Mario is the independent R&B star and Grammy-nominated artist behind four LPs that hit the top 25 of the Billboard 200 albums chart, including his self-titled breakout debut. Mario reached No. 9 on the Billboard 200, and spawned a top 5 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with the Biz Markie redo “Just a Friend 2002” — which has endured into the streaming era, earning 92.6 million on-demand streams, according to Luminate.
That set was released on J Records and executive produced by label founder Clive Davis, who the singer/songwriter tells Billboard is “one of the best execs in the game.” Now after launching his independent label, New Citizen LLC, in 2015, Mario is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his debut album, which propelled him into global heartthrob status by age 15 — despite his humble beginnings in Baltimore.
“The way I grew up, we didn’t dream,” the “Main One” and “Care For You” star recalls. “We weren’t taught that you can achieve anything. It was just, ‘Get through the next day.’ That’s all I saw, and I carried that until I started becoming more of an entrepreneur… Now, I dream awake and go after what I believe as an independent artist.”
And the decision to go independent was empowering, “It helped me transition from being a young artist. It was a point of self-discovery,” he explains. “There’s so much more to me than music and that’s where my label name ‘New Citizen’ came from… When I first became an independent artist, I felt I was becoming a new citizen of my own personal universe.”
Up next, Mario has a reflective memoir titled Life In Exchange on the way, new music (including a jazz album), a new fashion capsule that will “encompass strength, cleanliness and being a warrior” and an all-new museum “that’s never been done before” in development. He also signed a business partnership with Dre London to jointly launch the healthy, 100 calorie SKRT Hard Seltzer.
Through celebrating 20 years in music — which also includes his Platinum-certified 2005 sophomore album Turning Point, that spawned his first Hot 100 No. 1 hit with “Let Me Love You,” and has collectively amassed 1.01 billion streams to date — Mario opens up about his journey balancing “a full spectrum experience in life,” while expanding his music legacy over the past 20 years and giving back to the youth of his hometown.
“I’m proud of the man I’m becoming,” says the proud son of late mom Shawntia Hardaway. “The world has yet to see all that I give. But thus far, I give off classic and I feel like my voice is sure, clean and it sticks. My voice is distinctive. There’s a certain evolution that comes with listening to my catalog. It’s the soul. The soul doesn’t have an age, it’s omnipresent in its journey.”
How accomplished do you feel celebrating your 20th anniversary?
I feel motivated, anxious and humbled by this industry. It birthed my first experience to traveling the world and being famous. Like in Africa: Nigeria, Durban, Ghana and Johannesburg are the places I remember from my first time being on tour with Pharrell, Snoop Dogg and Sean Paul when “Beautiful” came out. People don’t know how beautiful Africa is. You think you wanna go to Bora Bora, go to Seychelles and African islands. We were there with 20,000, 30,000, 50,000 people strong while touring.
But the industry also birthed my first experience of not being on top and learning how to deal with that as a kid and young artist. Figuring my identity as a person was important to me by the time I was 24. Then I was on top again. Those journeys of ups and downs are the humbling part. Then there’s the fans. I look at my streaming numbers like, “Wow, I haven’t put out an album in a while. But my fans are still streaming.” When I think about the years, I calculate with the music and it’s amazing.
You just toured in London, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester then essentially won your Verzuz — can fans expect to see you perform again soon?
God willing, absolutely. It was amazing to see how classic songs live everywhere. People love R&B around the world. I’ve traveled to places where people don’t speak English, watch TV, or know my face but know my name. I can walk in the street somewhere and be right next to people that love my song playing. It’s a blessing to do that. Being overseas is a reminder to never feel like classic or real music is gonna die.
I have a show coming up in Maryland on July 29th at MGM National Harbor. Make sure y’all get tickets. The VIP tickets just went on sale. That’s one of my favorite parts about shows, meeting fans in real life that have T-shirts that I signed when we were 15 and shoes they wore for the first concert. Thank you for all the love I get from back home every time I go, I love you fans.
Your new song is called “Main One.” Are you a “Main One” kind of man or an “Only One” kind of man?
In the song, I speak about the stages to becoming the main one — because there are stages for a man and woman. Like, I don’t meet you today and just become your main one. [Laughs.] You have to see, “What are his traumas? What does he have going on in life? Is he a good person? Is he respectful to himself and going to respect me? Is the thing gonna hit right? Does he love God?” All of that. Once we past that stage, I’m definitely an “Only One” man, 1,000 percent.
What’s your personal career high?
My personal career high would be making a project and touring off of it. It’s the epitome of a full circle moment for me. It’s like achieving another connection with the fans. I sing a week before I got on tour and make my voice go hoarse so it grows back stronger in two days. When I go on tour, I sing until I can’t no more. It’s like a muscle. It works every time. [laughter]
Mario debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 two weeks before your 16th birthday. At that age, did you value those numbers?
No. I didn’t value any of that at that age. I didn’t know what 20 years in the game meant. I didn’t think about legacy or No. 1 records. I was in shock about leaving Baltimore straight to being [a star] traveling the world. On my second album, I did my first big tour with Destiny’s Child. I was listening to The Writing’s on the Wall going to middle school taking the bus, so to see the artists was like, ‘Wow, this is my real life.’
But now, I look back and I’m proud of the man I’m becoming, because I’ve come a long way. I can say that now. I was ashamed to say that in my twenties when I was still going through mental health things and certain things I hadn’t dealt with. But now I can say, ‘Bro, I’m proud of you.’
Artists are able to discuss mental health now, but I feel you couldn’t when you were overcoming your personal battles. Why do you think that is?
I still believe people have hearts. Social media plays a big part in connecting the world and connecting people. Mental health is real for everybody, and we’re speaking openly about it now, because we’re able to see people’s shadows in the open, in real-time. If you’re going through something, people can see it, have an opinion and talk about it.
You have a very positive, spiritual vibe in your music and messaging. How do you feel about the industry often promoting music about substance abuse and gun violence?
When artists use music as their way to express themselves, they’re speaking about what they see and experience. In country music, those artists write about things like growing up in the country or living in a hut. If I was a rapper growing up in Baltimore, I would probably be talking about things that as a singer wouldn’t translate. But I’m not a rapper. I look at is as therapy for them, but I think it’s tough because it makes them money and it’s hard for them to turn away from that.
That’s what’s being promoted — but you do have artists that are different and try to come from a different perspective, like the Kendricks and J. Coles. In Dancing Shadows, I tried to approach certain songs from a more introspective and therapeutic, perspective in R&B. That was the first time I did a project like that and I probably will do another one.
If people, consumers and radio would allow artists to explore more dimensions in their music, I don’t think we would see as much praise and support in violent music or music that’s trauma music. I DM’d Swizz Beatz two months ago, because he has a label focusing on jazz music. I said, “Bro, let’s do a whole jazz album.” It’s possible to try something new. You have to partner with the right people so it can translate.
Do you still feel your mom’s presence?
I love that you asked. After the night my Mom passed, I found out the next day.
The night before her funeral, she came to see me. I was home in downtown Baltimore with family over and I remember getting ready to sleep. I had the balcony open and felt her presence come through. She stayed for about 20 minutes. The whole room literally felt warm and I just knew it was her.
She came to me again about four years ago at my home in L.A. and it was the same exact energy. When she’s here everything sits still and goes quiet. She’s a very powerful woman. It’s a literal vortex. It’s like the feeling of a TV being on in a room but 100 times stronger. Then there’s warmth of the heart chakra and love that fills my whole body. That’s how I know it’s her. I always feel my mother and grandmother around, but these particular times were very surprising.
She’s more than what happened. How do you want your mom to be remembered?
My mother was amazing, silly, intelligent and God-fearing. She was always educating me about spirituality and spoke about God every day. My mother was a great friend, chemist and tennis player. She had a scholarship playing tennis when she was about 19 or 20 and was one of the No. 1 players in Maryland at the time. She was a sister and great daughter.If my mother met you, she literally would try to talk life into you. She was a visionary, very connected and had a lot of ideas. I think if she hadn’t had a drug addiction, she’d probably be opening up all types of [resourceful] centers. She may or may not be working with me in the industry. I know she would be doing something powerful for women and representing Black women in a very powerful way.
What inspired you to transform from songwriter to author for your upcoming memoir, Life in Exchange?
It started as a letter to my cousin when I was flying to Australia. I was like, ‘This is therapeutic. I didn’t know I had all this in me to say and feel.”
My memoir is a stream of consciousness. It’s not my life chronologically, it’s my thoughts about my life. We’re always in exchange with life as it gives us experiences based upon the spaces we’re in, our thoughts, feelings, partnerships, upbringing and all. From our responses is how we get the present. We can learn from it, choose to get help and take those shadows and turn them into something positive — or we act on traumas. I talk about all that in the book, which may be out by the end of next year.
Music is one thing when I’m on stage. But when I release my book, I want to host conferences where I sit in rooms with 100 of my fans and connect.
As an R&B star, how do you feel about Afrobeats — are you looking to enter the genre?
On Closer to Mars, I dipped and dabbled in Afrobeats with a song called “Anticipated.” Check that song out. Afrobeats is a sound that you can play anywhere in the world and it gets people dancing.
If Earth was a person and made an album, Afrobeats is what it would sound like — it’d be the R&B version of what earth would do.
Which of the producers you’ve worked with made the most significant, lasting impact?
Warryn Campbell. He worked on my first album and did “Just a Friend” and “Braid My Hair.” He made me feel like I was in Baltimore when I came to L.A., like I was home in the studio recording. That’s what made those records so great. He was like an older brother that’s talented as hell.
I worked with a lot of big producers on the debut album, like The Underdogs. It’s so important to have those types of experiences as an artist creatively with the producer or writers, like Harold Lilly Jr., who was writing those records, because the songs take on the energy of the creative experience. I chase the experience of feeling like I’m working with a talented sister, brother or homie and I’m really working with somebody that loves music like I do and we’re making hits.
You’ve been addressing spiritually more in your music — has anything in particular led you to do so?
Life. My journey, the things I’ve seen and gone through and the ways I’ve overcome losses, wins, losing people I love and loving people I love. Wondering who am I to me and who am I to them as an artist. Understanding the world as a whole and where I fit in, even if I wasn’t an artist.
I grew up Christian and when I got adopted at 13, I practiced Islam for four years. By the time I was 20 years old, I studied world religion and it gave me an understanding of how people felt about God as a whole. Then I asked myself, “What other artists did what I’m doing what I’m doing by becoming a mystic?” Prince was a mystic. Earth, Wind & Fire were mystics. Mystics are open to understanding symbolism and God on a multi-dimensional level without disrespecting anybody’s religion. That’s what caused me to want to be more open in my music about understanding how God and life works.
Who’s the king of R&B?
Thats tough because there’s different types of R&B. But when I think about growing up there are people like Stevie Wonder who was one of the first voices I heard as a kid. I felt like R&B was angelic, spiritual and transcendental. Then I would listen to Boys II Men and be like, ‘Wait, R&B is like love making and cool.’
Name your R&B Mount Rushmore.
Stevie Wonder gives you angelic, transcendental. Marvin Gaye gives you sexy, soul. Michael Jackson gives you electric, energetic. You’re thinking about “Thriller,” but he has R&B. Like, [serenades] “Girl, close your eyes/ Let the rhythm get into you/ Don’t try to fight it/ There ain’t nothing that you can do/ Relax your mind. Lay back.” James Brown gives you dirty, soul R&B. And that’s just one generation, there are at least 10.
Talk about your community efforts in Baltimore.
I’ve been planning and paying attention to what is needed in a real way because I don’t want to be just a popular name. I want to see 15, 20, 50 of the kids I work with have better lives in real life, in real-time. I had an organization called the Do Right Foundation for five years where I worked with kids coping with substance-abusing parents. I didn’t know anything about philanthropy so I got friends to work with me and was funding everything myself. It got crazy. I didn’t know about grants so I had to stop it after five years.
Twice a month I would go to the schools and speak to the kids. It was an after-school program where kids would go through a mental health and substance abuse curriculum. By the end of it, they’d graduate and have a better understanding of how to deal with their substance-abusing parents. One kid for example, was a middle school girl and she took care of her younger siblings. No one knew she was handling that and going to school. Like [in the 2007 high school drama I starred in] Freedom Writers, many of those parallels are so real. I want to do that again, but 2.0, and take it up a notch — where it’s about mental health, personal growth and giving kids and people a voice.