Doing it H.E.R. way: R&B singer rises as focus remains on the music
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When Gabi Wilson is H.E.R. — her R&B singer stage name — she is usually rocking big hair and big sunglasses, rarely showing her full face to her fans.
The point is to give the public one simple thing to focus on: the music.
Other days, her hair is pulled into a ponytail or a bun, and her face is clear. Like the time she was being driven in an Uber with a friend when “Best Part,” her Top 5 R&B hit, came on the radio.
“I love that song ‘Best Part,’ ” H.E.R. recalls the driver, a man in his 60s, saying. “It reminds me of my wife.”
“I wanted to cry,” she says. “It was so special.”
That anonymity proved two things for the singer: Her choice to release music without giving too much detail about her life worked. And her fan base isn’t just teenagers — R&B purists love her, too.
Since Sony’s RCA Records announced H.E.R. mysteriously in 2016, she has become a rising R&B star.
Songs like “Best Part,” ”Focus” and “Losing” perfectly blend the alternative R&B sound that’s popular today with the traditional R&B sound that some feel is missing from the contemporary music scene.
Her first two EPs — “H.E.R., Vol. 1” and “H.E.R., Vol. 2” — gave her an immediate fan base won over by the honest lyrics and vibey melodies, as she sang about complicated relationships and love lapses. Most people probably wouldn’t realize from hearing the music that she turned 21 just months ago.
“The way that I released the music did exactly what I wanted it to, which was make people just listen to the music,” says H.E.R., which stands for “Having Everything Revealed.” ”Just listen to the message for what it is because we tend to listen with our eyes sometimes. …I don’t want people to love my music because of what I look like or who I know or whatever.
“I feel like maybe some people wouldn’t have accepted the music if they knew I was 19,” says H.E.R., who was that age when her first EP dropped. “Some people, they make these assumptions before they even listen to the music.”
“Vol. 1” was named iTunes’ R&B album of 2016. She earned a nomination for best new artist at the 2017 Soul Train Awards.
This year, she reached the Top 10 of the R&B charts with “Could’ve Been,” the gold-selling “Focus” and the platinum hit “Best Part,” a duet with Daniel Caesar. She has seven nominations for the upcoming Soul Train Awards, making her the most-nominated act. She opened on the road for Chris Brown and is launching her second headlining tour.
She’s Apple Music’s latest “Up Next” artist, ranking sixth among R&B acts on the streaming platform. Her success has been so major that a male singer has copied her likeness and released songs under the name H.I.M.
H.E.R. grew up in the San Francisco Bay area to a black father and Filipino mother. She was introduced to the public as a piano prodigy at 10, appearing on the “Today” show and covering Alicia Keys’ music.
She was signed by Sony at 14 and says that although she wanted to release music at times — she did try with the song “Something to Prove” in 2014 under Gabi Wilson — she appreciates the time she had to develop as an artist and to work on songwriting and grow as a pianist, drummer and guitar (she plays electric, acoustic and bass guitar).
Keys, who met H.E.R. over a decade ago, had similar beginnings: She was signed as a teenager and didn’t release her first song, the No. 1 hit “Fallin’,” until she was 20 in 2001.
“I saw H.E.R. developing as an artist, and she really had this thing about her that was so exciting because it was such serious musicianship,” says Keys. “And then fast-forwarding now, X amount years later, to where she is now and seeing that all come together, I think the beauty of that is the fact that she was really able to take her time and be an artist and develop and be a young girl. Her eyes and her destiny have always been on this place and needed to land in this world. And it’s only going to get brighter, bigger and better.”
This year, H.E.R. released her second pair of EPs, titled “I Used to Know Her” parts 1 and 2. A full album is expected next year.
She is even starting to reveal more of herself: In the music video for “Could’ve Been,” you can see her face.
“At this point, even if you see my face or know who I am, it doesn’t matter because you already love the music,” H.E.R. says.