Knoxville native Mario McClunie, also known by his stage name Mariyo Deon, is now a Nashville-based Hip Hop artist with a sound and a soul for his community.
Initially getting into music through a friend whose dad worked at a radio station in Knoxville, he and his friends would go and record music on home equipment.
“That’s where I first recorded and thought yeah, this is cool,” Mariyo said. “I used to beg my parents to go over there.”
GETTING INTO MUSIC
Mariyo’s father was the music director at their church in Knoxville. After his parents wouldn’t allow him to record music at his friend’s, he began to ask the church to borrow their equipment.
“I rigged up something to record at home,” he said. “If I couldn’t go to my friend’s house and my mom and dad wouldn’t buy it, then I had to do something. Looking back on it, I was never mad at my parents I just figured out another way to still make music.”
Mariyo would put two stereos together and play an instrumental from one and then rap aloud into the one that was recording. He remembered not originally writing anything of his own but rapping lyrics that he liked.
Mariyo said being black and in an urban community, Hip-Hop music came to him first. He said the only rap music allowed in his house by his father was Tupac and Too $hort.
“There was a lot of George Clinton and funk music, a lot of De La Soul, Prince, Gladys Knight and Whodini,” he said.
In the sixth grade, when a friend made a diss record about him, he said he downloaded Fruity Loops, an online beat making software. Within a week in a half, Mariyo said he made three cassette tapes full of disses to the other guy.
“I made copies of tapes and was handing them out at school. Some friends still hit me up and quote lines from those songs,” he said with a laugh.
Mariyo then started pitching song ideas to his father at church. He made music all throughout his life, but he said it wasn’t until after undergrad that he realized he wanted to pursue it as a career.
In college, he started DJ-ing parties. He’d make new songs almost every day then spin them at a party that night.
When he finished undergrad at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina in 2009 he moved back home to Knoxville to work on music. He wrote a song called “Ladies Say” and sent it to a close friend and a personal manager.
“He said if I can keep making music like that then he’d be able to market it, and I could make a career out of it,” Mariyo said. “That friend moved back to Knoxville from Houston, and we started a campaign called ‘Who is Mariyo Deon?’ At the time, I had a mixtape out by the same name. We executed a plan, and it created a platform. I ended up doing shows in Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia when I was about 24.”
After about six months of traveling and doing shows, his friend and personal manager said suggested they move elsewhere to be around better production and focus on artist development. So in June 2010, the two friends moved to Nashville.
“I thought I was going to come here and be this successful artist but that’s wasn’t the case, and that’s not how it went down,” he said, “I ended up serving and waiting tables and then working at the Boys and Girls Club.”
Mariyo said helping the community has always been a part of his backbone.
“I still know all the people from that first show my five years ago. It’s crazy,” he said. Jon Lucas, a local Nashville producer, was on that same bill. The two became friends and began working together.
“The music I’m making now is directly influenced by black, urban, Nashville music.”
He said a good friend of his told him he has to make the words do what he wants them to do and not vice versa. He said since then he’s taken a very deliberate approach to his music and what he puts across.
“You have to have that control over your music, your art, and your life,” he said.
Whenever he can, Mariyo highlights black musicians who have done great things, pointing out that the name “Music City” was given to Nashville by the Queen of England because of a visit from the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
“It’s every claim for anyone who wants to come and make music. It’s not just country. Yes, that’s what brings the money here, and that’s what holds the venues, but those black college students gave Nashville that name and help the music become the spirit of the city.”
Mariyo said musicians like Kanye West and local Nashville artist Mike Hicks influence him on various things from being comfortable to display passion to stage presence and performance levels.
Mariyo said he tries to learn from different artists to get better at his craft and said he’s been working at being a serious recording artist for the last three years.
“A lot of people think you just go in the booth and you rap but it’s vocal performance. Rap is not easy. There are a lot of people who can rap and that’s a skill but to record and vocally be able to perform the same way every single time is something people like Adele and Kanye West are known for,” he said.
In that time, he went a lot of places, met a lot of people, and let everything he saw and heard inspire him.
“I had to tap into my spirit,” he said. “The biggest thing I learned in those three years was to be a doer of what I believed in first. Once I understood that I saw how conversations were changing around me. People started talking to me about different things because they were watching me commit to something.”
MORE THAN TEACHING
In Nashville, Mariyo said he came to the point where the level and quality of professionalism exceeded his budget. He needed more money and serving tables wasn’t cutting it. His friend and personal manager, Michael, told him that Belmont University had a graduate program where they would pay for school tuition if you taught for a certain amount of years following.
He applied was accepted in 2011 and graduated in 2013 with a Masters of Arts in Special Education.
“I believe in community and building structure and for teens so they don’t have to wait until their early 30s to find themselves,” he said.
When he was in college and home for the summer he started working at the Boys and Girls Club in Knoxville.
“That experience changed my perspective. At the time I was like, you mean to tell me there’s a place where kids and go all day to play basketball and get on computers and see friends, go swimming and go on field trips?” he said. “I worked there for three summers then went back after college as an education program director, and that’s how I got into education.”
Mariyo spent his tenure teaching at Lead Academy in North Nashville and finished there this year as the Dean of Culture. He said in the past five years he’s been building his mindset to understand that just because teaching is his gift doesn’t mean it always have to be in a structured classroom setting.
“The work I was able to do then was everything. It was a platform. God allowed me to have this, and this is the gift that he gave so this is what I have to share.”
In the last year, Mariyo said he began building relationships and structuring things in the school that he would like to see in the community. He said that should change is that the youth should have more responsibilities.
“People want to put them at a rec center or in sports but it’s 2016 and the world is in their hands,” he said. “And you have to teach them that college is not the only out for them. Finding their skill set and perfecting their craft can also be another avenue.”
Mariyo said now he has a relationship with parents, families and students and hopes to continue to push and be involved in different pockets of Nashville’s community.
“With those relationships, I found out what it was that I believed in and so that had to translate because at the same time I was writing the album and the music,” he said.
“Community means family.”
Mariyo said community is about taking care of one another. He said being a part of a community, for him, means doing his job as it relates to fulfilling his purpose.
“I’m in the community to teach,” he said. “Kids are at school all day but there isn’t any programming, there’s no after school things for teenagers teaching them how to adapt to society.”
As far as the growth of the city in the last few years, Mariyo said for those living in Nashville, now is the time to put up your flag.
“Whatever it is you want to be known for doing or whatever impact you want to have, now is the time to do it in Nashville,” he said. “Now’s the time to be legendary. With all the growth that’s going on in the city, I would encourage anyone who’s from here or anyone who has moved here to stay here and make it work. This is where it’s at.”
Mariyo said it’s a positive thing that the city is growing. He said change is happening all over the world and not just in Nashville and said people have to adapt if they want to succeed.
“If you’re not doing something and you’re just watching the media and the hype, you’ll get caught up and you’ll get lost in it,” he said.
Mariyo believes neighborhoods are making a comeback in their influence and on the importance on a local level, but he said he doesn’t want to see the black neighborhoods and communities move out of the city and that’s what looks like may be happening.
“It’s not too late,” he said. “If communities come together and we start educating the youth on how to take care of these neighborhoods and homes, then kids will understand this how you buy that house, and this is why people have what they do. There’s a barrier in communication and my job is teaching the solutions.”
As far as music, Mariyo Deon’s album Mind Made Up, featuring the single “Don’t You Know” will be released in August through Jon Lucas Music.
“Nashville Hip-Hop is right here at Jon Lucas Music.”
“Don’t You Know” is also featured on Nashville-native producer Ron Gilmore’s album The Maturation of Little Ron and currently has over 27,000 streams on Spotify.
After his album is released, Mariyo is looking to get back on the road for more shows.
“World tour. That’s what’s coming after the album. Nothing feels better than coming home,” he said. “Why not let that live in the universe and let the power of people speak it into existence.”
Mariyo said he’s thankful for how his parents raised him.
“Everything wasn’t sweet growing up, but I’m very blessed and thankful for how they handled things because looking back on it I don’t know who I’d be if they didn’t do what they needed to do,” he said.
“Although at some parts, it was structured and contained, I was able to make life what I wanted,” he said.Mariyo appreciates how they allowed him to grow up and see things for himself.
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