Chances are that you only know Mario Barrett by his first name. During the early aughts, Mario was an R&B sensation with classic hits that constantly played on the radio like "Let Me Love You" and "Just A Friend 2002." (They were all the rage at my middle school dances.) Come 2006, he casually crossed over into the field of acting and stole everyone's hearts on the screen with films like Step Up and Freedom Writers. During that period, he established the Do Right Foundation to educate and inspire children who suffered from parents with drug addictions.
But around 2009, Mario sort of faded into the background. Rather than be at the forefront of the field, he learned how to produce and write for other artists. A few months ago, Mario released "I Need More"—his first single in seven years—on his newly launched record label New Citizen LLC. With both hands on the wheel, he's the one in control of navigating the independent route.
Now, at the age of 30, Mario is reintroducing himself to the world and he wants everyone to be a part of it. In addition to releasing a new album and co-directing his own music videos, Mario also has a book on the way tentatively titled "New Citizen."
"I feel like when you tune into that part of yourself, that true artistry, you know, you create from a different place. I think being in the game for 12 plus years, I have developed a knack and a vision for what I want to be from this point on as an artist. You know, where I’ve grown from when I first started to now," he says.
Learn more about Mario's path of self-discovery in the interview, below.
You've been working on the music video for "I Need More" for a while now. Could you tell me more about it? Mario: Yeah. So ‘I Need More' is about perspective and coming from a male artist who is in this transitional place. I go out here and there and I have these experiences where it’s like, I’m living the life that probably a lot of young men at any moment would want to live. Whether it’s clubbing and being around a lot of beautiful women and bottles and the cars and this and that. But, when you’re in it and you step back from it while you’re in it, you’re like, 'Wow, this is enough.' This isn’t the end all be all of success, we need more and I need more than just this. I’m loving it, I’m having a good time but I need more than just the bottles. So that’s what the concept of the song is. The video, I took it a little deeper and a little more cynical... I don’t know if that’s the right word, but whatever. It’s more about freedom, and fighting, and believing in yourself, and fighting for your freedom. It’s a performance/cinematic storyline about freedom and people sometimes feeling trapped within their environment or feeling trapped within their own perceptions, and about fighting for what you believe in.
If you don’t mind, I just want to take a walk down memory lane. Growing up can you recall your earliest memories of music?
M: My earliest memory of music would be my mom playing piano. We had a piano in our home—one of those electric ones—and I remember sitting with her singing ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ and ‘Eyes Of The Sparrow.’ One morning when I was super young, maybe like four or five, [my mom] had brought me this mic that tuned into the radio and you could find the frequency for it. It was early in the morning and I remember just singing into the mic and she came downstairs and she told me she didn’t know it was me singing, she thought it was the radio and that’s when she knew that I had an ear for melody. From then on she just continued to bring home musical instruments, like a karaoke machine when I was 10 or 11 for Christmas and I just kept going from there. I started doing talent shows and singing in church every Sunday. I think that’s probably where I got the soul from, but, you know, it was an outlet for me, for all the craziness that was going on at home. It was definitely an outlet.
What was it like growing up in Baltimore, Maryland?
M: I mean, it was beautiful and it gave me a great foundation in terms of just strength and understanding how to deal with people in different circumstances—a relentless passion for conquering my goals. All those types of things... I grew up in a household with 18 of us living in a two-and-a-half bedroom house, and I watched a lot of my family members suffer with substance abuse. My grandmother was big momma for real. She went to church every Sunday, cooked for the family, and tried to take care of the whole family and keep everybody together. She passed when I was like, 12, I got adopted when I was 13, and then my music career started shortly after that. So it was just like, all of these events prepared me to be ready for whatever and I think that is something that God put in place to prepare me for my career and for this crazy industry.
What was your reaction when you heard the news about the Baltimore riots?
M: I was actually in Miami at the time of that and I remember seeing it on TV. I was really surprised... well, actually I wasn’t surprised by the reaction because I know how Baltimore is, especially in a city where there’s so much tension already because of the history of the city and it being one of the biggest drug capitals. There is just always a lot of tension there between police and the inner city kids and guys that live in the city. So, I wasn’t surprised that the rioting was happening but my thought process was, ‘After this, then what?’ After the riots, after all the artists go there, so many go because they really care, but after this, then what?
My response to it is writing a book and stepping into how we can fix the root of the issue and how can we change the way that our society, especially in the urban communities, is looked at. You know, in social media, in the media platforms, news, this and that, and it starts with people like myself who come from these areas who have something to say beyond just Black Lives Matter. It’s more about how we change somebody and give them tools, and foundation, and character individually, and how that’s real. And helping people see themselves and giving them the tools to help them rise above their circumstances—those are the things that we need. So, that’s kind of where I push my mindset. Bbecause it was so close to home, it just made me that much more passionate about spreading that type of message.
We’ve reached a point where celebrities want to get involved, and there’s backlash. But before, if a celebrity didn’t say anything on an issue a few years ago, people had no problem with that. How have you been able to find a balance?
M: Media is a very tricky tool and if it’s not used the right way it can be detrimental to everybody and especially to those who don’t understand that everything you see isn’t real. A lot of it is planned. The real information is taken out of context, so I don’t think everything should be taken literally. I think people need to do research for themselves and I think, even though it’s a cliché, I think it goes back to if you want to change the world it starts with you. It starts with understanding where you come from, and how where you come from effects where you are today, and what you can do in a real way to affect the solution instead of the problem. So, those are the types of things I think about, and those are the type of things that I write about in my book, and that’s the movement I’m on.
How long has this book been in the making?
M: Not really long to be honest with you. It started shortly after that. I did a short tour, a 7 or 8 day tour in Australia. I did all the major cities and on my way there I started writing it, and I started writing it because one of my cousins had asked me a question about some advice about something. It started as just a text to him and then I just started writing a book. This is something I feel like a lot of young people, people my age and younger, can relate to... and anybody really. It’s very practical, about balancing your personal and spiritual life. There’s so many different references in there that are just from my experiences. As you get older and start to become more of an intellectual, and maybe you start reading more and getting into different things, you might come across spiritual people who write self-help books but everybody in the hood, they don’t have access to things like that. They may not even want to; they don’t relate to those people. But somebody like myself who comes from the streets of Baltimore, and my family comes from the streets, they can relate to if I were to say something that were more along the lines of philosophical health. They might listen to me more than they would listen to that person. So it’s just being able to relate.