H.E.R. Is A 'Soul Baby' With A Social Conscience

Apr 6, 2021
Originally published on April 7, 2021 1:20 am

She's only 23 years old, but H.E.R. speaks like a music industry veteran – and, in many ways, truly is one. The accolades piling up around her attest: The day after the singer won her fourth Grammy Award for the song "I Can't Breathe" from her album of the same name, she and her co-writers were nominated for an Oscar for the song "Fight For You," from the movie Judas and the Black Messiah. She plays multiple instruments, has performed at numerous high-profile events, including Super Bowl LV, the Emmy Awards and the 51st NAACP Awards (for which she received multiple nominations), not to mention NPR's Tiny Desk (which sits at 16+ million views and counting).

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"When I came out the womb, there were instruments in the living room," H.E.R. laughs, remembering jamming with her father's cover band when she was a little girl growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. By day, her father worked construction and her mother was, and still is, a nurse. But music was the dominant pastime.

"Most days, my dad and I were in the kitchen, he was cooking breakfast and I would be watching a Prince concert DVD." Among the artists on the family playlist, H.E.R. ticks off a long list: Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Chaka Khan, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton... "Even AC/DC," she says. "I really just was very inspired by all of these artists to become a musician. And it was a given for me."

At age 10, little Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson – H.E.R.'s birth name – played piano and sang an Alicia Keys cover on The Today Show, wowing the show's anchors with the confidence of a seasoned performer.

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Her co-writers on both "I Can't Breathe" and "Fight For You" are Tiara Thomas and D'Mile, a producer-musician whose long list of credits includes work on albums by Justin Bieber, Usher and Lucky Daye. H.E.R. says Thomas and D'Mile are artists she relies on for both creative and emotional support. "Me and Tiara, we have conversations all the time about our own pain and things that we go through. We have that comfort and that safe zone in the studio together." As for D'Mile, "I don't even have to say much to him. He just gets it," she says.

D'Mile smiles when he confirms that, yes, they speak the same musical language, and it doesn't take much in the way of explanation when they're in the studio together. "I just feel like there's another me in the room," he says.

D'Mile also grew up in a musical family, playing multiple instruments at a young age. While he says H.E.R.'s musicianship is undeniable, he believes it's her songwriting that makes her "unique." Recalling the process of writing "I Can't Breathe," an impassioned response to police brutality towards Black life: "That really came from her heart," he says. "Everybody could talk about love, which is ... important. But she knows how to get deeper."

Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and William O'Neal, the FBI informant who infiltrated the Panthers and gave authorities information that ultimately lead to Hampton's assassination in 1969. Before writing the song, H.E.R, D'Mile and Tiara Thomas watched an early version of the movie together. H.E.R. says, afterwards, she felt angry.

"It kind of left me, like, 'Wow, I didn't even know this. How come I didn't know that?' " Though she definitely knew the music from the era. "I'm a soul baby. That's like my favorite time in music," she says. Drawing inspiration from songs by artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, "Fight For You" feels like a bridge to the late 1960s, with triumphant opening horns, H.E.R.'s sultry, storytelling and a swaying, late-Motown-style chorus.

While the music is hopeful, the lyrics address the trauma of oppression and take aim at the people who killed Fred Hampton:

All the smoke in the air

Feel the hate when they stare

All the pain that we bear

Oh, you better beware

Their guns don't play fair

All we got is a prayer

It was all in their plans

Wash the blood from your hands

"Everything was on purpose, because they were trying to stop change from happening. And that's still happening today," H.E.R. observes of the film's depiction of FBI propaganda and its sowing of divisions within the Black community.

Before she started working on the song, she had a conversation with director Shaka King. He says he didn't give her much guidance. But he did have one request: "No gospel."

"I feel like a lot of times when you make movies that take place during this time period, there's this instinct to add this sort of gospel choir like music," says King. "And I completely wanted to avoid that sort of musical trope." He says H.E.R. laughed when he made the request. "She knew exactly what I was talking about," says King.

King is thrilled with how Fight For You turned out. He believes it's hopeful tone, coming at the end of a grim story about the horrors of injustice, might leave audiences with "a sense of 'They can't stop us.' "

For H.E.R.'s part, she admits she started making music simply because she wanted to. Now, with millions of fans around the world, she's taking the power of her platform seriously.

"My responsibility as an artist is to say the things that sit in the back of people's minds, because they sit in mine."


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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One song nominated for an Oscar this year is "Fight For You" from the movie "Judas And The Black Messiah." It's a film about Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was assassinated in 1969. The song is reminiscent of the era.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT FOR YOU")

HER: (Singing) Freedom for my brothers. Freedom 'cause they judge us. Freedom from the others. Freedom from the leaders, they keepin' us.

SHAPIRO: It's sung by the artist known as H.E.R. And the Oscar nomination comes on the heels of a Grammy that H.E.R. won for a song called "I Can't Breathe." NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this profile.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Fred Hampton rallied different multiracial groups to fight poverty and police brutality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")

DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Fred Hampton) The Black Panthers, the Young Lords and the Young Patriots are forming a Rainbow Coalition.

BLAIR: "Judas And The Black Messiah" also tells the story of the FBI informant whose information led to Hampton's killing. Before writing the song, H.E.R. saw an early version of the movie with her two co-writers, D'Mile and Tiara Thomas.

HER: We all watched it together in the studio and kind of, like, left with, like, a, you know, wow, I didn't even know this. I didn't even know. How come I didn't know that?

BLAIR: What she did know was the music from the era.

HER: I'm a soul baby. That's, like, my favorite time in music.

BLAIR: Drawing inspiration from artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, the song they came up with feels like a bridge to the late 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF H.E.R. SONG, "FIGHT FOR YOU")

BLAIR: The music is hopeful, but the lyrics are about the trauma of oppression.

HER: All the smoke in the air, all the pain that we bear. Feel the hate when they stare. Oh, you better beware. Their guns don't play fair.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT FOR YOU")

HER: (Singing) All we got is a prayer. It was all in their plans. Wash the blood from your hands.

BLAIR: What do you mean by, it was all in their plans?

HER: Well, you saw that the federal agents and how they were turning a lot of the Black communities against each other and they were printing these false quotes and how they were spreading them to other communities to try to divide us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH")

KHRIS DAVIS: (As Steel) Somebody dumped a whole bunch of these pamphlets on our front yard the other day, and I just thought they might be of interest to you.

HER: Everything was on purpose because they were trying to stop change from happening, and that's still happening today.

BLAIR: And what's happening today is inspiring H.E.R.'s music. In response to police brutality and the taking of Black lives, she co-wrote "I Can't Breathe."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T BREATHE")

HER: (Singing) What is a gun to a man that surrenders? What's it gonna take for someone to defend her? If we all agree that we're equal as people, then why can't we see what is evil?

BLAIR: "I Can't Breathe" was also co-written with D'Mile and Tiara Thomas, two artists H.E.R. relies on for both creative and emotional support.

HER: Me and Tiara, we have conversations all the time about our own pain and things that we go through. We have that comfort and that safe zone, you know, in the studio together so - and D'Mile's the same thing. I don't even have to say much to him. He just gets it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T BREATHE")

HER: (Singing) I can't breathe. You're taking my life from me. I can't breathe.

BLAIR: H.E.R. was born Gabi Wilson and raised near San Francisco. Her mother is a nurse, and her father worked construction. He was also in a band that played gigs throughout her childhood.

HER: When I came out the womb, there were instruments in the living room, and the band was there every weekend. And most days, my dad and I were in the kitchen. He was cooking breakfast, and I would be watching Prince concert DVDs and, you know, Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige and Eric Clapton and Alicia Keys.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HER: (Singing) Ooh (ph).

BLAIR: When Gabi Wilson was 10 years old, she performed an Alicia Keys song on NBC's "The Today Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HER: (Singing) Some people live for the fortune. Some people live just for the fame.

BLAIR: H.E.R. plays multiple instruments and was nominated for multiple NAACP Image Awards. Before she started working on the song for "Judas And The Black Messiah," she had a conversation with director Shaka King. His only rule was no gospel.

SHAKA KING: I feel like a lot of times when you make movies that take place during this time period, there's this instinct to add this sort of gospel choir-like music, and I completely wanted to avoid that musical trope.

BLAIR: What did she think of that request, just no gospel?

KING: She laughed. She knew exactly what I was talking about (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT FOR YOU")

HER: (Singing) Freedom gon' keep us strong. Freedom if you just hold on. Freedom ain't free at all, oh no. I'm gon' see it through.

BLAIR: H.E.R. understands that the subject matter of "Judas And The Black Messiah" is too important for cliches.

HER: My responsibility as an artist is really to say the things that sit in the back of people's minds and - because they sit in mine.

BLAIR: H.E.R. says she's excited about being nominated for an Oscar and honored to be part of telling Fred Hampton's story.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DZIHAN AND KAMIEN'S "AY AY AY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.