H.E.R. on ‘Stepping Into Who I Am’ As An Activist Artist
The award-winning, multi-faceted musician has taken on another major role: voice of the times.
Gabi Wilson almost didn’t become H.E.R.
“There was pressure on me after graduating high school to attend college,” recalls the 24-year-old Bay Area native, who has been a performer since she was 10. “I was going to study something in the medical field because my mom is a nurse.”
But just a year after graduating, H.E.R.’s decision to forgo college for a music career proved prescient. In 2016, RCA Records released her debut EP, H.E.R., Vol. 1, and her slow and steady journey toward releasing an LP began. Last year, Back of My Mind finally arrived, and it’s now an album of the year Grammy nominee — proof of what a singular artist H.E.R. has become along the way. Her early choice to remain semi-anonymous behind a mysterious persona and sunglasses encouraged listeners to focus on her as a musician: a guitar virtuoso as comfortable playing bass as drums and piano, and a singer whose angelic yet assertive vocals amplify her emotional lyrics about relationships and love.
More recently, H.E.R. has taken on another role: award-winning voice of the times. “I Can’t Breathe,” sparked by the murder of George Floyd, won the Grammy for song of the year in 2021. That same year, H.E.R.’s “Fight for You” (from the drama Judas and the Black Messiah about Black Panther Fred Hampton) took home the Academy Award for best original song. (It’s also a current Grammy nominee for song of the year.) All the while, she has continued to showcase her versatility in mesmerizing stage performances, holding her own alongside the likes of Keith Urban, Gary Clark Jr. and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“It has been so many years of being the underdog, watching other artists blossom and waiting my turn,” says Billboard’s 2022 Women in Music American Express Impact honoree. “Women and other artists need to know that good things don’t happen overnight. You can’t cheat the grind.”
Now she’s seeing the results of all that work as she expands her artistic pursuits even further. She is rehearsing for a stadium world tour with Coldplay starting in March (“I’ll always be a soul baby, but actually, I listen to as much rock as I do R&B”), working as a global spokeswoman for L’Oréal (“It’s dope that they’re stepping in with curly hair products to support [our] natural hair”) and will make her feature-film debut in a new adaptation of the Broadway musical The Color Purple. But no matter the medium in which she works, her intent is the same.
“Everything that I’ve released represents me,” says H.E.R. “I’ll never put out something just because it looks or sounds good. It has to be authentic to me — all across the board.”
How difficult has it been to bridge the space between commercial artist and activist?
It never occurred to me to be an activist until I got older and started to realize how much hatred there is in the world. Obviously, in the beginning, it was a lot more about the music. Organically, however, people are starting to hear and see me more, to experience who I am and not just the music. So with that comes my views on the world: how I felt in 2020 when everything was going on and is still going on. It’s a bigger fight, [so] it’s my responsibility to use what has an impact — my voice — to speak out on some of these things, like the relationship between Black Americans and Asian Americans. [H.E.R.’s mother is Filipina, and her father is Black.] Not because someone told me to, but because it’s what I feel.
Which music forebears helped inspire the artist you desire to be?
At the end of the day, I’ve always believed that love conquers all. I’ve listened to Sly & The Family Stone — my favorite — as well as Marvin Gaye, Prince, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield. Their message was always the same: “This is what’s happening around us, but let’s accept and love each other the way we are.” And then there’s the blues. That’s one of my biggest influences just because of the pain in the music.
As a woman who plays guitar, do you encounter men who still see that as an anomaly?
Not so much more recently. (Smiles.) But sometimes it’s like, “What’s she going to do with that?” Then I play, and they’re like, “OK, let me shut up.” I will say that a lot of legends have given me my props as a guitar player — and never put “woman” in front of it, which I absolutely love and respect. They simply appreciate my playing without saying, “Even though you’re a woman.” During the COVID-19 quarantine, I presented a [weekly livestream] series called Girls With Guitars, and we featured a bunch of dope female guitarists. I wanted them to be visible because people don’t see us enough. I definitely want to bring that back and make it a bigger thing.
How do you determine which projects and offers to accept?
More recently, I’ve really been trying to just take control and be the captain of my own ship. Of course, opinions come in with people saying you should do this or this. So there’s a little bit of pressure, [but] at the end of the day, I have to love what I do. So if it’s not something I enjoy or where I feel I’m not fully being myself, then I probably shouldn’t do it.
I’ve also been taking control of my creative space. I’ve always had control of my vision musically, but it has become a lot more sacred to me lately. In the studio, I’ve been locking in on some ideas I want to create. It’s like, “OK, if you’re not going to help me execute this thing but want to take it in a whole other direction, then it isn’t going to work.” I’m really stepping into who I am now — certain in the things that I want to do and who I’m meant to be as a woman.
This story originally appeared in Billboard‘s 2022 Women in Music issue, dated Feb. 26, 2022.