H.E.R.’s stage name stands for Having Everything Revealed, but we shouldn’t presume that everything about her – the musician born Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson – will be. Sure, the 23-year-old future superstar from Vallejo in San Francisco’s Bay Area is certainly a less mysterious figure than she was in 2016 when she dropped ‘Focus’, a flavoursome R&B jam that became her first platinum single.
Then again, it’s difficult to be truly mysterious when you’ve just won two Grammy Awards – one for ‘I Can’t Breathe’, a heartrending protest song written in response to George Floyd’s murder – and kicked off the Super Bowl with a spine-tingling performance of ‘America The Beautiful’ this past February.
H.E.R.’s latest accomplishment is the addition of an Oscar to her trophy cabinet for ‘Fight For You’, her stirringly soulful contribution to Judas And The Black Messiah that picked up Best Original Song at last week’s ceremony. H.E.R.’s humility and deep-rooted passion for music shone through during her Academy Awards acceptance speech: “All those days of listening to Sly & the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye really paid off, so thank you dad,” she beamed.
Though a debut album is yet to be released, the world is already recognising H.E.R.’s otherworldly talent as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. Her infectious new single ‘Come Through’ continues that upward trajectory, primed to soundtrack balmy summer evenings.
Speaking over Zoom just days before the Oscars ceremony, she is warm, thoughtful and self-assured. H.E.R. doesn’t pepper her stories with intimate personal details, but neither does she seem impenetrable or excessively guarded.
“You have to decide between ‘how much do I want to give to the world?’, and ‘how much do I want to keep for myself?’ It’s a whole different ball game now. And I’ve never been in this for the fame. I definitely believe in legacy – I believe in making a mark and making an impact, but not fame and celebrity. That’s a whole other kind of want, a whole other kind of thing.”
June 2020’s ‘I Can’t Breathe’ became a moment of recognition of her voice as a leader. She says the song originated in a FaceTime conversation with her regular co-writer Tiara Thomas, in which they discussed the new wave of protests sparked by George Floyd’s barbaric murder. Derek Chauvin, the police officer involved, has since been found guilty of second and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
“Our words became the lyrics to ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and it became something that I needed to get out,” she says. “But when it did come out, I didn’t realise that it was actually going to be something that impacted people and that would become the soundtrack to the marching or anything like that,” she says.
Still, it sounds as though the song’s profound resonance has made H.E.R. rethink – or at least recalibrate – her purpose as an artist. “At first I didn’t realise activism was part of that purpose but I guess my voice matters,” she says. “I definitely feel a responsibility because I have this platform, but I think we should all speak out against things that we don’t like and things that should change, regardless of where we come from. Hate is hate.”
When NME first met H.E.R. in 2018, the trademark sunglasses were impenetrable and answers often guarded, but now the shades have lightened up and the story is revealed easier.
Back then, no one knew her real name and her record label supplied few publicity photos or back story with her music. The cover of her debut EP, ‘H.E.R. Volume 1’, was simply the singer’s silhouette in front of a blue background. Looking back at her shadowy launch in 2016, H.E.R. says the idea wasn’t to “hide” but to put her music at the forefront of people’s minds.
“It was about having the music lead my artistry,” she says. “Because that’s what I’m really about: the music and the lyrics and the message.” Happily, the plan had the desired effect. “Now, I feel like my fans really respect me for my music: not what I look like, not how old I am, not where I’m from, none of those things.”
At the same time, there’s no doubt that where she came from has shaped who H.E.R. is as an artist. The daughter of a Black American father and Filipina mother, H.E.R. grew up in a household where her parents were always listening to “a huge mix of everything. My dad was a musician – just for fun, he had a regular job and played in a cover band on the weekend,” she recalls. “They would do funk and blues songs – they’d do James Brown, but also like ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and random pop songs.”
“I definitely believe in legacy – I believe in making a mark and making an impact”
At home, her parents would play a lot of Sly Stone and the less well-known Con Funk Shun – both acts were based in the Bay Area – as well as everything from ’90s R&B to AC/DC and “rock gods” Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix. When she was nine years old she would fall asleep to classic albums ‘Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds Vol. 1’ and ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’.
Because music was such a huge part of her home life, H.E.R. says she “naturally gravitated” towards joining in: “When my dad and his cover band would rehearse in the living room, I’d be singing at the mic while they were taking a break.” Soon her dad was teaching her to play a few songs on piano and a blues scale on the guitar and her mum was entering her in talent shows. She quickly began to attract attention. On YouTube, you can watch a 10-year-old H.E.R. – then billed as Gabi Wilson – nailing a rendition of Alicia Keys’ 2007 single ‘No One’ on The Today Show. Accompanying herself on the piano, she was already a formidable musician.
Just three years later, she signed a deal with RCA, the record label she’s been with ever since. “Me and my parents kind of ended up in Los Angeles taking meetings with people who wanted to sign me even when I was really young,” explains H.E.R. “You know, I was in front of [legendary label executive] Clive Davis when I was, like, 10 years old. And [the equally influential executive] Tommy Mottola’s team were calling me – people like that.” It doesn’t sound as though H.E.R. was fazed by the same A-list talent scouts that had previously discovered Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. “I met a lot of different legends when I was young,” she says. “And then when I got older, it was just… the thing. Like, ‘I’m in it, I’m here’.”
In 2014, she released the rather generic electro-R&B single ‘Something To Prove’ as Gabi Wilson. It was a move that now looks like a false start, albeit a perfectly respectable one. Two years later, she re-emerged as H.E.R. with the languid, guitar-flecked alt-R&B sound that’s now her trademark.
She spent the first few years after signing her record deal with enough space to “create, write and produce” while “just becoming a teenager… And then I started writing songs that represented all of those truths that I was experiencing as a 15, 16, 17-year-old girl,” she says. “It’s what I like to call the ‘evolution of woman’. You know, it was always that deep for me. I was always writing songs that were very emotional or heavy. And that’s how ‘H.E.R. Volume 1’ came to be.”
On 2016’s ‘Focus’, she sings about craving attention from a partner who’s more interested in their phone while on ‘Hard Place’, a 2018 single produced by the great Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, offers an evocative insight into an unhealthy relationship: “Wanna believe what you say / But I hate you on most days,” H.E.R. sings over a shuffling R&B beat, her conversational writing style influenced by fluid lyricists like Jhené Aiko, Drake and Bryson Tiller.
“At first I didn’t realise activism was part of my artistic purpose but I guess my voice matters”
She says it was “inevitable” that as her career progressed – in the US, she now has 13 Gold and Platinum songs to her name – that she would begin to show more of herself.
“I don’t know if the mystery at the start was necessarily intentional, it was more to do with the protection of who I am,” she says, pointing out that her music is so personal that it feels like “showing the world my diary”. When people ask what a particular song is about, H.E.R. has learned to discuss the emotion or feeling behind its lyrics rather than the specific story or situation. “I think that’s where the line is for me,” she says definitively.
H.E.R. established an enviable reputation pretty quickly. Both ‘Focus’ and Daniel Caesar-collaboration ‘Best Part’, which landed in Barack Obama’s coveted Summer playlist in 2019, picked up Grammy nominations that year and H.E.R. went home with two trophies on a bountiful night.
But it was 2020’s ‘I Can’t Breathe’, which soundtracked Black Lives Matter protests last summer, that really underlines H.E.R.’s credentials as an artist building a legacy: “And generations of supremacy resulting in your ignorant, privileged eyes,” she sings, eviscerating systemic white privilege. “We breathe the same and we bleed the same / But still, we don’t see the same.”
She resists any suggestion that she might have felt ‘pressure” while creating such a vital piece of music: “I just think it’s a given – just the kind of artist I am,” she says matter-of-factly. “The kind of music that I write, it’s all personal to me; it’s all my perspective in the world. And why wouldn’t I have a perspective on something that’s affecting my own community? Why wouldn’t I want to speak up on something that I see that makes me feel pain, that makes me feel heavy, that makes me feel like that could be my brother, sister, uncle, cousin or whoever?”
H.E.R. also speaks passionately about wanting to lobby for proper music education in American public schools, something which doesn’t happen across the board yet. She’s already helped to inspire and uplift a future generation of female musicians with her ‘Girls with Guitars’ Instagram Live series. The guitar shredding she displayed at February’s Super Bowl when she performed ‘America The Beautiful’ should definitely help in that regard, too.
“In the beginning it was kind of selfish,” she says of the Instagram Live series. “It was quarantine and I was bored, so I wanted to rock out with other girls who play guitar, and fortunately I’m good friends with super-talented people like [US singer-songwriter] Tori Kelly and the McClain sisters [of pop trio Thriii]. It became a platform for girls who play guitar who are unknown – you know, girls who are just playing in their rooms. So then it became more of a celebration of girls with guitars.”
“The mystery at the start wasn’t intentional, it was more about protecting who I am”
As she builds towards the release of that elusive debut album, she’s just shared ‘Come Through’ – a glistening duet with Chris Brown that she describes as “a nighttime vibe, a daytime vibe and a song for the summer”. Addressing her continued collaboration with the controversial Brown, she previously told The Guardian: “He has a past… We’re all human, we’re all imperfect – not excusing or justifying anything – but he admires my art and I admire his, and that’s what it’s about, the celebration of art.”
Because she’s achieved so much already, it’s somewhat staggering to think that we’re still waiting on that debut. Her two full-length releases, 2017’s ‘H.E.R’ and 2019’s ‘I Used To Know Her’, are technically compilations combining a handful of new tracks with songs from previous EPs, despite, confusingly, bagging Album Of The Year at the 2019 Grammys for the latter.
Now she says she’s “finally in the finishing stages” of making her debut album proper, ‘Back of Her Mind’, and also working on a separate reggae EP. One could drop soon after the other – it’s just a question of “what feels right”.
Whatever path H.E.R. goes down, she won’t be taking any cheap shortcuts to building that legacy. “I’m always thinking about the future,” she says. “There are certain opportunities that might make sense now in a small way, but in the bigger picture, don’t necessarily fit. So I’m all about putting the puzzle pieces together to make a bigger picture and a bigger moment. And I’m in that right now.”
H.E.R.’s ‘Come Through’ is out now