Allen Cooley

Mario Is On A Self-Care Journey — And He's Using His Music To Express It

'The difference between who I am now and who I was then has a lot to do with self-acceptance and taking the good with the bad.'

By Michell C. Clark

Sharing your personal evolution with other people can be daunting, especially for an artist like Mario, who's already built a memorable legacy of gold- and platinum-certified albums with early-2000s R&B anthems that still resonate today. Thankfully, he saw fit to use his new song, "Care For You," from 2018's Dancing Shadows, as a vehicle to share parts of himself that had yet to be publicly explored with the world at large.

The Grammy Award-nominated R&B artist is breaking new ground with the song, as the sincere record finds him openly searching for self-acceptance and reflecting on how his life has shaped him. A somber piano sets the tone for Mario to counsel himself, as he croons, “You’re still here, but I know/ that your heart’s getting cold/ I’m holding tight, it’s getting real now.”

Mario initially made a name for himself with romantic singles such as “Let Me Love You” and “Just A Friend 2002.” Now, however, he’s using the Khufu Najee-directed “Care For You” video to focus on the power of self-love, healing, and encouragement. Throughout the video, we see him playing the role of a therapist reflecting on unforgettable moments from his childhood. The visual serves as a vulnerable, expressive form of encouragement to anyone navigating mental health issues stemming from their past.

The Baltimore native is also acting on the message that his art conveys by teaming up with The Equitas Project, a nonprofit organization that focuses on disentangling mental health and criminal justice. He’s particularly focused on serving minority communities that lack the access and resources necessary to take care of mental health-related issues. And he’s doing all of this while preparing for the season premiere of Fox's Empire, in which he plays the role of rising star DeVon.

MTV News spoke with the R&B veteran about how he will work with Equitas Project to serve marginalized communities, what self-care means to him, as well as involvement on B2K's Millennium Tour with fellow tourmates Pretty Ricky, Lloyd, Bobby V, Ying Yang Twins, and Chingy.

MTV News: You’re currently in the middle of performing on The Millennium Tour with B2K, Pretty Ricky, and Lloyd. What has been your most treasured moment from the tour thus far?

Mario: I can’t pick one moment. Every night is incredible. I open up with a song from Dancing Shadows called “Gold Plates.” After that, I go into “Just A Friend” [and you can hear] the whole crowd sing the song in unison. Some girls are wearing jerseys that I wore in my first video. It’s a whole different vibe. I saw one girl who made a shirt with pictures of me from the beginning of my career up until now. I’ve met her two times before. Those types of moments can’t be replicated. You have to be there to experience the energy and understand the impact. I’ve spent countless hours in the studio, and pushed through countless sleepless nights creating music. Being able to see the people who feel the impact of my music and appreciate my new releases makes everything worth it.

MTV News: Dancing Shadows is your first album in just under a decade. Were there mental roadblocks to push past throughout the process of releasing it?

Mario: There are always mental blocks during an album's creative process. Those blocks are necessary. Today, we’re in a different time and space. Fans want to know that your music comes from a real place. I believe that true art transcends time, culture, and generations. I’m a testament to that. [Some fans] come up to me and tell me that they love my first album, when they weren’t even old enough to listen when it first came out. The music lives on. It takes on a life of its own.

I perform my new single, “Care For You,” every night. The fans are very open and accepting. The whole arena is filled up with lights. It’s such an incredible moment for me. It’s the moment that you think about when you’re writing a song. When I’m in the studio writing, I imagine the fans singing along with me.

MTV News: One line from “Care For You” feels particularly climatic: You state, “and for once, I am drifting, but not on my own/ And now I’m right where I shoulda been, here with you all along.” Can you talk about what that lyric means to you, personally?

Mario: That lyric means that I’ve been here [physically] before, but now I’m actually able to be present in the moment. As a young man, you chase this idea of potential and not embracing the moment. This whole song is about living in the moment, embracing self-love, and expressing love for those around you. That line represents being present with your people like never before and feeling everything that they feel. That line is me saying, ‘I’m finally present with you, like I’ve never been before. I feel everything that you feel. I feel everything that I was hiding from within myself, and it’s because of you that I do. I care for you, and I don’t want to lose you.’

MTV News: How did you get to a point where you could be present with your people in the moment?

Mario: Losing people that I love made me realize how brief life is. I found myself less inclined to take things for granted, in comparison to when I was younger and thought that I knew everything. I think we all go through a phase in which we think we know everything, until life teaches you how much more you have to learn. I’m still a student. I don’t think I’ll ever figure it all out, but I’m learning how to express myself on a different level — as an artist, as a writer, and as a creative. That level of expression helps me as a person.

MTV News: Mental health is a central theme of the “Care For You” video. What inspired you to make this a focus of your art?

Mario: I believe that mental health deserves more of our focus. I’m still learning how to express how I feel about things that connect us all. As an artist, you learn to give people art and keep your personal life to yourself. Fans reacted to “Care For You” in an amazing way. I thought other songs would generate a stronger reaction, but that record’s vulnerability is what has stolen the show. Vulnerability, authenticity, and realness are powerful. I’ve learned that being open and honest is the way to free yourself.

MTV News: You’ve teamed up with The Equitas Project to spread awareness about underserved communities and the difficulties they face in regards to receiving assistance with mental health issues. Can you speak on the role that you play in this project?

Mario: I’m an ambassador. I’m helping to raise awareness on the issues. I’ll be visiting their facilities soon, and building more with them to figure everything out. It’s a new relationship, but it’s an important relationship. I wanted to make sure that it was included in the actual rollout of the single. I’m happy to start by using my platform to create awareness of the issues that they help with. A lot of times, people feel alone in their circumstances. That needs to change.

MTV News: Can you speak to how your work with the Equitas Project serves the residents of your hometown of Baltimore and other similarly marginalized communities?

Mario: I believe that we need to give children a bigger voice than what they already have. A lot of brilliant kids feel that their potential is overshadowed by the obstacles that they face. Oftentimes they don’t feel like their voice is important. That can stifle someone and suppress their potential. That in itself is suppressing the soul.

I would like to see a place where children can express themselves artistically, and be mentored by people who’ve been where they’ve been. They need to be able to see someone who’s still working on themselves. I think that art is a beautiful way to allow someone to emote. It doesn’t always have to happen through conversation. It can be through writing, music, or a number of different things.

MTV News: What does self-care mean to you? What do you do to ensure your own mental health, both while touring and in your everyday life?

Mario: I have a strict schedule that involves working out, meditating, intentionally taking time to be alone, gathering my thoughts, and reflecting on how I could have approached my day differently. I actively build community with my team. We have team meetings where I force conversations about the issues that may be affecting our chemistry. I don’t like to let things linger or remain unsaid. Things like that make a huge difference in my camp, how we communicate amongst each other, and the energy that we put out on stage. We are a vessel, and the energy that we hold affects other people. That’s a big part of leadership and growth. A lot of young leaders need to learn their power.

MTV News: Self-love and self-advocacy seem to be recurring themes throughout Dancing Shadows. How have your relationships with these concepts evolved since the release of your 2009 album, D.N.A.?

Mario: The difference between who I am now and who I was then has a lot to do with self-acceptance and taking the good with the bad. You need both in order to create contrast and subsequently maneuver within that contrast. Taking chances, making mistakes, trying new things, and going against the grain are all part of my growth.

MTV News: The “Care For You” video reenacts key moments from pivotal times throughout your childhood. What advice would you give to the younger version of yourself?

Mario: To have more fun, and to trust my intuition. I wouldn’t change anything else.

MTV News: If every person who listened to Dancing Shadows could walk away with only one thought, what would you want that thought to be?

Mario: I’d want everyone to walk away with an understanding of how art transcends culture and generations. Dancing Shadows shows that the art you put out is something to be proud of and happy about. Art shows growth and allows you to learn as well. It should be an all-inclusive experience. That’s what’s good for the culture.