My mother and her brother, like me, moved around too much as children. The two grew up in the rough Germantown section of northwest Philadelphia, but after their mother died, they moved north to Irvington, N.J., where they went under the supervision of an elder sister. They soon wound up a half-hour south of the Canadian border in upstate New York, at Plattsburgh Air Force Base. That's where I was born in 1978.
A few years later, the military relocated my family to Bergstrom AFB (now an airport) in Austin, Texas. As a child, my mother, Terry, couldn't pronounce brother, so she called her brother "Bubble," a nickname that stuck. By luck, Uncle Bubble had been living with his girlfriend in Texas for years, so the family was reunited. I had an uncle again.
I lived in Austin for four years. At one point Uncle Bubble took me to see the "Queen of Funk-Soul," Chaka Khan, perform. At an outdoor venue akin to the N.C. State Fairgrounds, I sat on his shoulders and sang along with the hits of the wild-haired diva, "Sweet Thing" and "Ain't Nobody" among them. Back then, "Ain't Nobody" was one of the most popular songs in the country, and no one other than Patti LaBelle (or maybe Stephanie Mills) could touch Khan's vocal range, at least until Whitney Houston arrived.
Our modern "Queen of R&B Soul," Mary J. Blige, was barely a teenager when I sat on Bubble's shoulders that day. She was old enough, though, to emulate some of those sweeping voices and add her own Yonkers, N.Y., bad-girl attitude. She landed a record deal on MCA's Uptown label and fell under the tutelage of Sean "Puffy" Combs. He served as the executive producer of her debut album, What's the 411? (on which she covered Khan's "Sweet Thing"), and its follow-up, My Life.
By the time Blige released her first album, my family had moved overseas and returned to America—this time, to Kansas. After the video for her second single, "Real Love," Blige had established herself as the cool, around-the-way woman who was comfortable in sequined two-pieces and a hockey jersey, baseball cap, combat boots and knee pads. And she could sing, too; back in America, we realized she was the rejoinder to my parents' assertions that "singers just don't sing like they used."
Meanwhile, Uncle Bubble was serving the last bit of a seven-year prison sentence in the Texas State Penitentiary for a number of burglaries. When he was released, he came to live with us in Kansas.
Toward the end of my senior year of high school, Blige released her third album, Share My World, in spite of personal issues that included a bad breakup and substance abuse. Blige, it seemed, was maturing out of the street-soul sound and into adult territory with sentimental ballads like "Not Gon' Cry" and, from 1999's Mary, universal love themes like "Beautiful Ones." Her next five albums included chart-topping singles but ultimately sailed her further away from her hip-hop roots, showing the grown-up Mary J. Blige.
I, too, had become a grown man, if only out of necessity. Uncle Bubble cycled in and out of correctional facilities. My father died. My mother was estranged somewhere between San Diego and San Antonio.
Blige's most recent album, My Life II...The Journey Continues (Act 1), returns to her hip-hop foundation, with help from Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, Lil' Wayne and her old buddy Combs. "It's a sequel and an extension of how far we've come," she has said of the record. Amid all of the throwback hip-hop, she covers Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody," adding a little electro-funk.
Last week, Uncle Bubble was again released from a correctional facility—this time, in El Dorado, Kansas. His 54 years have been a series of drug use, crime, arrests and convictions. Does he, I wonder, get a part two? Does he even deserve one? Does he feel the weight of that 6-year-old on his shoulders at the Chaka Khan show? Can another Mary J. Blige cover remind him of our good old days and point him toward new ones? We'll see.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Redemption & burdens."