Arts & Culture

Mario Sings the Blues

The Baltimore-born star copes with his recent arrest and his mother's ongoing addictions.

When police arrived at the Fell Street apartment building early in the morning on October 1, they found Shawntia Hardaway sitting on a chair in the opulent lobby, sobbing.

According to a police report, Hardaway was extremely upset that her son, Mario Dewar Barrett, had destroyed things in the apartment the two shared. She was in pain and discomfort, Hardaway told police, because Barrett had shoved her in the chest, using his hands and forearms. Just three days earlier, Hardaway claimed, she struck her head after Barrett pushed her into a wall. She could still feel the pain.

Within minutes, Barrett—the pop-R&B singer and actor, one of Billboard’s “Artists of the Decade” for the 2000s, known to fans simply as “Mario”—was arrested, charged, and headed for a long night in Baltimore’s Central Booking and Intake Center, accused of assaulting his own mother.

Fans interviewed on local television news shows expressed shock and astonishment. Some wondered if the young megastar could really be guilty of attacking his mother. Those who have known Barrett the longest were among the most incredulous.

“I was very sad and hurt to hear the news reports because I knew they couldn’t be accurate,” said Thaddeus L. Price Jr., the choir director at Baltimore County’s Milford Mill Academy High School, where Mario was a standout singer. “I felt bad for him and for what I knew he would have to experience because of this negative press.”

On November 3, Mario appeared with his lawyers at the Eastside District Court Building in the 1400 block of E. North Avenue and took the stand. Within minutes, the charges against him disappeared.

“Shawntia Hardaway, the state’s only witness and the defendant’s mother, recanted,” said Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office. “She stated that she was severely under the influence of drugs and alcohol when she called the police, and Mario Barrett never placed his hands on her.”

Thus ended the latest chapter in a mother-son relationship that the singer describes, perhaps with considerable understatement, as “strained.”

“I would never assault my mother or any other woman,” Mario says, weeks after the incident. “I wasn’t raised that way. To be falsely accused of something by my own mother is a devastating blow.”

Throughout Mario’s life, his mother has struggled with addiction, and he was alternately raised by her and his maternal grandmother, Alternease Hardaway. Still, Hardaway always took Mario’s musical ambitions seriously, buying him a karaoke machine at a young age and later trotting him around town to talent shows.

In 2007, after the release of his third album, Go, Mario appeared in an MTV special, I Won’t Love You to Death: The Story of Mario and His Mom, which detailed the singer’s attempts to help Hardaway recover from her addictions. Several months after the show aired, Mario dedicated a song, “Do Right,” to her. “Through you I discovered,” he sang, “there’s only one way to go through life and that’s, ‘Be right.'”

A year later, he co-founded The Mario Do Right Foundation, an organization committed to helping children whose parents are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

But on the night of October 1, Hardaway apparently fell off the wagon, sparking the confrontation that led to Mario’s arrest. The mug shots made national news and dinged the singer’s good-guy reputation. But more important to Mario, it threatened to forever ruin his lifelong bond with his mom.

Mario was born August 27, 1986, to Hardaway and Derryl Barrett Sr., a singer in a gospel group called Reformation. Mario’s half-brother Derryl “D.J.” Barrett Jr., a professional drummer, says he and Mario learned early on that they inherited musical gifts from their father, who wasn’t otherwise very involved in their lives.

“I started playing drums when I was 3,” says D.J. “Mario started singing at about the same age.”

When Mario was 4, his mother heard someone singing and thought it was a song on the radio. She entered the room and found her son crooning. She entered him in talent shows after that, and Mario also started singing in churches, barber shops, and just about anywhere else. D.J. recalls adolescent jam sessions, where he would play the drums and Mario used a light bulb as a microphone.

When Mario was a toddler, his mother was in a serious car accident and fractured her neck. She was given morphine to treat severe pain. After she recovered, she became addicted to heroin, a fact the young boy only vaguely understood.

“My mother has had a substance abuse problem as far back as I can remember,” says Mario, who has hazy memories of seeing his mother shooting up when he was about 5 years old. “As a child, I always knew something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was until I got older and could understand.”

As a result of his troubled home life, Mario couldn’t focus on school. “I really struggled,” he recalls. “That was when I actually looked at music as a way to escape.”

When Mario was 11, his mother took him to audition for a talent show held in Coppin State University’s James Weldon Johnson Auditorium. Wearing blue jeans, a brown shirt and Timberland boots, Mario stepped onto the stage of the packed room, facing off against mostly older competitors.

Despite his age, the budding crooner tackled Boyz II Men’s bedroom ballad, “I’ll Make Love To You,” filling the room with his booming tenor. The audience—along with the five judges—were blown away. Mario won.

Troy Patterson, owner and chief executive officer of the Third Street Music Group production in Teaneck, NJ, who was in attendance, was impressed. After the show, Patterson introduced himself to the winner and his mother.

“You are one of the most talented young people I’ve ever seen,” Patterson told Barrett. “Would you like to meet Dru Hill?”

Barrett just laughed, perhaps not realizing that in just a few years, he would outpace the renowned Baltimore singing group in record sales. Hardaway would ultimately sign a contract with Patterson on behalf of her son, helping to get his singing career off the ground, but it would be several years before Mario hit it big.

In the meantime, the aspiring singer attended Milford Mill Academy, where, as a freshman in 2000, he was a founding member of the Concert Chorale.

“Mario was always a very talented young man and a truly gifted singer,” says Price, who is still chair of the Fine Arts program at Milford Mill. “I told Mario that if he remained focused and remembered what I call ‘the three Ds,’ he would be a star one day.”

Price’s three Ds are discipline, determination, and dedication. As Price recollects, Barrett readily applied the three Ds to his favorite subject, music—but not so much to his other subjects.

“Mario loved his music class,” Price recalls. “When it came to his other classes, let’s just say he wasn’t as focused. He would often get put out of classes and his teachers would send him to my class. He was your typical high school boy: a class clown one second and a shining star the next. But coming to choir class was his passion.”

Price recalls a day when he lectured Mario about his academic performance—a scene eerily like one Mario would portray years later in 2007’s Freedom Writers, opposite Oscar-winner Hilary Swank.

“There is a powerful scene in the movie where Mario’s teacher takes him into the hallway for a tough one-on-one talk,” Price said. “This scene was very real because it happened. Mario was getting into trouble in some of his classes. He was losing focus; his grades were slipping; he was being pressured by the wrong crowd to do the wrong things. I yanked him into my office and gave him a very, very tough-love, heart-to-heart talk, one that ended in tears. From that day forward, I saw a tremendous change in him, and, shortly thereafter, things began to take off with his career. When I saw the film, it freaked me out a bit.”

As he got older, Mario began to understand his mother’s addiction. In 1999, when the future star was 13, his grandmother died, and he went to live with Hardaway full time.

“I began to see things lying around the house that probably shouldn’t have been there,” he recalls. “At some point, we had a conversation about her problem. I still didn’t understand the situation well, and all I wanted was my mother back like all the other kids in the neighborhood.”

In 2001, while Mario was still a freshman at Milford Mill, Hardaway agreed to let Troy Patterson be his legal guardian. Patterson had the aspiring singer move in with him in Teaneck, New Jersey, and began working on a demo. At the age of 14, Mario was signed to J Records, the label founded by music legend Clive Davis and home to Alicia Keys.

Mario’s first single was “Tameeka,” a collaboration with the rapper Fabolous for the Dr. Dolittle 2 soundtrack. A year later, Mario, who cites Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye as his primary inspirations, upped his profile when he sang a killer rendition of Wonder’s classic “You and I” before an audience of music industry bigwigs—including Wonder himself—at Davis’s annual Grammy party.

In 2002, he released his first official single, “Just a Friend,” which quickly climbed to number four on the Billboard Hot 100. The video for the song, which featured Mario in a Ravens jersey, dancing in the Senator Theatre, became an MTV staple. Later that year, the singer released his first full album, Mario, which sold over a million copies worldwide.

Even then, as Mario was fast becoming a global celebrity, he displayed a somewhat uncommon loyalty to his mother and yearned to find the normal family life he never had. In a 2003 Baltimore Sun profile, Mario, then 16, said, “The goal is definitely to be at the point where I can buy my mom a house and me and my mom can have our own crib.”

Mario’s star got even brighter in 2004, with his second album, Turning Point. The single “Let Me Love You” hit number one on the Hot 100 and stayed there for nine consecutive weeks, becoming one of the year’s biggest singles. The album sold over 2 million copies. Suddenly, Mario was a bona fide star, headlining national tours, performing on talk shows, and appearing both in tabloids and pinup posters.

By 2006, the singer’s relationship with Patterson had soured. In February of that year, Mario sued Patterson to void what the singer called an “oppressive contract,” alleging that he’d received only $50,000 for the three million-plus sales of his records. Patterson countersued, charging Mario with a breach of contract. The suit was settled in 2007, with the stipulation that the terms would be confidential. In the aftermath, Mario signed with a new manager, J. Erving, who had once managed P. Diddy.

Throughout 2006 and much of 2007, the singer’s follow-up to Turning Point was delayed, something he attributed to record label disputes. In the meantime, the star launched an acting career, debuting in the Baltimore-set teen dance movie Step Up and following up that performance with one in the more serious-minded Freedom Writers.

In December 2007, Mario finally released Go, intended to be a more mature album, which the singer dedicated to his mother. It peaked at number 21 on the charts. A few months after the release, Mario appeared on season six of Dancing With the Stars, making it to week nine and finishing in fifth place overall.

At this point, Mario had achieved his goal of buying a house for he and his mom to live in together—a condo in Fells Point. Mario was spending a lot of time on the road but, as documented in the MTV special, he was paying for his mother to live a lavish lifestyle, spending thousands of dollars on shopping sprees. And, though he tried to ignore it, Mario knew she was still using heroin. He blamed himself for enabling her.

“I think a lot of it is my fault because I haven’t said ‘You gotta leave’ or ‘Give me the keys,'” he said in the documentary. “When I’m away, I put it all out of my mind.”

As documented on the show, Mario coordinated with his mother’s boyfriend and best friend to stage an intervention and convince her to go to a treatment facility in Los Angeles. “I have to be a son to my mom,” he said. “I need to make sure she’s okay.”

Several months later, when he released the single “Do Right” from Go, he dedicated the video to her, and, at the end, congratulated her on three months of sobriety. In addition, Mario founded the Mario Do Right Foundation (MDRF), dedicated to helping children whose parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

“I was inspired to found the Do Right Foundation by the pain I endured growing up and watching my mother battle the disease of addiction,” he says. “I want to support other children who are going through the same situations with their parents or family members. I had this vision of helping all children so they won’t have to fight this battle alone, because it can be overwhelming for a child.”

Mario named childhood friend Kevin Shird, who witnessed what Hardaway’s family endured, executive director of the MDRF.

“The last thing Mario wanted was another celebrity foundation that didn’t have any teeth,” Shird said. “He didn’t want to show up once a year to take pictures with the kids and leave. He wanted more than that, and so did I.”

Shird set up meetings with experts from Johns Hopkins Center for Learning and Health and the University of Maryland to talk about developing “real programs for children with real proven results” and signed up powerful locals, including developer Pat Turner, to serve on the Board of Directors.

One of MDRF’s core programs involves placing mental health professionals in schools to help identify, counsel and support children adversely impacted by their parents’ addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. They’ve implemented a pilot program at Westport Academy, a public elementary-middle school located in the tough, working-class South Baltimore neighborhood of the same name.

“The kids there have been really great, and the principal, Mrs. [Felecia] Irick has been very supportive,” says Mario, who makes regular trips to the school to speak to students and give away prizes.

Pat Turner, who is involved in some of the most high-profile development projects in Baltimore, including the Silo Point condos on Locust Point, said he had “absolutely no” reservations about continuing to be involved in the Do Right Foundation, even after Mario’s arrest. “I know Mario well, and I know he wouldn’t do a thing like that,” says Turner. “Mario’s a good guy.”

In October of last year, Mario released a fourth album, D.N.A., which debuted at number nine on the album charts. It included the single “Break Up,” which hit number fourteen on the Hot 100, his biggest hit since “Let Me Love You.”

Unfortunately for the singer, his arrest in October of last year—which was covered extensively by Internet gossip site TMZ—got more attention than his music has in years. Mario says the experience has been among the lowest points in his life. “I’ve been in the music business for 10 years and I’ve prided myself on the fact that I’ve never been in any trouble before now,” says Mario, who continues to deny laying a hand on his mother. “I feel like I let some of my fans down.”

But the singer is determined to recover from the incident—and to help his mother recover, too.

“This is my mother, and this will always be my mother,” says Mario, adding that he and Hardaway are speaking regularly, but no longer living together. “I’m not at all happy with what happened, but I have to move on.”

To that end, the singer is working on a new album, which he has said will have a more European, club-oriented sound. He says the bitterness over the arrest and negative publicity will fade in time.

“Imagine being accused of something you didn’t do like this—it’s a hard pill to swallow,” he says. “But over time, I think it will work itself out. It won’t be overnight. It’ll probably be a long process.”