‘A very wise soul’: How H.E.R. became a consummate Grammy artist at just 24
When H.E.R. helped induct Tina Turner into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year, industry veterans ranging from Paul McCartney and Lionel Richie to Carole King and Dave Grohl told her, with certainty, that she would be next.
“That experience was crazy,” she says. “There’s so many artists that I love that came up to me and said, ‘Oh man, you’re going to be a legend one day.’”
At just 24 years old, the R&B singer-guitarist is already well on her way. Last month, H.E.R., born Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, received eight nominations for the 64th Grammy Awards, including song of the year for “Fight for You” and album of the year for her first official studio LP, “Back of My Mind.”
‘Colbert’ bandleader Jon Batiste leads the field with 11 nominations; Tony Bennett, Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat, Justin Bieber and H.E.R. will vie for top prizes.
It might come as a surprise that “Back of My Mind” is technically H.E.R.’s debut album (she herself has pushed back against that characterization in previous interviews), considering it’s her third project to compete for the top Grammys honor. Her eponymous 2017 entry and 2019’s “I Used to Know Her” were both considered compilation albums, combining a series of acclaimed EPs.
“This was a deeper dive,” she says. “‘Back of My Mind’ [is] me saying, ‘This is exactly who I am. This is what I want.’ I’m a lot more sure. And I’m ready to to fully submerge myself in that confidence, in that certainty. And that’s just part of life. It’s part of growing up.”
With 21 total career nominations, H.E.R. has quickly established herself as a Grammy (and now Oscar) darling — appealing to voters who value musicianship and social consciousness over mere streaming numbers. She may not boast as many Hot 100 hits or social media followers as some of her competitors in the general field categories, but she can write songs and play piano, drums, guitar and bass — and that clearly means a lot to her peers.
“She has a very wise soul,” says Brittany “Chi” Coney, one-half of the songwriting and production duo Nova Wav, nominated in the album of the year category with H.E.R. for contributing to “Back of My Mind.” “She knows what she wants. I love how sure she is. And even if she’s not sure, you’ll never know.”
“She’s not afraid to go and try things,” says Coney’s partner, Denisia “Blu June” Andrews. “She’s not afraid to make mistakes. That’s why she is where she is.”
Before she was winning Grammys and performing sold-out shows at iconic venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, H.E.R. grew up in Vallejo, Calif., where her father was a construction worker during the week and a musician on the weekends.
She often watched her dad’s band perform before eventually playing alongside him in the same city that produced the likes of Sly Stone and E-40.
“There’s a lot of legends that come out of Vallejo,” she says. “It really is the foundation of who I am, being from the Bay Area. I’m blessed to have had that sense of community and that love for music in my blood.”
The New Orleans native and “Late Night With Stephen Colbert” bandleader tops all Grammy nominees with 11, spread across a dizzying array of genres.
By 14, Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson had already attained child-prodigy status by flexing her musical gifts on morning shows, signing with a major record label and securing mentorship from her role model, Alicia Keys. After releasing her debut single “Something to Prove” in 2014, however, Wilson retreated from the limelight and eventually reemerged as H.E.R.
Since then, she’s been carefully and methodically feeding the public access to her image and past via interviews, awards show appearances, brand deals and, of course, her music.
“When I first started creating, nobody was checking for me,” she says. “There was no anticipation. ... I didn’t expect it to go as far as it did.
“Now, I’ve had people with their opinions on what I should make, and other people who didn’t believe in it believing in it now. ... I’m working on getting back to myself and making sure that I don’t give into that pressure, ever.”
H.E.R. takes cues from her musical heroes, some of whom she’s been fortunate to join onstage.
In September, for the Global Citizen Live benefit concert at the Greek Theatre, she deftly plucked the strings of her chrome Fender Stratocaster alongside Stevie Wonder for a funky, crowd-pleasing performance of his classic “Superstition.”
“He wants to create with me,” H.E.R. says casually. “He called me one time with an idea, and he was, like, singing to me over the phone. I’m like, ‘Is Stevie Wonder singing to me right now?’ That was mind-blowing, because I listened to Stevie Wonder almost every day in my house.
“But I’ve had a lot of those kinds of moments,” she continues, before another one comes to mind: winning song of the year at the 63rd Grammy Awards for “I Can’t Breathe,” a haunting protest anthem inspired by the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of summer 2020.
On Jan. 31, H.E.R. could collect the coveted prize again for another poignant track with a message to impart. “Fight for You,” the soulful tune she penned for the soundtrack of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” about the movement for Black liberation, is up for three honors, including song of the year and song written for visual media.
In April, she officially reached half-EGOT status when “Fight for You” landed the Oscar for original song. And yes, she intends to fulfill her EGOT destiny with a Tony and an Emmy when the time is right.
Until then, she’s pleased to see “Fight for You” garner recognition from both the film and music academies — especially in the form of a Grammy nomination for traditional R&B performance. Also nominated in the R&B categories is “Back of My Mind,” which H.E.R. crafted as a sweeping, sonic love letter to the genre in all its forms, and its track “Damage.”
For H.E.R., making R&B music is an act of giving back to the people. “R&B lives in everything,” she says. More than just “a good beat,” she believes the ever-evolving style provides listeners with “meaningful lyrics ... that makes them feel something” — especially during 2020, a year of death and devastation caused by widespread illness and police violence.
“It’s important for me to always lead and be a voice, and R&B is one of those things that I represent,” she says.
She recalls recently asking one of her R&B predecessors, Erykah Badu, why some are claiming “R&B is dead” — to which Badu replied, “R&B is the people. So how could it be dead?”
“R&B will always be my foundation,” says H.E.R. “I’m paving the way for Black or Filipino — or both — artists to do R&B and know they don’t have to compromise themselves.”
With Grammys glory, a world tour and an acting career on the horizon, H.E.R. — whose stage acronym stands for “Having Everything Revealed” — is more visible than ever. But she hasn’t revealed everything. Not yet.
“It’s gradual,” she says. “They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and I’ve always said my music is the window to my soul. I’m slowly opening up the curtain, peeling back some of the layers.”
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