When Mary J. Blige had a brush with history last week, she almost missed the celebration.
The singer-actress was not tuned in to the Democratic National Convention when Sen. Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for vice president, becoming the first woman of color officially nominated to a major party’s presidential ticket. Just hours earlier, Blige had been busy promoting her latest endeavor, playing a ruthless crime boss in “Power Book II: Ghost,” the spinoff to Starz’s hit crime drama, “Power.”
While Blige missed Harris delivering her rousing address — and the moment when former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate waved to a giant screen of virtual viewers with Blige’s anthem “Work That” booming loudly as her exit music — she certainly heard about it. Quickly.
“I was busy, but then my phone started going crazy,” she said a few days later. “I had to rush everyone away so I could watch it. And the next day, it was all over the news. Wow, what a moment!”
Her fans — both famous and nonfamous— raved on social media. Charlamagne Tha God tweeted, “Kamala Harris. It was The Mary J. Blige ‘Work That’ at the end of her speech for me…..”
Said Blige with a chuckle, “I wasn’t there, but I was there.” She met Harris a long time ago. “She was a fan, and she was so nice to me at a time when I was going through some bad stuff, and she said so many things to add to my confidence and self-love. That was so important, and now she did it again.”
The musical shout-out is clear evidence that Blige, who has been branded the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” continues to be an influential and powerful force in the entertainment arena almost 30 years after her debut album, “What’s the 411?,” revolutionized R&B music with its blend of hip-hop and soul. She marked another milestone in 2018 with the film “Mudbound,” becoming the first person nominated for Oscars for acting and songwriting in the same year.
Her turn in “Power Book II: Ghost” is the latest triumphant chapter in a career that had previously been clouded by personal hardships and difficulties, including emotional trauma, addiction and divorce, but also defined by path-breaking success. Blige has always met those challenges head-on, though, using her music as catharsis for her pain and despair. That raw honesty has earned her millions of fans.
The hoopla around Harris’ salute to Blige may bring even more interest to “Power Book II: Ghost,” which picks up shortly after the series finale of Starz’s franchise original, in which drug dealer-nightclub owner and aspiring politician James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick) is gunned down by his young son, Tariq (Michael Rainey Jr.).
The new series follows Tariq as he juggles freshman year at an upscale university with life on the wrong side of the law like his father as he schemes to get his mother, Tasha (Naturi Naughton), who has been charged with Ghost’s murder, out of jail.
“Power Book II: Ghost,” which premieres Sept. 6, brings Blige together with longtime friend and former collaborator Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who is one of the executive producers. Even before the curtain had come down on “Power,” Blige, Jackson and “Power” creator Courtney Kemp had discussed developing a character for the singer.
“To be part of the ‘Power’ world is too good to be true,” said Blige. “Courtney and 50 wanted to have a story about a female queenpin.”
Blige plays Monet Stewart Tejada, the head of a vicious crime family. She’s fashioned her portrayal on “a combination of women trying to raise their families without men — not just queenpins, but single-parent[ing] mothers, women with that survival mentality. By any means necessary doing what it takes to provide for their families. I know a lot of women like that — my mother, my aunt, friends.”
Monet, she said, is “very black-hearted, and if you get in her way, it can be really bad for you. It’s going to be her way or no way. When the new money starts rolling in, she turns into an even bigger monster.”
As an admirer of what she calls its authenticity, Blige said she eagerly leaped into the “Power” franchise: “It was easy to put this character into play, because I know what ‘Power’ is about. I grew up in the inner city, in the projects. I’ve seen what it really is, and Courtney and 50 have been so brilliant in showing it. I saw Ghost in front of my building growing up. I hung out with Monet. I knew Tasha.”
Kemp, already a “huge fan” of Blige, said via email that in crafting Monet, she “really wanted to write about motherhood when the stakes are life and death.” And Blige made it possible to write the character as “a boss and a mother at the same time,” because “every choice she makes as an actor is completely believable and true.”
“In many ways, she is the soundtrack to my life,” Kemp added. “She is a survivor, an inspiration and an all-around superhero to me and millions of fans — especially women. She is a tremendous actress with a ton of physical presence and power.”
“Power Book II: Ghost” is the first of several planned spinoffs for “Power,” around which Starz executives hope to establish a “cinematic universe” akin to those of “Star Trek’s” space travelers or Marvel’s caped superheroes.
Starz President and Chief Executive Jeffrey Hirsch said he was thrilled to have Blige sign on to the series, calling her a “great new addition to the ‘Power’ universe. Our fan base will love her. Anytime you can bring a global superstar into the world, someone who has that ‘it’ that few people have, it’s really great.”
The role of Monet is worlds away, literally, from Blige’s most recent regular TV role, as a time-traveling assassin named Cha-Cha in the Netflix series “The Umbrella Academy,” a darkly funny comic-book adventure following a group of adoptive siblings with special powers as they try to avert the apocalypse. It was her first major role after “Mudbound,” and she spoke highly of her experience filming the series — particularly because she had the chance to perform many of her own stunts.
“‘The Umbrella Academy’ was a beautiful challenge,” Blige said. “It was amazing to learn martial arts and learn how to shoot every gun. So many guns.”
With these roles, both under Netflix’s shingle and Starz’s, Blige continues her creative evolution, diving deeper into filmmaking while continuing her music endeavors. “Mudbound,” in which she played the suffering but resilient matriarch of a Black sharecropping family, was as much a revelation for her as it was for audiences that marveled at her deglamorized appearance and understated performance.
She is not allowing herself to be lulled by the rave reviews, feeling that she still needs to prove she belongs in the ranks of other honored Black actresses.
“The accolades and the two Oscar nominations put me in a position of humility in this field,” she said. “Now I have to work as hard as an Oscar-nominated actress. I have to be better than I was in ‘Mudbound’ and keep evolving and growing. I always want to make my peers proud — the Queen Latifahs, the Taraji P. Hensons, the Angela Bassetts, the Viola Davises. I want them to know I am working hard at everything, and I respect that they do so much that I’m not going to take an honor like this for granted.”
She also wants to keep her fans on their toes: “I want to always make them proud instead of them saying, ‘OK, we knew that.’ I want them to say, ‘She never ceases to amaze us. She is always giving us more.'”
Fans of Blige’s music will also have something to look forward to — a new album.
“It will be out this fall or winter,” she said. And unlike some of her previous projects, the new music will have a more optimistic tone.
“It’s about life, love, struggle, but mostly triumph,” she said. “Because I’m learning how to rejoice in the valleys and the droughts.”