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In Conversation With H.E.R.: Why Black-Asian Solidarity 'Is So Important'

H.E.R.
Danny Clinch

H.E.R.

Five days before the 93rd Academy Awards, Oscar-nominee H.E.R. is chatting with Billboard about how to make rice. “My mom definitely taught me the trick of how to make the rice,” she exclaims when asked if she knew the foolproof Filipino trick of how to measure the water in the pot -- ensuring the perfect batch every time.

On March 14, H.E.R. -- who is half-Filipino -- won song of the year for the powerful single “I Can’t Breathe" at this year’s Grammys. She celebrated the win by uploading a hilarious video of herself doing an impression of her Tita Joanne (or Aunt Joanne in English). Down in the comments, big names like Cynthia Erivo even wrote: “Man this makes me miss my East London Filipino fam!!”

While the clip was a hit among her Filipino fans, many were surprised to know that the singer was half-Asian. The day after winning the Grammy, H.E.R. followed up the festivities when “Fight For You,” featured in Judas and the Black Messiah, was nominated for best original song at this year’s Academy Awards. Slated to perform at this weekend’s Oscars pre-show, the R&B star has used her voice to lean into activism during the last year amid a national call for racial justice. While many fans recognize her Grammy-winning single “I Can’t Breathe” as an anthem dedicated  to the Black Lives Matter movement, H.E.R. has also most recently spoken up against the rise of Asian hate in the U.S. 

As the 2021 Oscars have been praised for having relatively more diverse nominees, the Asian-American community has witnessed the historic nomination of Steven Yeun -- the first ever Asian-American to be nominated for best actor -- for his starring role in Minari. But despite the increased representation, discrimination and violence towards Asian-Americans have been intensifying, most notably displayed during the Atlanta Spa shootings.

In a conversation between Billboard and H.E.R., the first-time Oscar nominee talks about taking every opportunity to speak up, why solidarity between the Black and Asian communities “is so important,” and even the Filipino dish she perfected during the pandemic.  

How excited are you for the Oscars this weekend and performing at the pre-show?
Oh my gosh! I’m so excited. I can’t believe that I’ve gotten to the Oscars. It still hasn’t fully hit me. I’m still pinching myself, but this is a very important moment for me.

This year, many publications are predicting that the major awards could go to people of color. For the Asian community, Minari’s Steven Yeun is the first Asian-American actor to be nominated for the best actor category. At the same time, there have been very public examples of violence towards the Black community and most recently, the Asian community. Given that, we know that representation can only go so far. What do you think there are next steps to dismantling systemic racism?

It gets very deep. Number one is knowledge. Hate is the result of ignorance. For me, knowledge is power. I’ve learned so much from being part of Judas and the Black Messiah. There was a lot I didn’t know about Fred Hampton, which is sad because he’s a super important part of Black history considering how young he was and how much he gave -- not just for the Black Panthers, but for different types of communities. Like the Puerto Ricans, for example. He was uniting people. Not knowing that history makes us feel even more divided. We can’t understand today without understanding yesterday. Also, its acknowledgement is important. Don’t say, ‘I don’t see color.’ Acknowledge people for who they are. Appreciate where they come from. Learn more about each other’s cultures, backgrounds, and history. Ask, ‘How did you get to this point?’

Speaking of Steven Yeun, he said in the New York Times: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” When you posted that clip of you hilariously doing an impression of your Tita Joanne, many of your Filipino fans felt so seen. Do you have any thoughts about the Asian community feeling invisible?
Absolutely. I acknowledge who I am. I always playfully tease my Filipino family, bragged about the karaoke parties we love, and the food that we eat. I celebrate my culture, but I have felt unseen in my life. I’ve felt too Black for the Asian kids, or too Asian for the Black kids. That comes from us not knowing who we are, and not being able to understand ourselves. I’m big on celebrating all cultures. I definitely agree, and it goes with that acknowledgement. For me, now that I’m in a position where I have a platform, I will take every opportunity to say I’m Filipino and Black. I represent both communities. I noticed that my Filipino community was so proud and so happy when I shared that video because you don’t get that representation often. I have a responsibility to say it loud and proud, and share with people that this is my experience at home. People who are not Filipino laughed at that, too. They thought it was hilarious. I think it’s those lighthearted moments like that that really bring us closer together.

Within the last year, you’ve leaned into using your voice for activism. Why do you think it’s important for big artists to speak up on these issues and give it validity?
Honestly, I don’t even know if I sat down and thought about it. I wasn’t like, ‘I’m gonna be an activist and speak out about this.’ It just came naturally. It should be common sense to speak on something you don’t like or something that’s hateful -- especially when it’s happening to people who look like you. Or, to people who come from the same background as you. Why wouldn’t you wanna spread awareness? But also, we should be asking, ‘What can we do to change things?’ I never thought twice about speaking up this year. It’s all about compassion. Forget everything else -- forget opportunities, forget followers, forget what people wanna hear. How about what people need to see? How about what people need to hear? What needs to be seen so that people aren’t living in fear knowing that their skin color affects their freedoms and how they live their lives? I think that we should all be speaking -- platform or not. You never know who you’re impacting or whose perspective you’re changing. Speaking up was something I didn’t even need to think about. It’s part of who I am.

How important do you think solidarity is between the Black and Asian community at this time?
Oh my gosh, it’s super important. They’re both dealing with similar things in different ways. At the end of the day, there’s hate towards both communities and there’s fear. We can’t live our lives because of skin color and background. It’s ridiculous to me. I will say that we are very different communities, but there are many commonalities. There are many things that bring us closer together. As part of our culture, we love family gatherings, for example. They’re small things, but they matter. I think we’re taught to be divided even though we talk about being united. The reality of it is that they’ll say, ‘Be yourself, but only if you assimilate. Don’t do that. Be this.’ Or, ‘If this person does it, it’s not ratchet.’ There’s a lot of appropriation. Right now, we need to stand together and say that something is wrong here. There shouldn’t be any enemies here. We should be united, appreciate and respect each other. At the end of the day, when you see something wrong, you gotta speak on it. No matter who it’s towards. You gotta speak on it.

When you did this interview, you told the story of how your mom cooked for your dad when they first met, and it really showed how food is an expression of love in Filipino culture. Did your mom ever teach you how to cook or make the perfect pot of rice?
She definitely taught me the trick of how to make the rice! You gotta do the finger trick! When I was young, she’d call me from work and tell me to make the rice, but I’ll forget and hear the garage door open, and be like, ‘Oh no!’ My mom’s like that for sure! My grandpa taught me a lot too, like how you gotta rinse out the rice a couple times. I definitely grew up doing stuff like that and watching my grandmother. Just recently, I got really into cooking really well. I FaceTimed my aunt a lot during quarantine, and she taught me how to make kare-kare [a Filipino stewed oxtail in a peanut sauce] like how my grandma used to make it.

That’s a hard one!
Yeah, it is, but I did it! [laughs]

Did you FaceTime your Tita Joanne from the Insta video?
Yes, that was her I was doing the impression of! I FaceTimed her a lot during quarantine.

How does your mom feel about your success -- especially with your most recent Oscar nomination?
She’s so proud, like it brings her to tears. She’s proud, but she keeps me so grounded. Every day she tells me to thank God. Be grateful and stay humble. At the end of the day, she tells me that what you’re doing is so special. She’s definitely always in tears, crying.