Creative Direction HOOD BY AIR
Mary J. Blige & Shayne Oliver Imagine Black Futures
In a candid conversation with Deidre Dyer, the music icon and Hood By Air founder get real on everything from their responsibility to the public, to what propels them forward. Photographed by Renell Medrano. Fashion Director: Gabriella Karefa-Johnson
Mary wears top and skirt by HOOD BY AIR, underpinnings by WOLFORD, boots by LE SILLA, bracelet by CARTIER, earrings by SISTER LOVE.
Creative Direction HOOD BY AIR
Bounce-backs. Comebacks. Rebounds. Whatever you call them, Mary J. Blige and Shayne Oliver have accomplished them, time and time again. Since the release of her debut album, What’s the 411?, in 1992, which introduced the world to a particular flavor of hood-saucy and headstrong woman, Blige has brought her soul-baring, uncompromising energy to the music industry. Similarly, over a decade ago, Oliver’s Hood By Air absolutely upended the fashion world with a vision that eschewed gender norms and deconstructed fashion, and that is only now becoming widespread in the industry. Today they are both innovators and elder statesmen, and have earned the right to do exactly as they please. In following their guts and choosing their destiny, they are writing a story of constant introspection, fine-tuning and reexamining the borders of their sense of self. GARAGE brought together Blige and Oliver in a wide-ranging conversation via phone, that looks back at their trajectories, and forward to a collective, self-determined future for Black and Brown people.
Your careers have a consistent track record of rethinking and reinventing. You’ve made really strong comebacks with each new phase. What has propelled you forward each time?
Mary J. Blige: For me it was the problems, each and every time, that allowed me and gave me the strength to make it through these heavy trials that [have] come to help me grow. When I [make it] through something great, or if I'm trying something that I've never done before, those are the things that keep pushing me forward in order to get to these amazing things that I never thought could be possible. What propels me is being able to get through the hard times, and rejoicing when something major happens. It's not just about making it through, but coming out strong. Fitter, better, and stronger. I see myself like, “Oh, wow, I'm better. I got a lot of work to do, but I'm stronger. I did something great. I can do that.”
Shayne Oliver: I don't like to reflect on negativity through my work, but I tend to go into hiding when something is not feeling correct or there's some moments that are, like you said, trials and tribulations. I think that that is a time of reflection, and I love to look at what I need, and what does Hood By Air need, in the same way you're saying: blessings and receiving new information, new guidance, new interpretations. And then thinking about what other people need, what I see lacking in the world around me, and what conversations will help other people, and providing a new interpretation or a positive way, or, I should say, influential way of going about dealing with the world that we're in. And obviously that comes from the ideas, thinking from strength, thinking from optimism. Thinking even if it's a little bit of being raw or vulnerable, showing that to people so that they understand that it's okay to be that way, and it's also a form of strength to be open about your process. So the idea of going away and coming back is something that I feel like humans should engage with more, and understand that that's a part of being a strong individual. Taking those times to yourself to go through things and not have it affect you for the rest of your life. It's not always the final say.
Both of you have grown immensely throughout your careers. Mary, you started recording at Uptown Records almost 30 years ago. And for you, Shayne, this is the 14th year of HBA. Continuing in this thought process of looking back, what do you see in your early work that resonates with you now in 2020?
MJB: When I look back—because lately I've been listening to a lot of my material, just to get me through the pandemic. I don't know why. I've just been playing a lot of Mary J. Blige—
MJB: But I don't normally do that. And what I learned is that I was stronger than I even thought I was. When I listen to the song “My Life,” when it comes to the lyrics, this little girl was lost. She was traumatized, she was drinking her pain away, she was doing drugs till she couldn't do them no more. She was depressed, she was dark, she was all these things. But she was writing these songs that resonate with this Mary J. Blige that's none of that. So when I listen to those songs, it just gives me the chills, because they minister back to me. They inspire me again.
I was just writing the things I didn't have, and I was writing from a place of lows, when now, when I look at those words, those places were high. And I looked into the Growing Pains album the other day, because Kamala [Harris] made me think about the song “Work That.” I listened to those lyrics and said, “Oh, my gosh. I was really stronger and smarter than I thought I was.”
SO: I've also been listening to a lot of your discography for sure, during the pandemic. And that's not even because we're talking right now. (Laughs) It's just fact. But I feel like when I look back, I think what inspired me about that moment of beginning is [having] the bare minimum and being like, what do I not need from anyone outside of what has been happening in my life right now? How do I go… And that's the place that I go to. The first collection was some of the most truthful [work], because I had to put everything into it in order for it to feel like a success to myself. And so I had so much power inside of those. Even if the collections were way smaller and it was just a T-shirt and jeans, the power and enthusiasm that I felt for my craft was embedded in all of those designs.
So I think a lot of times when [people are] looking for [my] inspiration, I'm always like, “Well, actually, that is my inspiration: the younger me.” Going back to identify with that headspace is always something that cleans the slate. Being like, “This is what I was,” and then: How do I want to change, or do I want to go into that even more? It's something that I always think about from my beginnings.
MJB: Yeah, me too. If I can throw too, just really strong lyrics that stuck out for me in these songs, and I'm going to get off of me for a second. (Laughs) In “Work That” I said, “Working with what I got, I'm going to keep on taking care of myself, I'm going to live long.” Those words, right here inside the pandemic, mean so much. “Taking care of myself, I'm going to live long.” And then on “My Life,” it's “Take care of time one day at a time. It's all on you what you're going to do.” So it's just been crazy inspiring to me, inspired me back in.
Thinking about the state of the industries before both of you emerged, your work has made space for folks who might not have been represented at that moment. Mary, your music and your artistry really spoke to a type of woman who's going through very real shit, in a very frank way. And Shayne, your work—I mean, the fashion industry was khakis before HBA. Thinking about the people who are die-hard fans, what have you noticed in your amen corner? How have they changed over the years?
MJB: What I noticed as an artist is, a lot of people were closed in. [They] didn’t want to speak out—because it's not everybody's job or assignment to be that vulnerable or raw, or outspoken in their music. That's just what I was and what I am. But what I noticed is that a lot of artists started doing it—everybody wanted to be outspoken and raw and vulnerable in their songs. And then everybody wanted to show everybody they were a B-girl too, if that was something that they were hiding at some point. The B-girl came out of them more, you know what I'm saying?
SO: I think just observing that whole moment was so eye-opening for me, just because I grew up around really aggressive, powerful women, and I think at the time it was so much of a storyline of “Get pretty, this is what it is.” You have to keep up with the Joneses in order to be in the room, you know what I mean? And when you came along, you just stripped that back and you're like, “Well, I'm here.” It's undeniable, the talent, but also, “I'm a person, and you have to deal with that person.”
And I think that connects with my storyline, which was me being like the influences that you all [in the industry] take into fashion and use as the theme of the season. This is something that I've actually grown up with, and now I'm telling you the real story. I'm telling you how those visions and those things that you are inspired by come about. How do we get the people that are really living that storyline in the room? I think the way that it has grown is, even if it's not about my aesthetic, people are getting more into their zones, in the sense where they are like, “Well, this is what I am.”
I think that the next generation of kids in fashion are very much about that. Even if there's fantasy and there's dreams in there, because obviously all of us say what we need to say in order to get it off our chests, to then feel free, to feel engaged with the new world. I think in fashion there was a lot of “Oh, these are the elements that you should do, and you're closest to this, so bend into this more, this is what market you should be in.” I think that people were just engaging with the market. The market now is engaging with individuals, you know what I mean?
Other than being true to self and being independent with your vision, what has been one of the biggest lessons that you had to learn along the way?
MJB: Responsibility for this whole platform you have. Okay, you're a huge singer now. You have a responsibility to your fans, and it’s a huge responsibility that also comes with how you treat yourself and how you treat people. The reason why I know [this] really, really well is because the early part of my career, I didn't understand the responsibility, and I would just go off on people for just messing with me. Once you hit that feeding frenzy and your songs are playing worldwide on a radio station, you are now responsible for the people that love you, and you have to respect them as much as you can. And if you can respect yourself and look at your job as a priority—this is a job now, okay?—and if a reporter asked the same dumb question over and over and over again, and here comes the other one that asks you the same dumb question over and over again, guess what? That's their job. You have to respect that. That's your responsibility, because what if they didn't want to speak to you at all?
So I learned the hard way that I'm always working. I go outside right now, I go to SoHo right now, I'm working. So if somebody walks up to me, I can’t [think], “Damn, here they come.” Although when they come, you still have to figure out a way to remember, What if they wasn't coming at all? What if they wasn't thinking about you at all?
Like French Montana said, “If you ain't got no haters, you ain't popping.” So that's a part of the job too, to be able to weather that storm. So it's really about responsibility for life itself, once you have been given such a huge platform. And you don't have to do everything that people tell you to do, but you are responsible for people.
SO: That makes a lot of sense. It’s also so different [for me, but] you have to have that respect for the craft, and yourself as a person too. That's what I'm connecting to in what you just said. I've been in situations where I'm like, “Well, why do I have to be cool?” Or “Why do I always have to be on?” or whatever, and it's not even about that. It's more. It is that responsibility you take on, because people are living vicariously through you. You become a vessel in a way, and that is a blessing in itself, to be that kind of person. Mary, I do feel like that is definitely where I'm at right now, this idea of the team being the family and the community, and taking care of those people that really look up to you, nurturing that, and being responsible for all of those things around you. Even this whole comeback has been about that. What does that [responsibility] mean for myself, and what does that mean for everyone around me and for the work? Making it stable and reliable, and having a decorum that is a standard. The work can never be below this, and then you can feel happy about it. Being responsible.
MJB: Right, the biggest responsibility is [the] self, through all of it. That's where happiness is going to come from. People know a lot of stuff about Mary J. Blige because this is the stuff that I've allowed you to know, and this is the stuff that you've seen. But the things that you don't know, you will never know, and that's what keeps me a mystery—although I'm a very outspoken person. So your biggest responsibility is you. When you give up all of you, it hurts people. People end up dead. Celebrities end up dead when they give up too much of them, and I love myself too much.
SO: It’s so true. And it's that balance of being a real person and then saying, “What is the amount of real, and what's the responsible amount of real for not only the people who are looking, but for myself?” For the happiness of life on both hands. I think that's been a huge takeaway from the life experience I have with fashion, and with coming back. I'm like, “Okay, I want to be great, and then also be great for myself so I can maintain greatness and be great constantly.” And that's what will happen.
Pivoting to the present and the future, our whole society is obviously at a massive turning point right now, but there is also a renewed sense of determination, specifically in Black and Brown communities. What do you think a Black future could look like? Or how would you envision that for Black and Brown people?
MJB: This is one I've got to think about. It's serious right now, and there is some change being made because we have been making the change. But there's other things; there are other people that are not making the change. So I think as long as we continue to stand up for what we believe in, stand up for each other, stand up for our rights, at some point… The dream was to be treated equally, because we have to live on this Earth with everyone else. So I guess the future would be for everyone to be treated as an equal. For Black people to be treated like people, and not animals and being slaughtered. Every time you look around, one of us is dying at the hands of a policeman, or just a regular Ku Klux Klan man as he's walking down the street. I don't have the politically correct answer, because I just don't. I just see it as: We'll be stronger. We'll be stronger in the future, because we're already strong people. We'll be much wiser.
SO: Every generation has to deal with their version of this. Every single generation has its moment, and they have to get to this boiling point to some degree. I'm always going back and forth, like, “Is it about assimilation?” Sometimes I just don't understand the idea of us building countries with everyone else. I get all whatever about it, because it's constant. It goes into these phases where it's actually violence, and everyone has an intellectualizing breakdown of it, and it becomes more of a conversation than this thing of…it's actually about violence. It's actually about lives. I feel like that's the focus. To me, I'm hoping that the future of the Black person is not caught up in just the idea of expressing and having the voice, and it's more about the action of stopping those huge, violent moments from taking place. Right now, I feel like I want the future to be: “We're in these larger conversations, and we want to be here. This is where we feel safe. We're going to where we feel safe. We don't need to be integrated into a place where you guys don't want to talk about it.”
MJB: That level of self-determination, and re-establishing almost.
SO: I would just like to see more respect. I think that it's happening slowly. It’s not that I don't think that there's amazing things happening. I just want there to be more respect. It's really the violence that gets to me. I'm just like, “I don't even care if you think I'm cool, or if I deserve to be here. Just do not kill me.” It's very simple.
MJB: Right, that's right.
SO: There’s probably a solution. I guess that's not a solution, but—
No, no. It's more of: How do you envision this thing? I mean, the sense that I'm getting from this is “Can I live?”
Just, “Let me live.”
Stylist IAN ISIAH, HOOD BY AIR, Hood By Air Team PAUL CUPO, CHRISTEN MOONEY, JALIL HOWARD, SONYA BELAKHLEF, Hood By Air Producer HALEY MENCHEL, Hair Stylist JAWARA at Art Partner using Dyson, Makeup Artist PORSCHE COOPER, Set Designer LAUREN NIKROOZ at 111th House Agency, Lighting Tech SIGGY BODOLAI, Photography Assistant CHAD HILLARD, Assistant Fashion Editor JARED ELLNER, Hair Assistants LATISHA CHONG, MIDEYAH PARKER, Location Scout ANDREW SAMAHA and VICTORIA DURDEN at NYC Film Locations, Production WEI-LI WANG at Hudson Hill Production, Production Manager SERIE YOON at Hudson Hill Production, Production Assistants MAX THEUMLER and BEN KATZEN, Special Thanks To JESS MOLONEY, NICOLE JACKSON, AMANDA SILVERMAN, VIVECA ORTIZ-TORRES, JANA CRANDAL, PIER 59 EQ, SPM GLOBAL