H.E.R. Sings The Things We're Afraid To Say
By Virginia Lowman
Music has always been a vehicle for truth-telling for H.E.R. When she reemerged on the music scene in 2016 under the enigmatic three-letter moniker, standing for “Having Everything Revealed,” she did so as a means to exemplify her belief that her “responsibility is to the truth” and that women would be at the forefront of her craft right alongside protest and empowerment. It’s a guiding virtue that’s proved successful, too: She’s racked up four Grammys, including a surprise Song of the Year win for her poignant anthem “I Can’t Breathe” at the most recent ceremony in March, and an Oscar for “Fight for You,” which appeared on the soundtrack for Judas and the Black Messiah. Now, as she releases her first studio album, she’s expanding her musical repertoire and using honesty as her North star.
A fast ascent to the top of the charts and earned critical acclaim has put her in a unique position: Though she is still somewhat new to this level of stardom, she maintains a veteran sense of cool; in a world that often forgoes privacy, H.E.R. has managed to satiate the masses with her craft alone and still remain shrouded in mystery. When we meet via Zoom to discuss her debut album Back of My Mind, out today, it is quickly evident she has mastered the limelight the same way she has refined the art of sonically setting a mood. In many ways, H.E.R. is a quintessential R&B artist: Her use of instrumentation and storytelling yields a sound that uplifts like gospel and aches like the blues. More than anything, her music is about evoking emotion, leaning into “chords that make you feel really good and hit that sweet spot.” While early tracks like “Focus” and “Best Part” explored the highs of love and lows of heartache, her first full-length project celebrates the medium’s vast landscape while simultaneously pushing its boundaries with innovative musical experiments. The opening track “We Made It” is an alternative take with velvety vocals grounded by an ethereal synth beat and Coldplay-esque drums in the hook. Another track, “Paradise,” showcases the influence of new-school hip-hop juxtaposing H.E.R’s cooing vocals against rapper Yung Bleu’s intricate flow.
She began developing this multifaceted approach to music-making long before introducing herself to the world as H.E.R. Born Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, she grew up in Vallejo, California and began performing at a young age. It was her family that instilled in her a diverse palette. “They all played a different era of R&B,” she says. “My dad was very much into Prince, and then my uncle was playing Usher, Aaliyah, and even Drake when I was in middle school.” Her ear for Ciara’s Goodies and Stevie Wonder’s Song in the Key of Life might be heard in the uptempo snares on some of her tracks or buttery harmonies à la “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” but it was Alicia Keys who had the greatest impact on the artist she’d become. “‘If I Ain’t Got You’ was one of the first songs that I learned how to play and sing, and that was it for me,” she recalls. “I think hearing that song and learning how to play it on piano was pivotal.”
She released her first EP as H.E.R., a soulful heart-wrenching eponymous project, in 2016 at the age of 19, yet even years later, at 23, the influence of her heritage can still be felt, particularly when it comes to treating her art as an outlet for activism. “I represent both my Black and my Filipino side,” she says proudly, acknowledging that both communities have faced unprecedented injustice and violence historically, but particularly over the past year. She has often used her platform to bring awareness to these issues, as with her harrowing song “I Can’t Breathe,” which addressed the ongoing epidemic of police brutality in the United States by appropriating the dying words of George Floyd and Eric Garner, unarmed Black men killed by cops. The powerful protest anthem has soundtracked a new generation’s movement and political prowess in the same way Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?,” which also tackled systemic racism, did in the ’70s. “I’m a person who has a voice and can give a voice to the voiceless,” she says. “Through my art, I have an opportunity to meet people, look at something differently, change their perception, or encourage people to acknowledge a feeling.” Claiming the award for Song of the Year was an honor, but more than that, it was “confirmation and that fuel to continue to speak the truth.”
H.E.R. credits “tough and honest conversations” for fueling her album Back of My Mind, which has been in the works for three years. She tapped heavyweight producers like Darkchild’s Rodney Jerkins and Jeff Gitty, who lent their mastery of emotional grit to raw, soulful tracks like “Mean It” and “Exhausted.” For H.E.R. and her collaborators, music therapy, and the studio is an intimate, healing space where she can candidly discuss her innermost emotions. And so the collection listens like an intimate diary, with lyrics addressing self-work, learning to overcome trauma, and leveling up in your career. All of these are woven together with rich strings and brass, which meld with the nostalgic buzz of talkboxes and contemporary snares. Beginning with the celebratory “We Made It,” the album comes full circle with the declaratory “I Can Have It All.” Balancing classic R&B like her Goapele-influenced “Closer to Me” with new-school high-energy hip-hop-laced hits like “Find a Way,” H.E.R. chronicles the ebbs and flows of learning to communicate in intimacy, the journey to new career heights, and mastering the art of self-love.
“I often say things that I think we’re afraid to say,” H.E.R. notes, and by doing so, she permits us to put our most vulnerable feelings on display, too. “I sing the things that are sometimes hard to articulate, the things that sit in the back of our minds that we don’t pay much attention to, the things that we’re afraid to stand for or we’re not too confident [about].” While her music maps the contours of the human condition, the mystique of her image seems to reflect the clarity she’s found through experience. With each project, H.E.R. reveals more of herself in corresponding artworks, as in the visuals for “We Made It.” The singer has removed her signature glasses to reveal her face, veiled in darkness but illuminated by a sliver of light. It is a far cry from the silhouettes and shadows that grace her first five EPs.
One thing is certain: As she comes through clearly across her distinctive visuals and singular sound, H.E.R. is creating from a sense of certainty — about herself and her worldviews. Back of My Mind is H.E.R.'s musical coming of age. Whether speaking truth to power or therapizing growing pains, she is moving with intention and writing the soundtrack of our lives as pursues her dreams and uncovers the truth of defining success and happiness on her own terms. “Sometimes, you get to the top of the mountain and you’re like, now I know there are higher heights for me to reach,” she says. “I can have it all.”