Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with. In the beginning of her career, Mary J. Blige wore relationship abuse and heartbreak on her sleeve. Today, after 15 years in the game, she prides herself on being free from all that drama.
Kendu Isaacs pulls back the deceptively small security door to the grounds of the new Hollywood Hills home he shares with his wife, Mary J. Blige. Smack dab across his crisp white XXXL tee is the word ROYALTY. Oh, really now? Well, in all fairness he is married to the woman otherwise known as the Queen of Hip-hop Soul.
It's something to be invited inside the walls of the place Mary Jane Blige calls home. For most of the 15 intense years of her career (which includes seven multiplatinum hit albums), it seems that walls have been up all around her. And yet, Blige has always told it like it was; from day one, she was that project girl turned powerhouse known to keep it right in your face. Who but the High Priestess of Keeping It Real could inject once safe and smoothed-out R&B with the energy of raw, jagged-edged hip-hop, and singlehandedly change the future of Black music?
In the summer of 1992, when the boutique music label Uptown/MCA released Blige's debut, What's the 411?, the streets were unequivocally turned out. Today you would be hard-pressed to find a Black woman in America who hasn't indulged in at least one good runny-nosed, MJB-invoked cry, impossible when you consider classic Blige heartbreakers like, well, "Not Gon' Cry."
The illusion was that there were no barriers between her and us. The reality, however, was that the walls-those huge, impenetrable, emotional walls-were always up. For far too long, Blige was not only a musical maverick but she was also a tortured soul. She has admitted that weed and wine, cocaine and carelessness, clouded her mind. In time, her self-esteem, virtually nonexistent since girlhood, bottomed out. Relationships left her broken and, sometimes, literally beat down. As a fatherless woman in the wilderness of shady music-industry men, the girl who sang mostly about love never had a clue what it really was. "I came from hatred," she says. "All my life I've been in a bunch of junk where men were jealous of me. They wanted my career, they wanted money from me-something."
But look at her now. Over the past six years she's experienced a personal transformation, and in that time become what she never imagined-a wife. Today Blige is the consummate role model for any woman serious about changing her life. Last year her Grammy-winning smash CD The Breakthrough announced her arrival at the doorway of healthy love. "People are saying, 'Okay, Mary, you broke through. What are you going to do now?' What the hell do you mean, 'going to do now?' This is a whole 'nother level," she says about her intention to keep climbing to a higher place. MJB is finally ready to let the world witness the other side, the side beyond the walls.
Blige looks too cute in her own kitchen. No, she's not cooking-Chef Brian in the Top Chef coat is doing that. She's just chillin' at the table before a beautiful summery salad topped with a champagne vinaigrette, dressed comfortably in a bold, striped rust-and-cream silk sweater, ivory shorts and flip-flops. Through huge glass walls, the California afternoon sun pours in on Mary's bare face and caramel-colored ponytail. "Oh, that's Kendu's seat," she says matter-of-factly, making sure no one else sits at the head of the table.
If everybody's asking why Mary ain't mad no more, one check of the view makes it plain. "Quality of life here is so much nicer," she says softly, taking in the rolling valley beneath her. "If you're trying to get in shape mentally, spiritually and physically, this is the place. I love New York. I was born and raised there. That's going to be my home forever. It's just, you gotta know when to change your environment in order to help you to grow and do what you need to do. When I first came from New York to L.A., I hated this place. I didn't understand the peace. Now I understand the peace."
Isaacs casually slides into "his" chair and jumps right into the conversation-no hesitation. "I was born and raised in Brooklyn, but I moved out here with my folks when I was 16 years old," he shares. "I was amped. Yeah, we going to California! Like, I'm going to hang out with Janet Jackson." As he talks on and on about neighborhood Crips, mowing the lawn, young New York friends not understanding the West Coast culture, Blige smiles.
Man of Many Words
The unabashed willingness of a Black man to communicate is a rarity, and a turn-on, especially to a woman like Blige. Isaacs's expressiveness was the very blessing Blige's burned-out spirit was yearning for. She says it was his determination, maturity and frank nature that set into motion their love story and her most committed self-improvement mission to date.
And with Isaacs by her side laying vocals ("We did 'We Ride' in our studio in the house, with her in the booth in her nightgown," he says), and being lead manager and partner in Mary Jane Productions, Inc., Blige has completely revamped her approach to her career. "This is organization," she says about the company now. "These are people who know what they're doing, and when they don't know what they're doing, they say they don't know. So we don't end up in a mess. My husband is one of those people." Blige reveals that past managers "just gave me enough money to drink and buy fur coats and clothes. I got enough money to stay blind and buried. I would never know what the heck was going on in my life. At the end of the day, they were trying to keep me in a space where I could never know nothing. I'd always just look like the ignorant chick. So it was a constant manipulation to keep me drunk, to keep me high, to keep me angry. You understand what I'm saying? But it couldn't be good business because I didn't expect anything great to happen to me. I was negative, so I was only going to get what I was."
But in her new life with Isaacs, all that's changed. "Her mind has cleared up," says Isaacs of his wife. "A lot of it has to do with all the information she's acquired over the last five or six years. I always call her my boss because, technically, I work for her. She really understands the business now, and she keeps me on my toes."
Playing Phone Tag
Leaning back, the tawny-eyed brother begins to tell the story of how he and Blige got together. His account is so remarkably detailed, one gets the sense he's trying to answer all the questions that have been asked about the mystery man who swept Blige off her feet. "This is Details Man," Blige quips, but she's only feigning annoyance, because Isaacs is introspective, interesting, intelligent and sexy-traits not at all lost on her.
"I was doing a Queen Latifah record in 2000," he starts. "And for a song with her, me and another guy we were like, 'We should put Mary on this.' " Latifah reached out to Blige's people. But Blige was on tour; the only chance for the two women to record was during some downtime at her Detroit stop. "Dana (Latifah) and I flew to Detroit, and Mary came into the studio around three in the afternoon," says Isaacs, proving that his knack for details is real. "That was the first time we laid eyes on each other."
"It wasn't a fairy tale," Blige notes. "It was like...," but Isaacs cuts her off. "In my mind it was," he says sweetly. "Well, in my mind," Blige continues, "I said, Damn, he's cute, and then I left it alone because I thought he and Latifah were a couple. I didn't know for sure what was going on, so I went to work. We all hung out later that night, and we got to know each other better." That was June. Isaacs was itching to see Blige again. "I begged Latifah to reach out to her," he admits. "I need to talk to her, I said."
Blige says that even more than their first meeting, it was their first phone conversation that clued her in to Isaacs's charm. "I'll let him tell you what he said," she offers. She pauses, looks in his eyes, and locks in. "But I'm just going to say, it was the first conversation I had with a guy that let me know somebody cared about me other than wanting to just, you know, sleep with me."
Not that he didn't want to sleep with her. In fact, when they initially met in Detroit, Isaacs was totally open and totally hopeful something would happen. After all, this wasn't just any woman, this was Mary J. Blige, and there was definitely a connection. "So I'm a man and I'm looking at her like, 'Oh, I want to...,' you know. But it never happened. We had an opportunity to, but for some reason, when we got in close proximity to each other, it felt weird. It felt like a brother-sister relationship."
So months later when Blige finally called Isaacs upon Latifah's urging, it caught him off guard. " 'Can I speak to Kendu?' You hear that voice, that tone she has. And I'm thinking, Oh, sit down. She's asking, 'Did you say you wanted to call me?' "
"I don't know what I said," Blige injects, now munching on some gourmet chicken fingers. No matter; Isaacs can't forget a thing leading up to how he made Blige his wife. He remembers that it was the first week in August and that they had decided to meet in L.A. "I'm in Jersey, she's in Tampa, but she's going to end her tour in L.A. around the twenty-eighth," he says. Remember, he's referring to dates in 2000. But what Blige wants him to recall is the admonition he gave back then-that dose of truth she couldn't shake.
"I said to her, 'I need to talk to you about some things,' " Isaacs says of that first phone call. " 'It might hur.' And she immediately said, 'I don't want to be hurt no more.'
"I said, 'Well, it's not going to hurt in that manner. It's almost like you have a cut and it has created a scab, but underneath it's infected really bad. So the pain is going to come from pulling back the scab so that we can get to the cut and heal it properly.' I don't know where it came from," he says, remembering the words.
"It was something I never heard before, and I got exactly what he was talking about, because I knew that I was damaged," Blige says. "But those words from Kendu woke my spirit up."
From then on, she knew that something was different about this guy. While he waited on her to get ready for their first date, Blige says she peeked in on him in her living room. "There was something so fatherly and confident about him," she says. "I think I fell in love with him then but got scared because he was the type of man I'd never seen before. He had this, 'I can take care of you, I can make you feel safe' thing. And I needed that."
At that time in her life, Blige was at a different club most nights with her same crew. "I wasn't ready to deal with the truth," she explains. "I felt like my freedom was going to be taken from me by a man. I was like, 'Hell, no,' " she says. When she and Isaacs finally stepped out for their date, Blige admits she was "laughing and joking-and scared. I was used to people either wanting money or a career or just to whip my ass. It was all negative. But I did see a positive side in him, even the way he would look at me with concern all the time. I wondered, What do you really want? Because I'm not used to guys like you coming to stay, you understand?"
One day not long after their first date, Mary blurted out something that, three years later, would turn out to be prophetic. "You're my husband," she declared. "But how is this possible that you are my husband and you're taken?" That's the one detail Isaacs didn't want to focus on much when he first met Blige: He was married but separated, with two young children. He also had an older daughter from a serious relationship he'd had as a teen. He never lied about anything, but he wanted to protect his burgeoning relationship with Blige and deal with his situation in his own way. For the most part, that's what happened, until one day he impulsively put his then 2-year-old baby girl on the phone with Blige. "I think that kind of twisted Mary up," he now realizes.
It was more than she could handle. "I thought, I can't do this. I'm not a home wrecker," she remembers. "I was like, give me a gun and I'll just blow my brains out, because I'm at the point of...like I said...my spirit is dead. There was a lot of pain, so I ran straight into more self-destruction. I was thinking about the wife, I was thinking about the kids, and I was thinking, I just don't want to be responsible for that."
Isaacs insists that his first marriage was already dissolving before Blige was fully on the scene, and he says that today he and his ex-wife have a good relationship. Still, it took some time to convince Blige that she hadn't torn apart a family. Eventually she opened her heart back up to Isaacs, and he moved in to her New Jersey home. But as they got closer, they started reading the Bible together, and it got harder to pretend that they were living according to the Word. "When you're having sex and you're not married, it's called fornication in the Bible," Isaacs says. He tried to rationalize their living arrangement with the thought that he was in love and planning to get married. But the guilt was eating away at both of them, and they knew they had to stop.
"Men don't really do well with no sex," Blige says bluntly. "But I said, 'You will have to show me that you really love me that much and move out.' And he showed me that he loved me that much." Isaacs moved out, and for a year and two months the couple abstained. They were married December 7, 2003.
Children of God
Having moved outside to get a little air, the couple end up sitting casually opposite each other in their outdoor living room. Blige throws her feet up on the cocktail table and picks up the thread of a conversation from a few minutes earlier. "They're just so loving," she says, referring to her stepchildren, Nas, 7, and Jordan, 8. "They're a product of their mother and father. The kids are so sweet, and they're so smart. They asked, 'You want us to call you mom?' I said, 'No, call me what you want, and if you're ready to ever call me mom, you do so. But for now, we're friends.' "
On the subject of having her own children, Blige wrestles with conflicting emotions. She wants them: "I think I'm going to have children." She doesn't want them: "But it's not something that I have planned." She wants them: "But if it happens, I'm not going to get rid of my baby." She doesn't want them: "Well, you know what it is with me? I've just got so much work. God's got to be done with me, the low moments and all the insecurities of the past. Your kid is around you 24/7. When you have stepchildren, they come around and then they go home. My child is going to be watching me go up and down on the days that I go down. I don't want my child to feel what I felt when I was coming up, what it was like for my mother to hurt all the time. So I have a fear-it's probably one of my biggest fears-a fear of my child suffering, you know, with that energy."
Isaacs is intently listening to his wife speak. His body language suggests he is really hearing this for the first time. "I could keep having kids until I can't have them no more, especially with her," he counters. "I wouldn't mind it. But I understand what she's saying." He goes on to explain that even his children sense what Blige is talking about. "The two babies, they see it. The things she worries about them seeing-her ups and downs. They also get it with their own mom."
Blige is especially proud of her relationship with Isaacs's 20-year-old daughter from a teenage relationship. "I love Briana," she says. "Yeah, we were both having little issues on the low with each other, because we are the same kind of people. But I had to realize that I'm older and I have the most wisdom. I said, 'I've got to grow up right now for Bri.' So I did, and now we're cool. She calls me with all her stories that 20-year-olds have."
Recognizing Her Worth
A visit to Blige's home isn't complete without visiting the family room, where framed photos of Blige and Isaacs with a variety of luminaries, from Sidney Poitier to Oprah Winfrey, rest on a bilevel display. "This is with Mandela," Blige says, pointing out a photo that marks one of her life's most memorable moments. "And this was at my first Golden Globes. I love this dress."
This year alone has been chock-full of attention and praise for Blige. Poitier and Winfrey are just two of 30 Hollywood A-listers whom Will and Jada Pinkett Smith gathered last February to honor Blige's record eight Grammy nominations for The Breakthrough. The event was billed as "The Celebrate Mary J. Blige" party, and, put it like this, people like Stevie Wonder were invited to the after party. How's that for the B-list?
Now, relaxed on her oversize sofa, Blige leans forward and confides, "At that party it was like something happened. I said to myself, Mary, something happened that you need to recognize, because you did the work to get here." In that moment, she looked across the room, full of exceptional people who were there expressly to herald her career. She let out a breath-and just like that, Blige finally and fully acknowledged her worth.
Girlfriend Winfrey recognized the moment. In an interview with Blige this year, she said, "I know transformation when I see it. Clearly, she's Mary J., rising. A woman ascending to full possession of herself." The women have surely been spending enough time with each other for Winfrey to know. Not only did Blige and Isaacs travel with her to Henley-on-Klip, South Africa, to witness the opening of her $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, but when they got home, they all watched the 2007 Academy Awards together. "We had too much fun," says Blige. "You would be shocked at how much fun she is."
Sitting on the floor curled up at Mary's feet, Isaacs shamelessly adds, "It was fun for me because I had the richest Black woman and the most beautiful woman on my arms. That is the man," Isaacs says, laughing, and Blige laughs with him. Just as they did when they were faced with ridiculous divorce rumors a few months ago, the lovers have the last laugh. Together.
Writer Kierna Mayo lives in New York with her husband and two sons.
TUNE IN to watch the six-part Mary J. Blige documentary, "Soul Deep," during Black Music Month on Vh1soul.com. Get Mary J. Blige's artist page and check out the MJB Box Set to see a complete catalogue of music videos from the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul."