The artist known as H.E.R. offers a glimpse behind the shades

click to enlarge Nothing compares 2 H.E.R.: Gabriella Wilson. - TIM SACCENTI
Tim Saccenti
Nothing compares 2 H.E.R.: Gabriella Wilson.

You don't have to go too far down the YouTube rabbit hole to find a video of a then-10-year-old Bay Area native Gabriella "Gabi" Wilson performing Alicia Keys's "No One" on The Today Show in 2007. In the segment, titled "She's got talent!", Wilson answers questions from behind a black grand piano about being a straight-A student, her complete lack of stage fright, and what it feels like when she performs, to which she replies "comfortable."

In 2021, Wilson, now 24, performs as H.E.R. (which stands for "Having Everything Revealed"), and is not only still comfortable as a performer — she's one of the biggest names in music, as accurately predicted by The Today Show's Hoda Kotb.

H.E.R. has been on this musical path since, she says, the womb.

"I always knew that this life was a given since I was a baby and I realized that more every single day," she says. "I believe everybody has a purpose if you really pay attention, and you work hard, and try to reach your full potential. ... I've always nurtured that and have been surrounded by people who nurtured it, so I've been really blessed, but since I was a kid, this is all I knew. This was always for me. I never knew anything else."

That nurturing? Well, it has worked (and then some). This year, H.E.R. has accomplished the following: Added a pair of Grammys to her pair of 2018 wins, this time, for Best R&B Song ("Better Than I Imagined") and Song of the Year for "I Can't Breathe," a powerful track that references the final words of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man who died by the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020; earned an Oscar for Best Original Song, "Fight For You," from the film Judas and the Black Messiah; performed "America the Beautiful" at Super Bowl LV; revealed that she will be making her acting debut in a film adaptation of The Color Purple musical; and released her debut album and a follow-up to her critically acclaimed five EPs, Back of My Mind, a sultry and stripped-down 21-track exploration of all the things H.E.R. has come to be known for: funky grooves, slow jams, and effortless versatility.

On the record, H.E.R. pushes her willingness to be vulnerable, yet offers but a glimpse behind the sunglasses (a signature accessory of the future EGOT). There has always been an air of mystery to H.E.R. — and it has always been by design. But now that the 14-time Grammy award nominee is now completely immersed in the spotlight, she's learning how to let the world in while still managing to maintain some semblance of privacy and agency. For H.E.R., it's a process.

"I mean, I'm still trying to figure it out," she says. "I try to be as truthful as possible, and sometimes it's an exaggerated version of the truth. I can be very dramatic and emotional, because I'm a Cancer, but you know the writing process — it's crazy to just naturally see an evolution within myself." She says her first few projects were more about feeling capable and focused and now, it's more internal, though she still suggests letting the mystery be.

"It's really like, this is who I am, this is what I wan. And that comes naturally with getting older and understanding who I am as a person and the things that I want," she says. "But I found a new confidence in [this most recent] album. I think I was just coming from that place. And all the songs were very reflective. I'm definitely learning, more so personally, like with social media, what to keep for myself and what to put out there. Like I always put everything in the music, and I'm pretty good at saying everything without saying anything at all. It's an interesting process that I'm in right now. But I'm definitely giving more because people feel more connected to my music."

Though being vulnerable is a newer hurdle, H.E.R. thrives under pressure — the pressure of deadlines, and tour, and rehearsal (or "re-HER-sal" as she refers to it on social media), as well as when it comes to using her gifts and platform to inspire change. In her most recent Grammy acceptance speech, she thanked God for giving her the "gift of a voice and a pen" and for using H.E.R. as "a vessel" to create change. In her Oscar acceptance speech, she promises to never stop fighting for "her people" and for what's right.

"I mean, honestly, it's kind of hard to put words to it or to call it something because I think as an artist and as a writer, a creative, I've been put into this world to better describe how people feel, to put words together to try and articulate the way we feel and the way that we think and the world around us," she says. "I just think I have a responsibility to always tell the truth and to always speak my truth."

She continues, "I just remember that God wouldn't give me anything I couldn't handle, and that everything that I'm doing, any challenge, is meant to keep me moving forward, you know, to get me to the next level. ... I love to be challenged."

Looking in the present (which is where you will most likely find H.E.R. at any given time), H.E.R. admits that she still feels like that 10-year-old girl belting Alicia Keys. She says if she could tell pint-sized Gabi one thing, it would be to "trust your instincts" and work to find the balance between student and teacher. She also reminds herself that this journey is not about perfection, it's about feeling.

"I think that's always been the most important thing for me, is to just stay grounded ... all of those accolades are amazing, but if all of this ends tomorrow, I will be happy," she says, adding, "But of course, the Oscars and Grammys are pretty great."

H.E.R. performs at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 28 at the Fox Theatre; 2525 Woodward Ave., 313-471-6611; Tickets are $175+.

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