A few years ago I went to a Mary J. Blige concert at the Molson Ampitheatre at Ontario Place in Toronto. I've been a fan of Mary since the beginning, but somehow this was the first time I had seen her live. I was glad to be there, and glad to see a packed house, and hear her perform the songs that had been the soundtrack and inner dialogue to so many moments in my life.
She sang, she danced, she spoke to the audience about her life's moments that brought her to that place. She connected with us, as we had connected with her hundreds of times before listening to any one of her legendary albums that are obvious staples in anyone's music collection.
And when Mary got ready to sing her classic "I'm Going Down" (a cover of Rose Royce's hit from 1977) from her second album, My Life...all it took was a few intro notes from the band, and the women in the Ampitheatre began to cheer, clear their throats...and sing.
Time on my hands...since you've been away boy...I ain't got no plans...no no no no...
Instant goosebumps. While Mary originally intended to sing the song...she couldn't. The feedback from the ladies in the audience as they belted the tune out back to Mary was overwhelming. She stopped. She put the microphone out towards the audience, and she let us sing.
And boy did we sing.
Sleep don't come easy...boy please believe me...since you've been gone...everything's going wrong...
And it continued like this for the chorus. For the next few verses. For the entireity of the song, Mary did not sing one note! It wasn't planned but it happened. And it happened because we were moved to experience the song in the way Mary had. We were moved to sing the song at the top of our lungs. And although we had paid money to hear Mary sing it--along with her other hits--we couldn't help but take over the show.
I use Mary as a prime example, because she's one of the strongest artists that emerged, developed, and excelled in my generation. From she first came out in the early 90s until this day, married, mature, and still rocking the charts, Mary J Blige is one of those women that will always be influential.
And Mary's just one of them. I could easily list dozens of female entertainers in music, writing, film, and television, whose creativity has had an equally strong and moving effect on their audience members.
With International Women's Day taking place in the month of March, I began to think about what it means to be a woman in the entertainment industry. What does it mean to be Oprah, or Mary...what does it mean to be Mariah, Halle, or even Whoopi? What does it mean to have the ability to project your thoughts, your words, and your face to millions of others on a fairly regular basis? What does it mean to have other women reciprocate your work so strongly, that they can easily sing your song word for word, right on tune, without missing a single note?
There are plenty of women in other industries doing their thang: scientists, teachers, business women, and homemakers alike. I can appreciate the diversity of today's woman and know that there is an impact to be made across the board...but my attention is specifically set on the role of the female entertainer. What is her worth? Why is she the one that gets most of the recognition and praise?
And then I thought back to the Mary concert. And I remembered watching "A Different World" on television and seeing these young, fun, and likeable women of all shades and sizes pursuing a university education on screen. I thought about writers like Terry McMillan (as noted in my previous post), and reporters like Oprah Winfrey. While their business is entertainment, their mere presence was so much more than that to me. They were role models...women outside of our families and friends that we could look to for examples of ourselves. They were powerful.
Even as an adult, I still look to many of the women I grew up being entertained by, for strength, encouragement, and motivation. I put on an Alicia Keys CD when I need inspiration to start practicing my piano and tightening my skills. I'll watch a Mariah Carey or Kimora Lee Simmons documentary when I need to see a woman taking her industry and making millions and millions from it, and leading the most glamourous lifestlyes imaginable. I'll tune into Oprah, as she takes an audience of hundreds across Australia on an adventure, and I get moved when I see her cry at the simplest things like fireworks or a beautiful sunset. I'll read a book by Queen Latifah and celebrate how far she's come.
OK, so they're millionnaires. And they're off in Hollywood or wherever they reside "entertaining" for a living, while the rest of us tend to a nine-to-five. What is their real worth in the grand scheme of things? For me, it's a feeling. An energy. A hope. A gratitude.
Because Mary J. Blige wasn't always "Mary J. Blige." And Oprah and her millions used to be Oprah and her pocket change. The Williams sisters and their multi-national sponsorships used to be two little sisters playing tennis...and yes, even though they've reached unbelievable levels of success and recognition, I still feel the reality is that they are average women who had a dream, stuck to their vision, and never looked back.
And this I believe is the value of the women in the entertainment industry that we know and love.
We grew up with them. We see their lives play out in the media (good and bad) and we are entertained by their movies, we laugh at their TV shows, we jam to their music, and we depend on their creativity to tell our stories and do the things we aspire to do, at times.
Without taking away from the individual wonderful lives we lead...we can admire them from afar, and silently congratulate these women on turning their passions into a career, and turning their talents into a culture. This is the culture that we live in, and their work has often been the backbone of our experiences.
Specifically, with the black female entertainers...sometimes it was just nice to see their faces and recognize my experiences through them. Honestly. I've got love and appreciation for women of ALL ethnicities, but the black ones provided that extra sense of recognition, extra sense of self-love, and that extra motivation to excel. They REALLY spoke to me, in a way that I internalized on a personal level.
So while I'd like to pay tribute to ALL women for International Woman's Day, I created a montage of the black female faces that directly and indirectly gave so many of us the courage, the confidence, and the motivation to pursue our own dreams.