Becoming H.E.R.: How a 23-Year-Old Music Prodigy Grew Into an EGOT-Bound Voice for Her Generation

Photographs by Arielle Bobb-Willis

In a way, it’s fitting that “I Can’t Breathe” — H.E.R.’s Grammy-winning song that, as much as any other, has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement — was written and performed by a woman who declares that she is “equally Filipino as I am Black.”

A powerful, slow and mournful hymn with a rhythm that owes more than a little to Bill Withers’ classic “Ain’t No Sunshine,” it is an impassioned cry that begins as a lament and ends defiantly, with H.E.R.’s delivery shifting from anguished soul to stentorian speechifying. It’s a sentiment of outrage, desperation and exasperation against the senselessness of racism, from an artist who is a member of three of the most oppressed groups of human beings in American history: African Americans, Asians and women.

HER H.E.R. Variety Cover

We breathe the same and we bleed the same, but still, we don’t see the same
Be thankful we are God-fearing because we do not seek revenge …
To say all men are created equal in the eyes of God but disparage a man based on the color of his skin
Do not say you do not see color
When you see us, see us
We can’t breathe.

The song, written with H.E.R.’s frequent collaborators Tiara Thomas and D’Mile (Dernst Emile II), was in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the wrenching race-based tragedies of early last year. But the sentiment is sadly mutable and also speaks to virtually every instance of “the theft and bloodshed that made America the land of the free,” as the lyrics convey.

As she accepted her first Oscar in April for “Fight for You,” a song written about another human being killed by the forces of racism — Black Panther Fred Hampton, the subject of the film “Judas and the Black Messiah” — H.E.R. said during her gracious, impromptu acceptance speech, “Musicians, filmmakers: I believe we have an opportunity and a responsibility to tell the truth, and to write history the way that it was and how it connects us to today, and what we see going on in the world today.

“Knowledge is power, music is power, and as long as I’m standing, I’m always going to fight for us. I’m always going to fight for my people and fight for what’s right. That’s what music does, and that’s what storytelling does.”

Black Music Action Coalition co-chairman Binta Niambi Brown says, “I consider H.E.R. to be one of the strongest voices when it comes to Black liberation and social justice in America. Her songs and actions are so compelling and so necessary, and it’s clear that they’re coming from deep within her.”

Yet being a spokesperson wasn’t always in the cards for the woman born Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson on June 27, 1997, in Vallejo, Calif., although the issues she addresses were always part of her life. Her mother shared stories about her upbringing in the Philippines, and her father, an iron worker by day and a musician by night, spoke of growing up Black in Arkansas. But even in the polyglot Bay Area, she stood out.

“I got that a lot going to the grocery store: People would say, ‘That’s your mom?’ [because] she has straight hair and I’ve got curly hair, and my skin color is tan,” H.E.R. tells Variety. “It was tough accepting myself and understanding that you can be both things. People like to put labels and boxes on you and try to say, ‘But you’re Black,’ or you’re this or that. Why does it have to be one thing? Why can’t I be all of these things?”

HER H.E.R. Variety Cover Story

Those issues were thrown into dramatic relief at school. “I was too Asian for the Black kids or too Black for the Filipino kids. In middle school, kids are mean and everyone is brutal. It’s about fitting in.” But, she concludes, “when I got to my senior year, it became cool. I’m proud of it now — my parents are from two completely different worlds and I think it makes me more well-rounded — but there was always that difficult and awkward ‘I’m a little different; I don’t know how to feel.’”

At 23, the remarkably talented singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, who has won four Grammys and an Oscar — just an Emmy and a Tony away from an “EGOT” — is more than a little different, and hopes young women see her as an example of what is possible. “It means the world that there is another girl out there who [sees her success] and thinks, ‘I can do that too,’” says H.E.R.

And her ambitions don’t stop there: A former child actress, she has serious thespian goals and is also working on an unspecified Broadway score, so those Tony and Emmy Awards may not be far out of reach. “I ain’t gonna put a deadline on it,” she jokes. “Maybe before I’m 30. I’ve got seven years.”

•    •    •

While H.E.R. stands for “Having Everything Revealed,” perhaps a more accurate moniker would add “… Eventually.” Mystique plays a big role in how she presents herself as an artist.

The cover artwork of “Vol. 1,” her 2016 debut EP, depicted H.E.R. only in silhouette; advance copies were sent to press and radio with just a song list and no supporting information. (While she soon revealed her face, she usually wears shades.) Her early releases are refreshing collections of “real” R&B with a multigenerational appeal — combining the Prince, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley that this self-described “soul baby” was raised on, along with Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys and the hip-hop that shaped her generation.

But guitar-slinging R&B artists are a rarity these days — let alone a female shredder — and her new album, “Back of My Mind,” reveals more of the wide range of styles that her father played with his bands and she heard from friends. Like Prince (another rare guitar-slinging R&B superstar), she’s been unveiling those influences gradually, after choosing to keep her sound tightly focused on her first releases.

“I didn’t wanna pull out all my tricks at once,” she says. “My first few [releases] were just a small piece of who I am musically, and it was a matter of time before I could reveal others. I’ve always been a huge fan of Coldplay and Led Zeppelin and Radiohead and alternative and rock and blues, but it wasn’t until this album that I started digging into those other elements and bringing them to R&B.”

Her longtime manager, Jeff Robinson, concurs. “Every time we’re in the car, I make her drive and I sit in the back seat, like she’s an Uber driver — I told her it builds character!” he laughs. “But that means she’s in control of the car radio, and every time she’s playing something different, from world music to Santana to the Grateful Dead. With [‘Back of My Mind’], she wanted to do an R&B album; next she might want to do a rock album — she was just in with [Coldplay frontman] Chris Martin. They were jamming on records together. She’s genre-less and wants to stay that way.”

HER H.E.R. Variety Cover Story

Five days after he spoke those words, H.E.R. and country singer Chris Stapleton performed on the CMT awards, trading verses and guitar licks on her new song, “Hold On,” in a fiery fusion of blues and soul … on a country awards show. “H.E.R. is without a doubt one of the greatest singer/ songwriter/ guitar players on the planet earth. Fact,” Stapleton posted on Instagram.

And while she has certainly tackled the nuances of sexual politics in songs like 2018’s “Against Me,” the sentiments in “I Can’t Breathe” and “Fight for You” were the first time she has publicly addressed social justice so explicitly in song.

“Lyrically, [the new album] is not just one thing either,” she continues. “It’s a lot of different emotions and perspectives and things I’ve felt in the past few years. Now that people have entered into my world and have a better understanding, I can give more.”

•    •    •

Vallejo has spawned multiple generations of musicians, ranging from Johnny Otis and Sly Stone to local hip-hop titans like E-40 and Mac Dre, all of whom helped shape the Bay Area’s vibrant music scene. Against that backdrop, the young H.E.R. learned piano as a toddler, sitting in her father’s lap, and her talent revealed itself unusually early.

Encouraged by her parents, she played with fellow elementary school-age musicians from the area — including a sort of proto-supergroup with R&B singer Kehlani, Dylan Wiggins (son of D’Wayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Toné!, who has gone on to work with the Weeknd, Logic, John Legend and many others) and, briefly and possibly apocryphally, Zendaya. In a full-circle moment, Zendaya presented H.E.R.’s Oscar in April and could be seen jumping up and down with excitement after she made the announcement.

“We were very, very young, like 7 years old,” H.E.R. recalls of that early group. “At first it was just me on bass and Dylan on keys, and then Kehlani started singing with us. We called the group Poplyfe — from Prince’s song ‘Pop Life,’ which we used to cover — and at one point Zendaya was supposed to be in the group, but I don’t remember what happened. They all went to school together in Oakland, and after I left Kehlani became the lead singer.”

She started performing with her dad’s band, and over the next couple of years opportunities began to open up, particularly in New York. As a preteen Gabi Wilson, she made her acting debut in the Nickelodeon TV movie “School Gyrls.” At around the same time, she sang at a kids’ showcase at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater and performed on the “Today” show, covering “No One” by Alicia Keys — who she calls her “No. 1 role model” — and showing a level of poise that would be remarkable for someone years older. Yet she says this high-profile attention never struck her as unusual.

“I don’t know if I really realized it,” she says now. “When you’re a kid, you’re just like, ‘OK, cool.’ You know, ‘I did the “Today” show, my parents were with me, and I was having fun singing.’ And the next day I was back on the playground.”

After a brief stint with Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, she joined forces with Robinson’s MBK Entertainment, which launched Keys’ career and oversaw it for more than 15 years. She’s been with MBK ever since.

“The other child prodigy I worked with was 14-year-old Alicia, and the similarities were incredible,” Robinson recalls. “They both spoke like Rhodes scholars and were so, so talented.”

Although H.E.R. considered becoming a dentist or following her mother, a nurse, into the medical field, music eventually won out, despite some reservations from her parents. “Parents just want to know their child is OK, and to most people, education is how you get there,” she says. “But when you’re an entertainer, they don’t know what that world looks like, so there’s a fear.”

The young Gabi continued to perform and record regularly, signing with Sony Music’s RCA Records as a 14-year-old (via Robinson’s MBK imprint, reuniting her manager with RCA CEO Peter Edge, who’d played a major role in Keys’ success). But she was allowed to develop at her own pace and tried to have as normal a childhood as circumstances would allow.

“It was tough, honestly,” H.E.R. admits. “I would leave school for a few days every month or every other month to travel to New York, and I’d be doing independent study in the studio. There were a lot of sacrifices made, especially by my parents.”

That midtown Manhattan studio was one Robinson outfitted specifically for her, and she worked like an Olympic athlete. “She was in there 24/7,” he recalls. “She must have 400 to 500 songs that the world has never heard from that period. Occasionally I’d have her appear at a showcase to develop her as a performer and keep her sharp.”

Adds longtime RCA marketing executive VP Carolyn Williams: “We joke that it’s the longest-running artist development story we’ve ever had. But as cute as she was when we first met her, she was always super focused. You could tell she knew what she wanted.”

Lazy loaded image
Arielle Bobb-Willis for Variety

Apart from 2014’s “Something to Prove,” a final song as Gabi Wilson that she essentially dismisses now, it would be nearly five years before H.E.R.’s first full release would emerge. She credits Robinson and former MBK exec Suzette Williams with giving her the room to grow. “They saw things in me that I didn’t even see in myself,” she says. “I was learning the business just as much as the music, and also figuring out who I was gonna become as a woman.

“I’m thankful I was able to go to school, but honestly, I’d be sitting in class like, ‘I can’t wait to get back to New York and work toward my future,’ she says. “Everybody else was thinking about the weekend, but I was thinking about the next ten years.”

Robinson recalls, “I kept her under wraps until Jody Gerson [now chairman-CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group] said — and I give her props for this — ‘Jeff, you’ve had her in that studio for years, musically lifting weights,’” he laughs. “The only way you’re gonna know if she’s as good as we think is to put out the music.’ And I said, ‘You know, you’re right.’”

Thus, H.E.R. emerged, in silhouette over a light-blue background, with the seven-track EP “Vol. 1” (which was later combined with “Vol. 2” and other songs to create her eponymous debut album) in September 2016. The music, the silhouette and her name were dramatic reinventions; in every sense, H.E.R.’s past was rendered prelude.

“Honestly, the reason I wanted to be H.E.R. is because I felt people tended to focus on the looks of things instead of music — listening with their eyes and not their ears,” she says. “It was a social media time of the whole package: ‘This is what an artist should be; this is what a woman should be.’ So when I first released music, I wanted to be a silhouette — these truthful stories were what I wanted to show, not me.

“It isn’t a persona; it’s not something that I think I have to turn on. It’s me: my true self.”

The initial plan was to let things build organically, “dropping the EP and then touring and kinda letting it spread by word of mouth instead of doing a major push,” she says. But before long, she had social media cosigns from Rihanna, Issa Rae, Taraji P. Henson and two Jenners.

Yet the moment H.E.R. says she knew her music was truly connecting occurred during the first show on her first major tour, opening for label mate Bryson Tiller in 2017. Despite all the years of practice and performing, “I was really nervous: ‘People aren’t gonna know who I am; this will be me getting used to touring,’” she recalls. “But at the first show we did in Atlanta, a majority of the crowd was singing the lyrics to all my songs — I was so blown away. And then doing meet-and-greets on my own tour is when I realized that people are really listening, telling me their own stories about their connection to my music and taking different meanings from it.”

Williams adds: “At those shows, I could barely hear her on certain songs because the audience was singing so loud.”

The Recording Academy was also cheering: It nominated H.E.R. in five 2018 Grammy Awards categories. She won two.

•    •    •

Early this year, after another album, several singles and tours, and countless TV and web appearances, H.E.R. was featured at three of the highest-profile events possible for any musician — in just 10 weeks, no less. In February, she performed “America the Beautiful” at Super Bowl LV (which itself was a sly commentary, coming from the woman who wrote and sang “I Can’t Breathe”), and then won two more Grammys and an Academy Award. Even for an awards show veteran of her stature and track record, the Oscars were a new frontier.

“My mom was my date,” she recalls. “Angela Bassett was sitting next to us, and my mom was excited to meet her and Tyler Perry and all these people. I was just happy to be there. I almost forgot that I had a chance to win.”

But she’d certainly remembered by the time her moment came. “They played the clips [from the films], my heart was beating fast, and they announced my name … and everything stopped for a hot second, and there was craziness going on in my head,” she recalls in a rush. “I’m thinking of the doubt I’d had, I’m thinking of my mom sitting next to me, I’m thinking of the movie and how important it was — everything was going through my mind at once.

“And then … I didn’t prepare a speech,” she sighs. “So I was like, ‘Oh crap, I have to go up there and say something.’”

Even as one of the most ubiquitous faces and voices of the past few and probably the next few months — owing not only to the new album but also her starring appearance in a sunny Old Navy ad — H.E.R. is, as always, working toward the next thing to reveal.

“There is so much I want to do. People don’t really get to see my comedic and fun side, except for when I’m impersonating my aunt,” she laughs. “But I definitely want to do a lot more voice-overs, and comedy, but also some serious roles —” she says before catching herself. “I’m trying to do it all, I know. Whatever it is, one thing at a time. I’m gonna get there.”

But is it all too much too soon? What happens after all of your dreams come true? Robinson turns reflective. “Before [‘Vol. 1’] came out, I told her to make a mood board of everything she wanted to accomplish. She did all of them, so now she’s made a second mood board. One of them is acting — she wants to be a top musician and actress. She’s a hard worker, but there will come a time: What’s next?” he concludes. “We’re going to have to figure that one.”

But until that day, there is still plenty to reveal, and plenty to keep hidden — including, on occasion, her superpowers. When walking around her Brooklyn neighborhood, “people don’t recognize me without my glasses,” H.E.R. says. “Sometimes I feel like Clark Kent.”

Styling: Wouri Vice/The Montgomery Group; Hair: Nina Monique; Makeup: Marissa Vossen; Cover (green dress); Dress: Greta Constantine; Glasses: Bonnie Clyde; Look 1 (black jacket): Dress, Jacket and Shirt: GIVENCHY; Shoes: Giuseppi Zanotti; Sunglasses: Valentino; Ring: Sheryl Jones; Look 2 (sweatshirt): Custom embroidered hoodie: Griggs Brothers; Glasses: Bonnie Clyde; Look 3 (Stripe Dress): Dress: Christopher John Rogers; Glasses: Valentino; Look 4 (green dress): Dress: Issey Miyake; Boots: Giuseppi Zanotti