and I sang "Reunited" – that's a duet.


IH: What's on your iPod today? What do you listen to now?


MJB: Everything. I have Pandora radio, so I can just go to Mary J. Blige radio, I can go to Stevie Nicks radio, I can go to Katy Perry radio, I can go to Rihanna radio, I can go to Stevie Wonder radio, Chaka Khan radio...I just listen to whatever comes on.


IH: You mentioned that when you hit rock bottom, part of finding your way out of that is finding God through friendship. And in this movie, for Aibileen, God and faith are part of her strength, but you've also got Hilly, who talks about being a Christian. As you watch this movie and see this Christian society where it comes out very differently for many people, what would you say it is about Aibileen's faith that makes it different?


MJB: Aibileen's faith makes it different because the God that I believe in is not about fear. She had no fear. You have to have courage to step out and try something. That's where God is; that's who God is. The fact that she was able to walk in love, that's what I believe is Christianity. That's what I believe -- not "You're going to burn in Hell." I think the fact that we can all have this roundtable discussion and have patience with each other is love, and that's what Aibileen did. She walked in love. That's big, that's hard for a lot of us to do, but we do it.


IH: When do you feel happy?


MJB: When I wake up, these days. I'm awake, and my mornings...I'm just so happy to thank God for the morning. "Thank You for everything." And then when I'm with my girlfriends. Those are my happiest moments.


IH: What do you talk about with them?


MJB: Everything. We just have fun. Mostly things that make us laugh.


IH: What's next in your career?


MJB: I'm working on my new album. It's called My Life II, The Journey Continues, and I'm working on making it very special based on the title alone, because the first one is the pinnacle and everybody's baby, but I'm not trying to top that one. I'm just saying my life goes on. My journey...like Aibileen, when she got fired, had a long journey ahead of her.


Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures' 'The Help' is released on August 10, 2011.


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