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R&B star Mario eyes Baltimore as philanthropic destination during career resurgence

R&B's Mario Barrett, perhaps best known for his early 2000s hits and film credits like "Step Up" and "Freedom Writers," has resurfaced in the music world. He now seeks to collaborate with the city of Baltimore, his hometown, for philanthropic purposes. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)

A couple of minutes before Mario Barrett was scheduled to take the stage at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Event Center on Sunday night, the veteran R&B performer gathered his team for a quick huddle and prayer session in his dressing room.

“It’s so good to be home,” the 32-year-old Baltimore native said as he thanked God, friends, family and the people around him for their loyalty and love. Dressed in white skinny jeans, a loose white button-down shirt, a gold leather jacket and matching metallic Jordan 6 sneakers, the singer then headed to the backstage area, where he would soon learn that one of the soundboards required for his set as the supporting act for B2K’s Millennium Tour had malfunctioned.

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It took about an hour for technicians to salvage the system, and in the meantime, the emcees of the show did their best to quell the restless crowd. Chants of “Mario!” rang out in unison as the singer retreated to his dressing room, distressed.

“Baltimore deserves an uninterrupted show,” he said. He joked that given the raucous character of the city, he and the team might not make it out alive if he didn’t show his face soon.

After about an hour, the repairs have been completed and Mario heads back to the stage area. Mario performs at UMBC's Event Center on Sunday, April 7th as part of B2K's Millennium Tour.
After about an hour, the repairs have been completed and Mario heads back to the stage area. Mario performs at UMBC's Event Center on Sunday, April 7th as part of B2K's Millennium Tour. (Ulysses Muñoz)

Mario felt a certain degree of personal liability for Sunday night’s show — Baltimore is his hometown, after all, and the site of his launch into stardom as a teenager. He lived all over Baltimore County growing up and went to Milford Mill Academy before getting signed to a record deal. He didn’t want to disappoint his city — especially not now, as he seeks to assert more ownership over it and perhaps donate more of his resources to its betterment.

“I feel a responsibility now more than ever to help create change,” he said. “I’m definitely in a position now [to use] my relationships to help make this city a better experience for the people who are from here and those who may come here.”

After a number of years spent mostly away from the music charts, Mario reemerged on the R&B scene in October. He independently released “Dancing Shadows,” his first album in eight years and his only record outside of the now-defunct J Records, and it debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ R&B/Soul Chart.

Around the same time, FOX cast him in “RENT Live” for the supporting role of Benjamin “Benny” Coffin, which he played alongside other notable names like Vanessa Hudgens, Tinashe and Valentina (Brennin Hunt, who played lead role Roger Davis, broke his foot the night before the live production, altering the final performance into a hybrid of pre-taped dress rehearsal footage and real-time footage). He also joined the cast of FOX’s “Empire” in a recurring guest role in 2018, which he will reprise next season. Asked about the controversy surrounding “Empire” star Jussie Smollett, he declined to comment.

He owes his relative longevity in the business — spanning nearly two decades — to the versatility of projects on his resume, calling his continued success a “gift.”

Mario performs at UMBC's Event Center on Sunday, April 7th as part of B2K's Millennium Tour.
Mario performs at UMBC's Event Center on Sunday, April 7th as part of B2K's Millennium Tour. (Ulysses Muñoz)

Despite so many years without an album to promote, his suave, confident demeanor and silky-smooth crooner’s voice still resonate with audiences. At UMBC, he delivered for the venue’s 5,000 fans, proudly busting out singles like “Break Up,” “Just a Friend 2002” and of course, “Let Me Love You,” the 2004 single for which he is likely best known. He worked the room, strategically removing his jacket and shirt for a series of bare-chested costume changes in what amounted to an approximately 40-minute set.

He also performed his new material, including his latest single, “Care For You,” which he described as one of the album’s many “diary entries” about his vulnerable side.

And while he’s content with his career’s trajectory, the current Los Angeles resident said he’s eyeing his hometown as a site for future philanthropic projects, adding that he’d like to build a museum, production studios or other gathering spaces for the arts — which served as his ticket out of Baltimore and a rocky family life dogged by substance abuse, violence and instability, he said.

He hopes to provide other kids with the same freedom of expression.

Biz Markie and Mario speak to his camera crew backstage before his set starts. Mario performs at UMBC's Event Center on Sunday, April 7th as part of B2K's Millennium Tour.
Biz Markie and Mario speak to his camera crew backstage before his set starts. Mario performs at UMBC's Event Center on Sunday, April 7th as part of B2K's Millennium Tour. (Ulysses Muñoz)

“There’s so much talent in Baltimore,” he said. “We could be the capital of art, we could be the capital of music, it’s just a matter of there being an outlet.”

But he recognizes that as a longtime outsider to the city and its ills, he doesn’t have a specific plan or goal he’d like to meet. Rather, he hopes to use his network and experiences to inspire capital development and growth.

“The overall view for me would be bringing entertainment, arts and culture to a tangible point of expression in this city,” he said. “I know there’s love for me here, but I’m not expecting to just walk into City Council and say, ‘Look, I wanna do this.’ No, I have to rebuild the relationships.”

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Mario said it could take a while to craft the right idea and make his pitch. And first, he’s planning a vacation to Fiji to celebrate the last six months.

It’s a toast to both the beginning of a new chapter and the end of a long hiatus.

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