EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: H.E.R. talks to HNHH about gaining respect as a female musician, performing with icons like Sting and Aerosmith, and refusing to be put into a box.
Increasing fame and exposure offers up greater opportunity to be recognized, both literally and in the form of industry accolades. Despite her identity becoming more and more public as she experiences heightened success, H.E.R. actually welcomes this chance for the world to see more of herself, in an organic way. Besides, the concept of “H.E.R.” was never meant to serve as some sort of mask or alter ego, she tells us. “H.E.R. is me,” she says. “It’s me in my ultimate form…it’s the deeper me, and it’s never [been] a problem of separating myself from H.E.R. because that is who I am.”
Read our exclusive interview with the musician below, conducted in April 2020 and edited for length and clarity.
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HotNewHipHop: Hi H.E.R.! How are you?
H.E.R.: Hi. I’m good, how are you?
I’m good! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. How have you been doing? It seems like such a crazy question to ask during these circumstances.
I know, I know. I think everybody’s experiencing it differently. I’m just thankful and trying to stay positive and inspired. I’ve been cooking a lot. Just trying to get through it. It’s a completely different lifestyle, you know, from before. I was always on the go and traveling and now it’s kind of a big change to just be in the house everyday, so I’m just trying to find ways to stay busy.
Yeah, that’s good. I’m glad to hear that you’re keeping busy and finding the time to do things you don’t normally get to do. That’s kind of the silver lining. So I wanted to ask you about this moment that a lot of female artists are having in R&B right now. As a prominent female artist in R&B who’s had so much success and been such a driving force in the genre these days, have you noticed this recent wave of female artists thriving in this space? If so, why do you think it’s happening now? What do you think brought this on?
Yeah, I’m definitely noticing it, and I’m loving it. It kind of reminds me of the 90s. I think every era has a big roar of all these queens being the leaders and really leading the culture and I think it’s really dope. I’m not sure what it might be. I know for me, I just have felt like I’ve become this voice for young women and I feel like there was a void at some point of not having those necessarily honest and vulnerable lyrics. I felt like I became one of those people that could be that voice and represent women and that vulnerability and disenfranchisement. All these women who are out represent something different. It’s really dope to see because it’s just not one thing. Women are not one thing. There is no mold of what a woman should be or what a female artist should be and I think every artist is representing something different and it’s dope. We’re the leaders.
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Absolutely. So this doesn’t have to be a concrete yes or no, but would you say women are dominating R&B right now? Why or why not?
I mean, yeah, I think so. Women are definitely dominating R&B and I think it just has to do with those vulnerable lyrics and saying things that some people are afraid to say. We say it loud and proud and we say it even if it’s uncomfortable. I love the fact that there are so many women who, like I said, represent different things. You know, the men gotta step it up because we’re quite working hard. We’re just killing it right now.
Absolutely. So to speak to this incredible moment that so many female artists are having right now—you’ve been at this for awhile now, having started so young, and I’m so happy for all of your success.
You’re so welcome. What would you say are some of the obstacles that you’ve faced that you feel are particular to yourself as a female artist and as an artist in R&B that male artists or artists in other genres may not necessarily face?
Well, I will say number one is being a female artist who is young and Black. I’m not expected to be able to pick up a guitar. I’m not gonna say any names, but a lot of people from the beginning said, “oh, you shouldn’t play guitar on stage, it’s gonna go over people’s heads, people aren’t gonna get it.” But this is who I am, this is who I’ve always been, this is what makes me unique. I’m a musician. I’m a Black, young, female musician. Someone I looked up to growing up was Alicia Keys because she was also a musician. Any performance I would do, even as a kid, I never sang to track. I brought my guitar, or I brought my bass, or I brought my keys and I would play a song, so I’ve always felt a little underestimated in certain rooms. Some people would look and say, “whose kid is this?” But then I pick up the guitar and it’s like “oh, okay!” So, sometimes, it’s a blessing and a curse to be underestimated and to be able to prove yourself. But I’ve definitely had to work hard to get people to listen.
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I am R&B at the core, I’ll always be R&B, but I think that the lines are so blurred with the genres nowadays. I make music for everybody and I make music that represents so many different things. It’s definitely gonna be R&B to the core, that’s where my roots are, but now I’ve done a song with Ed Sheeran and I hopefully will be working with Chris Martin very soon who I’m a huge fan of. I’ve just been able to do so many things, like I’ve performed with Aerosmith. Going back to the fact that as women, we aren’t one thing, and I think as an artist, I represent so many different things and so many different types of people, and that’s the goal: to make music for everybody, ‘cause to me, there’s only two genres and it’s good and bad music (laughs). So it’s just about not being put in a box as women, and not being labeled as anything, and being able to do what you want and say what you want and represent what you want.
Amazing. So you kind of spoke to this when you said you would show up with your guitar and say, “this is who I am and this is what I want to do,” but are there any other kinds of expectations that people would put on you as you were coming up in the industry, as far as, “this is what you have to be, these are the things that you are going to need to say, do, and wear, and these are the things that you’re going to need to do in order to succeed in the lane that you’re in”?
Yeah, that was the ultimate thing, honestly everything that you said. When I came out, I did the exact opposite of what everybody says you need [to do], and that is to be whatever the “full package” means: who you’re dating, what you’re wearing, and who you look like. I totally just dropped the music anonymously without anybody knowing what I look like or how old I am, or my ethnicity, or anything. Nobody knew. I think that’s probably the biggest way that I went against the grain—[by] making music the focus. I just knew that this was the way I wanted to release this super honest music, and I really wanted people to care about the music again. I think at the time, a lot of people really didn’t care about the music. It was about the looks and it was about all these other things. To me, as a musician, I just really love music and I wanted that to be the forefront of my artistry, and I think I did that.
Now, I think when you come to my live shows and you see how much pride I take in the process of just creating songs and creating a live show, that’s who I am. So definitely, in the beginning, there were those expectations of like, “so, what’s your look?” and “what’s your brand?” and all these things. I am the brand, just simply being me. My music was the message, and that’s all I needed.
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So you decided to go by a moniker in order to have this level of anonymity with your identity. Why did you decide to go by H.E.R., or Having Everything Revealed? Why was it that moniker specifically? Was there a significance to the obviously female association of the female pronoun?
Well, it was the idea of growing up as a teenager and just the evolution of becoming a young woman, you know? Going through certain things, and me being super emotional and saying things like, “oh, I’ll never go through this” or “I’ll never be that girl who does this or feels this.” But at the end of the day, a lot of it is just a part of life, and some of the things that we go through are unavoidable. You have to go through things in order to grow. So I always said, “I’ll never be that girl,” [but] I ended up being “her,” I ended up being that girl. Sometimes, we think we’re not gonna be this person, or we try to put these expectations on ourselves and it’s like, “nope, this is who I am. I’m her!”
It means Having Everything Revealed and I feel like I started to be more honest and more vulnerable in my music and I started to have everything revealed in my music.
You said earlier that you wanted to bring the focus back on the music, and when [people] come to your shows [they] feel that. In a really big way, having this anonymity has really helped you to do what you wanted to do with your career and has really helped people to connect with you. Has going by this moniker and having a level of anonymity affected you negatively in any way or caused any kinds of obstacles? Has there ever been a time where you just wished that you hadn’t decided to do this or you wanted to open up more to the public as yourself, or has it always been something that has felt right to you and that you want to continue doing?
Well, the idea of being H.E.R. was never—I think one thing that some people might mistake it for is another personality, or a cover up, or like a persona. But really, H.E.R. is me. It’s me in my ultimate form. It’s the easiest way and the most, I should say, obvious me. It’s the deeper me, and it’s never [been] a problem of separating myself from H.E.R. because that is who I am. So, I mean, the only thing that would be different is my name.
I think lately, it’s kind of been organically opening up, and sometimes I am apprehensive just because of who I am. I do live a private life. I’ve kind of always been a loner who goes by my own rules and I’ve always been different from everyone and felt like it was tough to relate. I’ve always been about the music. That was what I was thinking about when I was sitting in class, in school—just music. My fun time is the stage and the studio. I’ve never had any issue with feeling like I was trapped because I feel like I found who I am and I’m still creating who I am everyday. That’s the beautiful thing about it—it’s who I’ve grown up to be and who I’ve grown into. There is no issue because I’m so proud and happy of how I’ve set up my music and how, now, I’m respected as a musician and still getting respected as an artist and musician and writer. Like I said, you’re organically seeing a lot more of me, so it has been a very good process and fun process.
Good, I’m glad to hear it. So you were speaking about being respected as an artist and receiving that respect from others around you, and it’s incredible how much recognition you’ve gotten from the industry—you have two Grammy wins from 2019, and you were nominated five times at this year’s ceremony. What did these types of acknowledgements mean to you as an artist and as a woman in music in general? Does it motivate you in any way or change the way that you approach music, or is it always just you authentically? Because you’ve spoken about how much your music is you and that it’s your way of expressing yourself completely and authentically, do these kinds of acknowledgments from the Recording Academy and winning these awards influence or affect the way you approach music, or is it just something that’s maybe an honour but doesn’t necessarily affect how you make your music?
Yeah, I mean, the thing is, it definitely is what you said about it being an honour. I think there’s different types of acknowledgements and there’s different types of respect, and I think that when it comes to the awards that’s like, the cherry on top, you know? You don’t necessarily need them to know that you’re an amazing artist. You don’t really need them for that confirmation. You have to know that yourself before any of that comes. You have to look in the mirror everyday and say, “Wow. This is who I am, this is what I do, and I’m proud of it and I love it.”
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So that’s one, but I think that it is a pinnacle in my career and it’s been such a blessing and an amazing thing to be recognized by the Recording Academy. A lot of the people that are on the board that respect me are musicians that I’ve looked up to growing up, and that’s the amazing thing about it. I think that’s kind of where I’m coming from as far as acknowledgment and respect—being able to be on the stage with a Sting or an Aerosmith or meeting Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who said that I was amazing and that Prince would’ve loved me. Those kinds of things are so ridiculous to me and kind of make it even more real for me. Not to mention performing with Sheila E., like all of those things are so special to me, and that’s really how I know that I’m doing something right.
On top of that is the impact that I think I’ve had on young women in the world, and in my artistry, in my live shows and [with] the fans. That is another thing that makes me feel like, “wow, I’ve really come so far and I’m so proud.” It’s amazing what music can do, what music can heal. Somebody came up to me at a meet and greet and said, “You know you saved me. I wanted to take my life and I listened to your music and it helped me get through.” Those are also the moments that really make it worth it. Like, wow, okay, I’ve been given this gift through music to heal and to make people feel something, to get through a break up, to feel happy, to want to dance, to want to love, to want to have a great time. There’s all these things that just make it real for me and make it feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I think those are definitely the levels of it.
Absolutely. You know it’s so clear to me that your music is a very personal thing and you use it not only to express your own feelings and your own life, but to really connect with people. You’ve spoken a lot about reaching out to other women and sort of being a source of inspiration and a way to represent women and make them feel heard, and you talk about things like feminism and gender equality in your music. The first song that comes to mind is “Lost Souls” off your album, I Used To Know Her. Is talking about these things and exploring these topics in your music a conscious effort on your part, or does it just feel natural?
Yeah. Some things feel natural, you know? It’s always how I’m feeling. “Lost Souls” was really just, like, the frustration of what social media sometimes promotes and just the silly things that we see that become news. Sometimes the real doesn’t prevail—I mean, I think it does at the end of the day, but sometimes it feels like the real is still so far out of reach. The underdog is still super underestimated, and being real and being honest and not having to fake something for likes or for attention. Sometimes I just feel certain things and I want to speak about them, especially with “Lost Souls” or even “Lord Is Coming.” In “Lord Is Coming,” it just felt very natural, especially with the bassline, it just felt like the mood and with what’s going on in the world today. It’s political but it’s not, you know? And it’s real and it’s honest, and sometimes those are just the perspectives that I have in life, and I think I Used to Know Her really represents that. It’s like my different kinds of perspectives that I’ve grown over time this far in life.
Sort of shifting gears a bit, but still in the realm of your music, I actually spoke to a producer that you’ve worked with really closely, Swagg R’Celious, a while back about working with you on your albums and what that process and that working relationship has been like. So if you don’t mind speaking to that collaborative relationship and how you came to work together and the impact that your collaborative relationship has had on your music.
Yeah, I mean, Swagg and I, we’ve actually been close, like brother and sister, since I was like 11 years old, or maybe 12? Really, really young. He’s always understood me, and he’s always been somebody that I could just talk to and has helped me grow. I think he might have been an intern when I met him.
I think that’s what he said. Yeah, I think he said that.
Yeah. So we’ve just grown together in general, in our careers and even in our writing and producing and everything. He used to vocal produce me a lot and we’ve just grown. And I currently am missing being in the studio with him right now. It kind of sucks being in quarantine, but we still get in our FaceTime sessions and we’ve still been working, and I’m very thankful for Swagg. He’s like a big brother to me.
Well I’m glad that you can still FaceTime and stuff, because I’m sure it’s really difficult not to be able to get in the studio and cook something up right now.
Yeah, yeah, it’s definitely tough, but you know we work around it, and we do what we gotta do. I think that we’ve grown a lot together. I remember the first time I went to Nashville was with him and we just had a great time. That’s what I love about working with Swagg is how much fun we have making music. I can’t work with people if they’re not having fun and not loving what they do.
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For sure. So you mentioned earlier that Alicia Keys was a really big influence on you and you really looked up to her as an artist. Who else comes to mind when you think of female artists who have influenced you, in any genre or any sphere? Is there anyone in particular who you’ve taken specific inspiration from or whose style or sound has really influenced you that you’ve tried to emulate in some way?
I wouldn’t say emulate, but there are so many artists who I’ve been inspired by, like Lauryn Hill and Aretha Franklin. There are so many different artists that I love. Whitney [Houston] was a big one, Mary J. Blige, even Aaliyah. Alicia Keys was the biggest one, I think, but so many different artists, I don’t even know—Amy Winehouse. Those were some of my favorites growing up.
I’m sure a lot of those answers would apply to this question as well, but who comes to mind when you think of female artists throughout history who have paved the way for artists like yourself and so many other female artists to succeed today? How has the landscape changed in order for female artists to succeed in this day and age?
Definitely all of those artists that I mentioned [have] paved the way. I think the biggest thing is just that artists know now that I can just be authentically myself and I don’t have to do anything. I think all these artists that I mentioned recognized something in themselves that made them realize, “this is what’s gonna make me different and that my superpower is being different.” I think with all these new female artists, it’s exactly what I mentioned earlier about just being yourself. I think we’re starting to see through a lot of the facades and see what’s fake, what’s real and what’s not. It’s easier to tell, which is a blessing because it makes it easier for artists to just be themselves and be able to shine and show what makes them different and that there is no mold. We come in all different shapes and sizes and colours and genres and lyrics, and all these different things that make us unique. There’s space for everybody, especially with streaming. We live in a playlist-based world now and we can have all these different artists and all these different styles on one playlist. That’s the reality of how people listen to music now, it’s not just one thing.
That’s actually a really good point about the streaming era making room for all these different types of artists and like you said, it’s not necessarily about genre, it’s more just about the kind of music you want to make and those barriers are kind of falling down now, which is incredible.
Absolutely, but at the same time people will say things like R&B is not that, R&B is rhythm & blues and R&B is real lyrics and it’s raw emotion. I’m starting to see a lot of that, so it’s definitely not dead, it’s super alive and well. Pieces of soul are in R&B, and you hear people singing soulfully like Ari Lennox who’s really dope, who are proving that R&B is not dead and people do want to hear real voices, people do want to hear people singing on records. Even Queen Naija, who kind of reminds me of like a new Keyshia Cole, she kind of gives me that vibe of representing those girls. There’s just no limit for us.
So I just have one last question. I don’t know if this would be putting you on the spot to think of something, but what would you say is the best advice that you’ve received about succeeding as an artist—as a female artist, as an artist who started in R&B, any of the above—and how did you apply it in order to succeed?
I would say Tyrese said something and this is something I live by. He said, “God honors those that stay the path” and I’ve lived by those words because it’s so true. People can come in and influence your decisions and say, “you should be doing this” or “you should say this” or “you should do that,” but I always stay true to who I am. That’s the biggest credit I can give to my success is just staying true to who I am and not letting anybody tell me who I need to be or what I should be doing and just sticking to my gut and sticking to my vision.
That’s definitely a good piece of advice, I will say. So I think that’s all I had to ask you today, but thank you so much, this was amazing. You are a wealth of knowledge.
Thank you, thank you so much.
You’re welcome. I wish you all the best and I hope that we can all get through this weird and crazy time together, and I look forward to everything you do in the future.
Thank you, it was great speaking with you.
You as well! Have a good day, bye.
Alright bye. You too.