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.
Can you tell me about switching lanes and crossing over into acting?
M: You know, it’s like a blur to me at this point. I just remember Step Up was the first movie that I did and meeting Ann Fletcher at the casting in L.A.—she was like, this fireball of energy and we just clicked. We were talking about music and performing arts, and because the school that the movie was based off of was a performing arts school in Baltimore there’s a lot of discussion there, and I think that part was just literally made for me and it just worked out. And I enjoyed the fact that I was able to play a musician but also act as well and not play Mario but play Miles, my character. That was based off of Quincy Jones.
Freedom Writers was more of a challenge. I had to really pull from personal experiences and step into a much more sensitive, darker place. Step Up is a fun, drama/comedy musical, but it was challenging and it was another step up, no pun intended, from the movie I did before in terms of my acting ability and the range. Working with Richard LaGravenese and Hillary Swank was super cool. I was able to see the levels and her trailer... she had her own trailer and it was a huge, big fancy thing and everybody just kind of shared trailers and I got a chance to see what a star, an acting star was and her preparation. She actually helped me a lot in some of those scenes. I remember the scene where it was my crying debut moment, and she talked to me before the scene, and the tools that she gave me worked. I was like, 'Wow, this is really like a science, this is really psychological.' It was really cool, so I’m definitely looking forward to getting into more films and probably directing films myself one day.
What have been some of the highlights of your career, and what is one of the most valuable things that you’ve learned?
M: One of the major highlights I think would be touring the world. Touring with Destiny’s Child... I hadn’t been on a tour that big. I’ve toured with some R&B artists in some smaller amphitheaters, 5,000-6,000 seaters but nothing like in the U.S. We did 20,000 seaters and then overseas we did a stadium. I think that in terms of touring that was a highlight for me. Obviously having a number one record around the world, in every continent, ‘Let Me Love You’ was a highlight. But I would say that starting my own label was a highlight and putting an album out and projects and singles through my label is probably one of my biggest personal accomplishments alone and just going back out there as not a new artist but a reformed artist.
Knowing what you know now at the point that you’re currently at, if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
M: That’s always a tricky question. I would tell my younger self to probably have more fun. I had to grow up so fast and between my personal life and being an artist I didn’t take a lot of risks. I would tell myself to take more risks and have more fun with the knowledge that I was already gaining, that’s probably it.
I noticed some of these crystals that you have on. Can you tell me a little bit about them?
M: Yeah, so, I got into crystals about a year ago. I had crystals before, but I just thought they were cool and I didn’t really understand what they were. Now I have like two or three crystal bibles—they are just books that give you the breakdown and history of crystals. They explain everything because what happens is when you start to learn the characteristics of them, there are certain crystals that are specifically for you that you use for certain reasons that have to do with the planetary alignment, chakras, and what you personally want to work on. These particular crystals, this one is titanium, and this is opalite, and it’s in a merkaba-shaped crystal. So the merkaba is the light astro-energy of the body and it can be charged with your own energy and filled with your art and the positive energy. It’s like a protective shield if you will and we all have it around us.
And then titanium for me, it’s grounding as well as it raises your vibration. Some places have no grounding and if you feel like you’re a person that’s always like airy and kind of like all over the place mentally and kind of like lighter and flowy, you might want to wear grounding crystals to kind of bring you here so you can do work and be a little more logical. So this kind of does both for me, it gives me that range and keeps me balanced. And then hemotype because I’m a vegetarian and I don’t eat a lot of meats, it activates the iron in your blood so it helps it kind of balance that for me... I have a crystal, my chakra bowls at home, they are all crystals and they are made out of quartz. Quartz crystals help to amplify whatever energy you are already holding on to. Those are really powerful crystals, but then I have amethyst, selenite, titanium... I’ve got a bunch of stuff.
Can you tell me a little bit about your tattoos?
M: So I have 13. I have the mercury symbol here. Mercury is the planet that rules my sign, Virgo. It rules communication and creativity and I put it on the throat chakra because the throat is communication. I have an ankh that hangs around my neck that goes all the way down to like right here. The ankh represents immortality, it represents sexual energy, creation, male, female, how it comes together to create. I have a mic with an old scroll around it that says ‘have no doubt’ which represents my passion for music. Then I have this tattoo... it has so many different meanings but it just represents the evolution of the soul and spiritual growth. I got this like, three and half years ago when I was like really starting to get deep into my spiritual path, and another reason I got it was because it spells love both ways so I just thought that was unique. The sun and the moon, the triangles, they represent masculine and feminine polarities. This is a key that represents the key to my destiny. And then I have two king cobras. King cobras are very ancient. They symbolize serpents that represent the rise of the Kundalini energy. I have ‘soul truth’ on my back, which is the first tattoo that I got. It just reminds me of what my grandmother told me on her deathbed. She told me to stay true to my soul and never stop singing and never stop focusing on my passion. So those are my tattoos... Oh, no, and then I have these two. This one says strength in Arabic, and this one says pain, and this is just a music note, and that’s a number one—that’s the worst tat I’ve ever got. I got this tat because I just wanted a tat that day for some reason and I got it.
Lastly, my friend really wanted me to ask you about the era when you wore braids. What inspired that hairstyle choice?
M: I mean, it started at home. You know, growing up in Baltimore, I left my hair grow all the way out and there was this girl that I was really cool with. We never dated, but we were fond of each other and she would always braid my hair every time I went back home to Baltimore. I had just started touring and promoting and I hadn’t been home in like, forever, and I was talking to a writer who wrote ‘You Don’t Know My Name’ for Alicia Keys and a bunch of other stuff. He’s really one of those writers who gets in the studio with you and talks to you about your life and next thing you know you’ve got a song written. So, I was in the studio and I was just like, I don’t feel like recording tonight, I want to go home and have my girl braid my hair and I just want to chill. So he was like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna write a song about braids,’ and I was like, ‘Nobody wanna hear a song about braids bro,’ and he was like, 'I’m telling you everybody gonna start rapping about braids.' So, we wrote the song and it just came so naturally and next thing I knew it was everywhere. Then, I decided to cut my hair a few years later. It was time to move on from that phase. The hardest thing about it though was being in Europe and trying to find a girl that could braid hair like in America. And they swore they knew how to braid but it just wasn’t the same.