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Mary J. Blige's interview with Hillary Clinton: How it came together

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Apple

Late this summer, Mary J. Blige was spending a weekend with Apple Music top exec Jimmy Iovine. They were watching the news and discussing the recent string of police shootings when Iovine asked Blige if she had ever heard Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots).”

She hadn’t, and at a small luncheon in New York this week, the singer recalled being moved instantly as Iovine played it for her. “The lyrics resonated with me so deeply and so heavily,” she remembered, “because of all the shootings and the police brutality.” She wanted to incorporate the song into her new talk show, The 411 With Mary J. Blige, which premieres on Apple Music this week — so she did, with the help of a very special guest.

Blige performed at the Democratic National Convention this July, and now the party’s presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, is returning the favor, serving as the Blige’s first interviewee. “Who she truly is inspired this interview. When I met her, she was genuinely concerned about how I was doing. Like, she hugged me like a grandma!” Blige said with a laugh. “And I needed that hug! I want people to get that opportunity.”

Apple went to work on arranging the meeting immediately, and the interview took place just about a month ago in San Francisco. The first teasers for the show arrived earlier this week, following the first presidential debate, and perhaps did not land as the brand or star hoped. Featuring the R&B icon singing Springsteen’s song to her guest, eyes closed and clasping Clinton’s hand, it quickly became an internet meme. But Blige says that moment was necessary. “I needed Ms. Clinton to be impacted the same way [I was],” she explained. “The only way I can get that reaction from her is to sing it.”

The Boss released “American Skin” in 2001, but it’s never felt more immediate than now. During the second verse he takes on the perspective of an African-American mother who warns her son to be careful when dealing with law enforcement. He sings:

Lena gets her son ready for school

She says, “On these streets, Charles

You’ve got to understand the rules

If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite

And that you’ll never ever run away

Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”

Blige said that in order to ask Clinton about how she plans to “begin the healing process” in America, she needed her to understand the fear that currently governs black mothers.

For the record, that is the only musical moment during the show’s 30 minutes of runtime. The rest of their conversation is spent in normal speaking voices on questions like, “How has your faith guided you?” and “Do you think it’s hard for a woman to be both tough and likable?” (Spoiler: The answer, which is embedded below as a preview, is, “Yes.”)

They have a particularly moving exchange regarding Clinton’s mother, who was abandoned by her parents and raised by disinterested grandparents. She became a housekeeper in her early teens and, as Clinton says, that’s where her mother learned what a loving family looked like. Later, they discuss Blige’s current divorce proceedings. “Where do you find strength?” the singer wonders.

Elsewhere, they dissect specific policy agendas — Blige is curious how Clinton would succeed where President Obama failed in getting Common Sense Gun Laws passed — as well as what Clinton is listening to and what show she most recently binged. (The answer? The Hamilton soundtrack and House of Cards, respectively.)

Blige, who prepped by rehearsing her questions out loud and alone in her room ad nauseam, admitted she was humbled by her guest’s responsiveness. “I knew she was loving,” Blige said, “but I didn’t know she was going to be that open. I didn’t know she was going to be so down to earth with it.”

The 411 With Mary J. Blige premieres on Apple Music Friday. The first episode is available to stream for subscribers as well as non-subscribers. It is also available for download in the iTunes video store for free. Watch the interview below.