Mary J. Blige
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham
Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015

On a rainy and muggy Sunday evening, some 2,700 people congregated at the Durham Performing Arts Center. The combination of the day of the week and the well-dressed congregants suggested a church service, but no, we had gathered there for the last installment of N.C. Central’s three-night string of homecoming-weekend concerts. It was a little like church, though: Mary J. Blige’s songs and sermons of self-love and personal power resonated with her audience unlike any other performance I’ve ever seen.

As I took my seat, I noticed that most attendees were women of color. Many arrived with—and, indeed, seemed much more excited than—their male counterparts, but I spotted several all-female groups, too. Many spent most of the show standing in front of the seats they’d paid for, singing and dancing along. I quickly understood why the women rolled so deep at this show, too. Blige’s songs spoke to her own experiences, of course, but her songs about trust, relationships, love and confidence struck deeper sentiments with many of us in the audience. There were times where it didn’t seem like Blige was performing as much as she was directing live band sing-alongs to her own tunes. On “Real Love” and others, Blige pointed the mic at the crowd, and they gleefully sang every single word right back at her.

The energy of the room felt circular: The crowd screamed and cheered as Blige strutted and sang, even chanting “Go Mary! Go Mary!” as she danced during instrumental breaks. For all her showmanship, Blige drew from the crowd’s adoration and seemed moved by it all—toward the end of the show, she took a moment between “No More Drama” and “Be Without You” to collect herself after shedding a few tears.

Blige squeezed outfit changes in between songs and brought the house down with her hits. “Good Woman Down” was a wonderful highlight, and she went out swinging with the encore of “Family Affair.” And though she never mentioned the notion of feminism, her songs and words dug far deeper into feminist territory than many pop stars who claim to champion the same causes but who reveal little about it in their writing. Blige’s honest, pro-woman, don’t-ever-let-them-keep-you-down messages acted as a reinvigoration that I didn’t even realize I’d needed. Amen.