Ten years ago, Gabi Wilson wanted to be the “next big thing.” The platform was Radio Disney’s contest of the same name, with listeners voting on their favorite artist. Charming and talented, the Bay Area native was confident that her pathway would be paved in gold. But it wasn’t Wilson’s time just yet, as she lost to pop singer Jasmine Sagginario. “If I was the next big thing, it would be everything I’ve dreamed of,” the 11-year-old said at the time. To Wilson’s credit, her dream wasn’t far-fetched.
There was nothing wrong with Gabi Wilson. A darling to YouTube’s music cover lovers and a favorite among industry insiders, Wilson’s powerful voice gathers the soul in silk, allowing harmonic melodies to wow any listener. In a digital age where every aspect of one’s image seemed to matter the most, Wilson decided to take herself out of the equation and allow the music to take center stage. In 2015, Wilson uploaded a SoundCloud cover of Drake’s “Jungle” under a ghost account and the rest is R&B history.
Wilson was now known as H.E.R. (Having Everything Revealed) with the music doing just that — allowing everyone to relate without an impulse to dig into the singer’s personal life or social posts. Her callings of love on “Focus” were now their own while the poetic truths on “Pigment” were fluid in nature. It wasn’t a secret that Wilson was also H.E.R. as she shared plans with the lifestyle site Stuff Fly People Like in 2015 to release her first EP under that acronym.
The mysterious allure—H.E.R.'s facial features are usually obscured on all project artwork and onstage—along with the molding of her first two EPs, have made her an instant staple in R&B today. As a selfless artist, H.E.R. has proven that R&B can thrive without heavy production or a marriage between hip-hop’s current fascination with trap beats. With five 2019 Grammy Award nominations, including Best New Artist and Album of the Year for her eponymous compilation album, the singer’s move to hide in plain sight worked out for the better.
“My reason for being anonymous in the beginning was to make it about the music and really keep the focus on the music, so being nominated is like, ‘Wow, I did exactly what I wanted to do,’ which was to be recognized for my music and nothing else,” H.E.R. softly reflects over the phone. Producing music and playing instruments like the piano and guitar have allowed the singer to deliver her talents on a silver platter to listeners. “I just feel very blessed because the intent was to be recognized for the music, so these nominations are so true to making it about the music and the celebration of music. I’m so thankful. It’s kind of crazy.”
Much like Beyonce’s refined approach to surprise albums, H.E.R.’s anonymity has been carbon copied a few times, even to the levels of one artist absorbing her sound and non-image. “It’s definitely flattery. If anybody sees anything that’s working they’re going to try to emulate it or copy or try to use it in their live show,” she says generally of her effect. “People have always tried to imitate, but at the end of the day, no one can do me better than I can do me, you know? But I wouldn’t be bothered. Some people can get annoying with it (Laughs), but at the end of the day, you can only be so successful doing what somebody else is doing.”
H.E.R.’s Grammy nods are also a testament to the institution’s abnormal history. On the polished side of the coin, the singer’s five nominations are akin to host and mentor Alicia Keys. Eighteen years ago, Keys took home five gramophones including Best New Artist and Best R&B Album for her debut, Songs In A Minor. Keys' tied with those of Ms. Lauryn Hill, who took home five awards in 1999. Hill won the Album of the Year category for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, making it the first hip-hop/R&B album to take the crown. H.E.R. could become the next woman of color to take home the award as her album is also in the same category. The jagged side of the coin, however, hasn’t been kind to R&B.
Five R&B categories were cut in 2011. They included "Best Urban/Alternative Performance" (2003-2011), "Best Female R&B Vocal Performance" (1968-2011), "Best Male R&B Vocal Performance" (1968-2011), "Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals" (1967-2011) and "Best Contemporary R&B Album" (2003-2011). The chopped categories didn’t do much to help the pace of R&B, which experienced a shift in identity near the top of the 2010s. Hip-hop, which has always relied on R&B, soul, and funk, continued to do so with R&B facing little to no room to grow. Singers wanted to be rappers and rappers wanted to be singers, leaving behind harmonies and falsettos R&B heads loved deeply. But the sonic shift wasn’t without a few gleams, as artists like Frank Ocean, Jhene Aiko, Jazmine Sullivan, and Miguel helped bring a balance back to soul and R&B. With H.E.R., the precision is razor sharp as she combines classical notes with pulsating 808s to create a time machine of the genre’s past and future.
As talk of R&B’s resurgence to the mainstream continues, H.E.R. is aware that she’s at the center of the conversation. Instead of feeding into the hype, the singer-songwriter is just as focused as ever.
“It’s a great expectation. It’s a great thing to hear people putting me up to this standard and putting me on this pedestal and expecting greatness from me, but at the end of the day, I’m just trying to be a better me as an artist musically,” she says. “As a person, I’m just trying to be better than I was yesterday and continue to elevate. I keep hearing all this stuff. It’s so easy to second-guess and overthink everything you’re doing now that people are watching. That’s when it starts to go downhill when you give in to that pressure. I have to keep doing me. I have to not look at what everybody else is doing, or what everybody else thinks should be happening right now. I can’t listen to the outside opinions of people who weren’t really there in the beginning, who weren’t embracing who I was, who were always jumping from wave to wave or what’s popular or what’s new. I can’t be that person because that’s when it goes downhill. I’m definitely trying to stay away from that mentality.”
Just last year, the singer headlined her very first tour in addition to endless festivals: Atlanta’s One MusicFest, Essence Music Festival in New Orleans and Brooklyn's Afropunk. At the latter fest, nearly all the attendees, draped in pan-African garb and amethyst crystal bra sets, rushed over to her stage to hear their favorite songs like “Carried Away,” “Every Kind of Way” and the tender duet “Best Part” with Daniel Caesar. The crowd, a mirage of black faces spanning the diaspora, were living one experience, which happened to be powered by H.E.R.
“When I think about the reason why I dropped the projects under the name H.E.R., the people resonate with it so much because H.E.R. is everyone,” she explains. “All my stories have no face attached to it, there’s no name attached to it, so it’s like you have no choice but to be attached to the feeling and the emotion and relating it to your personal diary. A lot of people come to my shows and they say, ‘That’s my diary, she’s speaking my life. I relate to this so much.’ It’s like they have no choice but to put themselves in that position, put themselves in connection to my music.”
The storyline and dynamics between singing and poetry are woven together so effortlessly on "Pigment." Bianca Jeanty, the co-founder of Minorities in Media says about one of her favorite H.E.R. tracks: "It goes through all of the emotions of a relationship at its peak and its downfalls. The song is relatively short, but there are some relationships that feel like that. Rich moments that feel like forever. And the reason why this song is so powerful to me is because sometimes there isn't a fairy tale ending. And that's real."
This year, H.E.R. plans to spread her verbal love language with new music, take on bigger stages like Coachella, and embark a European tour. “I’m so thankful for all the stuff that happened in 2018 and now 2019 is even crazier,” she gushes. “There’s so much going on, so many places that I’ll be going to that I haven’t seen, but I’m definitely going to drop an official album, a real album because the projects that I dropped weren’t even official. They were just EPs and it’s about elevation this year.”
Other women in R&B are elevating as well, presenting stories and perspectives outside of their own. Fellow soul sisters like Ella Mai, Queen Naija, Summer Walker, and fellow Grammy nominee Jorja Smith have provided a sonic safe-space to not just feel, but to enjoy love jams again. Kuk Harrell, Grammy Award-winning vocal producer, and engineer shares, "I love people that come out and just...they create a new lane, they create a new sound and everybody just jumps on it." Creating that space where the old feel of R&B can live with its new packaging is special to witness, and we all are enjoying the view, to the point that even today's young rappers want that old thing back. "I love H.E.R.'s music because it reminds me of the R&B that I grew up listening to," says Cali rapper Saweetie.
“I think real music is coming back, real lyrics,” H.E.R. explains of her peers. “A lot of people are writing more songs that mean something, that have a story. A lot of people are using real instruments, which is really cool to hear. I think it’s in a good place, in an authentic place. We’re not really in the age of gimmicks anymore. It’s real artistry, normal people just being themselves on stage and in the music, which is really cool to see.”
This year’s Grammy Awards ceremony aims to build a bridge between the past and present with tributes to the late Aretha Franklin and the much talked about Motown 60th anniversary performance event happening later this week. As living legends like Diana Ross and Fantasia belt the songs we love so much, H.E.R. will be present with a performance of her own, reminding us that the future of R&B is here.
As much as H.E.R. believes in herself and her abilities, a host of friends, collaborators and cultural critics believe in her twice as hard. Here, 21 creatives reflect on all the things they love about the 21-year-old’s artistry and what exactly makes her a remarkable force in R&B.
Grammy-nominated producer, professor and founder of Jamla Records
I'm a historian by nature so I watch trends and I watch culture. Everything repeats itself whether we're talking about fashion and especially music. When I was 20 years old, D'Angelo was my version of something 20 years before that, which was Marvin Gaye and Stevie [Wonder]. So D'Angelo was my Marvin Gaye and Stevie. I think with H.E.R., Ella Mai and Daniel Caesar, Anderson .Paak, BJ The Chicago Kid and a myriad of R&B artists who are budding believe in the music and believe in the feeling. That's similar to another resurgence that happened in the '90s but everything runs in cycles, history repeats itself and nothing is new under the sun.
Aliya S. King
New York Times Bestselling Author
I hope it's okay that I choose "Best Part." I know it's a duet and not technically her song, but I was driving down the street when I first heard it and I had to pull over and ask Siri who it was. It hit me that quickly and viscerally. I'm lucky that I was able to have a front-row seat to the birth of the neo-soul movement in the ‘90s. I saw early shows with artists like D'Angelo and Erykah Badu and many of us walked away knowing we saw history being made. That's how I felt the first time I heard her music. This is special.
She's one of my favorite artists and even though she's young, her music feels nostalgic. It's beautiful for when I'm feeling in love and beautiful when I'm feeling mellow and emotional. In this age when everyone is sharing everything, I appreciate the mystery she encompasses.
Sheʼs a wonderful artist and so full of potential and promise. As you can see from the five Grammy nods, H.E.R and her team have got something really special going. Sheʼs a really good person too and carries herself like a true star. I think she fits the blueprint of what an artist is to me. As for the future of R&B, I think weʼre moving in a great direction. I think along with H.E.R. there are a lot of artists coming up, pushing a wave thatʼs very promising for the genre. Iʼm very intrigued to see what it looks like in the next few years.
BJ The Chicago Kid
I think the future of R&B is safe with her contribution. Fans resonate with the vibes and emotion her music evokes. Her sound is very right now while still keeping the soulfulness of the R&B we grew up on alive.
EVP, Marketing at RCA Records
When I look back on 2018, I’m just so proud of H.E.R. I’m proud of what she’s been able to do as far as inspiring people to really focus on music. This is what it’s all about. It’s not always about imaging and visuals and your social game. I love the fact that she really forced everyone to focus on music because we are in the music business and this is what it is supposed to be about.
It’s not just H.E.R. I think a lot of these artists kind of forced you — they did things differently and it wasn’t always about imaging. It was really about amazing new music, and I think a lot of artists have followed in that footstep, in that path.
We worked together on a brand new song and we finished it the same day, so she’s fast, personal and has her own unique melodies, which I respect the sh*t out of. On top of that, she comes up with really good lyrical ideas and is just self-sufficient. My favorite song would have to be “Focus.” That song to me is just so undeniable and it really reminds me of Ravel or Claude Debussy, a classical song, but it’s R&B at the same time. It’s just a really beautiful record that’s going to stand the test of time.
Drummer for H.E.R.
With “Focus” I can remember hearing it for the first time, knowing once it dropped nothing would ever be the same. Fans love the direct connection, life application, and the transparency. Most artists try to put themselves on a pedestal above everyday people but she meets them right where they are and lets you know we’ve all been there. I like that she’s limitless and the future of R&B with H.E.R. in it is looking like a run further than the eye can see.
I think apart from her voice being as beautiful as it is, I’m more in awe of the sheer skill that comes with it. Her control is stuff of legends, and I’m sure she’s on her way to being just that. Adding to that, she plays every instrument in the book (Laughs). She’s a great talent and I believe she’s a great example for upcoming aspiring artists.
I'm a big fan of H.E.R. and I think our sounds are related to bringing back what we all grew up on and what inspired us. We’re not even trying but it's not even a conscious decision, it's just like the music we love to make.
“Best Part” is my favorite H.E.R song. I love that she made a classic love song and not many people can do that anymore. She’s a strong leader in the movement that is putting female R&B at the forefront of the music industry right now.
I worked with her once, she’s real laid back and chill. I like her energy and her passion for music. Everything starts with the music. I feel like R&B is going in a good direction right now, and as long as young artists continue to put out solid bodies of work, the genre will continue to thrive in this new age of the music era. Right now, I’m liking “Carried Away.” I like the melodies, the guitar, the mix on the record is solid. Reminds me of some old Justin Timberlake.
Musician and inventor of TrapHouseJazz
I love when a real musician, a real vocalist, and a real songwriter wins. She’s real kind, genuine and a timeless human being.
I don’t mean to be predictable but I LOVE “Focus!” It’s the VIBE! The energy, the emotion, her voice, her runs, her tone. And the production by my brother DJ Camper. I think the fans love H.E.R.’s musicality, her sultry tone, her runs, what’s she’s talking about. Women can relate with her truth. She provides a vibe for sure. She definitely fills a void that we’ve been missing in music from a woman.
And the future of R&B, we’re back after they said the genre had died. I’m proud to be a part of the resurgence. We all come with our own take on R&B.
Grammy-winning singer and producer
I was in L.A. for the Grammys and I am guessing it was 2013. At that time she was Gabi and I came downstairs in my hotel and Gabi and her manager Suzette Williams were down there. I guess Gabi was 15 or something. Her manager came over to me and said, “I have a singer and she really loves your music. Would you mind going over to her to chat and take a photo?”
So I went over there and I met her and we took a picture. Her manager said, “She looks up to you a lot,” and so I gave Gabi my email and told her to send me some music. Push came to shove two years later and I ended up doing the Nina Revisited... A Tribute to Nina Simone project with Suzette as an executive producer. She shared on the first day that Gabi was doing her debut show at SOBs in New York so I surprised her and shared how proud I was. I didn’t see her anymore after then. A year later, my manager gets an email from Gabi’s people asking to clear one of my trio songs for her first EP which turned out to be H.E.R.
I just remember being in awe of her when she was at SOBs as a teenager. She took the music so seriously and she played every instrument and I felt back then, “Yo, she is gonna save the genre of R&B.” I said that back then because even talking to her she is an old head. She is a super old head and she has so much reverence for the history of music in general and not just R&B, but definitely R&B as well.
My favorite song thus far by H.E.R. would be “Focus”... that’s truly every woman’s desire. They want a man’s undivided attention so the concept alone draws you in and is very relatable. H.E.R. is extremely gifted, she writes, she plays, she’s a strong live performer as well. I also love that her new success has opened doors for true traditional R&B to be propelled once again, back into mainstream audiences.
My respect level for an artist such as H.E.R. is at such a peak level because she cares and it shows. Only someone with a deep understanding and admiration for music and creativity can create the way she does. H.E.R.’s ability to sing from her soul but to also play so many instruments from the bottom of her soul speaks to her God-given talent. “Focus” was my introduction to her and I look forward to focusing and enjoying H.E.R.
Visual Director for H.E.R.
“Losing” is my favorite record by H.E.R. Sonically, it’s such an amazing record and personally, we’ve all been there before. This generation needed music that we could say ‘You don’t know nothin bout dis here.’ 20 years from now to our kids. H.E.R. provides that. I like that we’re growing every day and that the band we’re delivering to the masses is one my family and I can be proud of.
It was amazing touring with H.E.R. last year. It was great to watch her interact with her people, her band and just how she controls it and she is just like, ‘This is what I want, this is when I want it, this is how I want it.’ My favorite had to be coming out on her set and singing “Could've Been” together because we just get in the moment. It was great being a part of that because that's a real artist and I took a lot from that.
Actor and singer-songwriter
My favorite song from H.E.R. is “Focus” because her voice sounds like butter. Fans love that her raw talent shines through her music, there is no gimmick behind H.E.R..
“Focus” has to be one of my favorite songs. It puts you in such a trance. One of those simply beautiful and classic feeling R&B records. I love that she’s got this laid back down-to-earth real energy and is bringing musicality and real vocal talent back in an amazing way. ~ Jessica
“Say It Again” is that song for me. I get so many feels every time, because I can relate to the lyrics. I love that she is herself and has stayed true to who she is as an artist. She’s given us great music thus far, and I’m excited for her next release. I feel like the future of R&B is in good hands. I like how authentic everyone is when it comes to expressing their art. There are so many dope R&B artists out right now. It feels like a renaissance. ~ Ivana
Grammy-winning artist and producer
H.E.R. is that rare artist who is also a super talented musician. She took her time and perfected the craft. Her genuine dedication to real music is reflected in all of her songs.