H.E.R. is one soulful sista. She delivers vocal perfection with the instrumentation to back it up—that’s exactly why she’s EBONY’s June cover star. She’s a multi-talented artist who can play the drums, the piano and shred the guitar. Her presence as a Black female guitarist has brought visibility to Black women globally throughout history who have dominated the instrument but received little recognition. Below is a timeline of
BACK TO H.E.R. ROOTS
At just 24, trailblazing megastar H.E.R. has become one of the most prolific artists of her time, well on her way to an EGOT. Her musical roots run deep, and as we discover with her dad Kenny Wilson, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Story by Ronda Racha Penrice
Photography by Keith Major
H.E.R., sparkling in purple, performing with one of her music idols Lenny Kravitz, flexing all his rockstar badness in a bronze jumpsuit, on this year’s Grammy stage to his 1993 hit “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” a song she’s often performed solo, was much more than a memorable moment destined to be enshrined in the Grammy vault of great performances. For Kenny Wilson, H.E.R.’s dad, who began nurturing his daughter musically before she could basically walk, watching her trade guitar riffs with rocker Kravitz was a full circle moment.
“It was kind of surreal for me to see her on stage with Lenny Kravitz because I used to have her watch his concerts,” Wilson shares with EBONY. “Hey check out, Lenny. He sounds cool. He’s hip; he’s different. He’s Black, but he’s also rock, and he’s blues, and he’s totally funk,” he’d tell her. “You want to be in that lane,” he insisted, “because people forget that we invented rock & roll so let’s remind them.”
Wilson, who played music all his life, even leading the cover band Urban Bushmen in Vallejo, California, where H.E.R. was born and raised, confesses he never imagined his daughter, Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson—H.E.R’s given name—would share stages with the music legends he introduced her to as a kid. Truthfully, he was just looking for ways for him to bond with his first born. “Gabi was my first child. I think I was 28 when she was born and I was nervous about having a daughter,” he recalls. “I think one of the ways that I was able to bond with Gabi is through music.”
H.E.R., who began building a national name for herself as a musical prodigy as early as age 10, starting with a dazzling 2007 appearance on the Today Show featuring her soulful rendition of Alicia Keys 2003 hit “If I Ain’t Got You,” knows her dad has been pivotal to her success. All those times her dad’s band played their family parties or set up in their backyard just to jam is partially responsible for getting her here.
“I was able to learn about so many different styles of music and so much history in music because of him,” the Filipina and Black soul singer tells EBONY. “Because of his love for music and him telling me about visiting Jimi Hendrix’s grave in Seattle—all those stories and all those lessons were just so fascinating to me—I think they really carried me into this life, into this journey I have now.”
Because karaoke, accompanied by the Magic Mic programmed with hundreds of songs, is a communal staple, H.E.R., when she was younger, regularly put on a show for family and friends. As she got better, she began performing with her dad and his band at gigs like the annual Vallejo Juneteenth Celebration and the Listen & Be Heard Poetry Café. Still Wilson says he didn’t realize how truly musically gifted his daughter was until a certain one-gloved icon began to take notice.
“Gabi was, I want to say, 12. We were in L.A. at a recording studio owned by [producer] Rodney Jerkins [a.k.a. Darkchild],” he shares. “Rodney had been talking to Michael about Gabi. We said bye to Rodney and got in our car. And as we were at a red light right across from the studio, he ran up to our car and [said] ‘Roll the window down, roll the window down, Gabi. There’s somebody that wants to talk to you.”
“We’re like ‘what the heck is going on?’ And he put the phone in her hand; it was on speakerphone and a voice came on [and said,] ‘Hey Gabi, this is Michael. I’ve been watching your YouTube videos. Rodney’s been telling me all about you.’ And we’re like, ‘Michael who?’ Who’s Michael?’ So Rodney’s like ‘Michael Jackson!’ It was surreal. Her mom was crying, ‘I love you, Michael!’
“He was like, ‘Oh you guys should come by the house. We can barbecue. We can hang out. We can talk. He was like, ‘You remind me so much of myself when I was a little kid, Gabi.’ I think that was another moment in her life that I’m like, ‘Oh okay, if Michael Jackson is calling to talk to my daughter, maybe there’s something going on here,’” adds Wilson.
Exhibiting virtuosity as both a musician and singer, he says she performed songs with the passion typically birthed out of lived experience. “I had been around a lot of children that played music, but none of them really had that old, feel like they’ve been here before vibe. Like how are you feeling this music so deeply and you’re only nine years old? I recognized early on that she had a really old soul.”
I was able to learn about so many different styles of music because of my dad. His love for music carried me into this journey I have now.
As for his daughter’s music career today, Wilson, who looks forward to retiring in the next year or so after 31 years as an ironworker, is proudly hands off. When they come together, they often go fishing like they did when she was a kid. When he does speak to her about the industry, it’s to remind her “that the record label—those people—work for you.”
Hence, the decision to use the acronym H.E.R., which stands for Having Everything Revealed, instead of Gabi Wilson professionally and don sunglasses partially blocking her face to refocus attention on her talent, not her looks or her personal life, was all hers. “I had to figure out who I was as an artist. Just because you sing and play instruments, that doesn’t make you an artist,” explains the I Used to Know Her singer. “Knowing who I was going to become, and what I was going to create, and how that was authentically me, knowing what that looks like, it took time. I had to take time to figure out who that was going to be, and it had to come from me.”
Her dad’s early guidance, she feels, has empowered her to stand in her artistic integrity in the tough music industry. “He always taught me my value—that’s key in life and especially in this industry that I’m in—to just know what you deserve. [He] set the tone for love in my life and has shown me what it means to be loved by a man especially.”
“To tell your kid every day that they’re going to be great and that they are great, I think that’s given me so much confidence,” she shares. “It’s been a key thing in this [industry] because it’s so easy to seek validation from other people. But to know that I have that foundation is everything. [My dad] would always say ‘if you don’t love this without the money, you’re not going to love it with it.’ Those things have carried me thus far, and I think kept me grounded too.”
As she began releasing EPs under her adopted moniker, the music stuck. In 2019, she scored two Grammys for Best R&B Album for H.E.R. and Best R&B Performance for her duet “Best Part” with Daniel Caesar. To date, she’s scored 5 Grammys out of 21 nominations, including one this year for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Fight for You,” from the film Judas and the Black Messiah about the rise and murder of Black Panther and freedom fighter Fred Hampton, for which she also won an Oscar the year before.
“I was so blown away,” she says of that win, which she accepted in an outfit that paid homage to the one Prince wore the night he won his Oscar for Purple Rain. “I still can’t believe that I have one. It’s sitting on my dining room table.”
That she won the Grammy for Song of the Year for “I Can’t Breathe,” composed in the same “protest” vein of “Fight for You,” speaks to not just her versatility as an artist but also how deeply her music reflects the times in all aspects. Released shortly after police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, “I Can’t Breathe” was played often during Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of Floyd and others.
“I think it’s always been important for me to just say how I feel. And it’s so crazy that we are seeing these things happen even still to this day. [It’s] not very much different from back in the day—in the late ‘70s, with the rioting and protesting—it’s all happening again now,” she continues. “I’m proud to have written those songs, but it’s sad and unfortunate that I do have to talk about these things that are still happening.”
If Michael Jackson is calling to talk to my daughter, maybe we have something here.
Finding balance in her music is also important. As a young woman turning 25 later this month, she’s still navigating all aspects of life, including relationships and fun. On Jhené Aiko’s “B.S.,” H.E.R. proves she is more than capable of clapping back on an ex while on “Come Through,” with Chris Brown, from her album Back of My Mind, she proves she can turn up. 2019’s reggae-tinged “Slow Down” with Skip Marley showed off her sex appeal. And on her latest album, she’s collaborated with various rappers, including Y.G. (“Slide”), Cordae (“Trauma”) and Lil Baby (“Find A Way”).
Moreover, she’s breaking out of her harmonic comfort zone to try acting and is making her big screen debut as Squeak in the musical version of The Color Purple, directed by Black Is King’s Blitz Bazawule, alongside a heavy-hitting cast including Aunjanue Ellis, Taraji P. Henson, Colman Domingo and Lou Gossett Jr. “I don’t know that I knew if it was the right one for me,” she says of the film, “but I knew I wanted a challenge and I knew that I would enjoy it. I knew that it would be fun and that the cast is amazing.”
She’s also stretching into brand endorsements and collaborations. She’s a global ambassador for L’Oréal Paris which she says is fitting because “the first time I ever started wearing makeup, I wore L’Oréal because they were the only makeup brand that had my specific foundation color.” In addition, she’s proud to be repping “curly hair girls” for the international beauty juggernaut’s Elvive hair care line. And with the H.E.R. x DIFF eyewear collection, she’s turned her signature accessory into a charitable cause that allows people to both look good and do good.
Music, however, will always have her heart. In addition to opening for Coldplay on their Music of the Spheres world tour, she’s been supporting her album Back of My Mind, for which she earned eight Grammy nominations this year, with her own mini tour. “The different moods of R&B,” is how she describes the album, noting that “every song represents a different time” and that it’s “very much late ‘60s, late ‘70s-inspired, but new R&B (with some hip hop appeal).”
To tell your kid every day that they’re going to be great and that they are great…that’s given me so much confidence.
Appreciating and representing Black music traditions is just part of her DNA. Her dad made sure of it. Born in Los Angeles but raised by his grandparents from age two until twelve in Eudora, Arkansas, a small town whose population today is just under 2,300 people, Wilson was steeped in Black music traditions nurtured and preserved in the deep South. “My grandmother played piano in the church and so that’s why I said, ‘if I ever have kids one day, I’m going to raise them just like my grandparents raised me—playing music.’”
His daughter’s musical education also encompassed her listening and studying it, too. “I bought her a Mahalia Jackson box CD set that had all of her greatest hits in it. And I’d say, ‘Gabi, you want to learn how to sing, let’s listen to Mahalia Jackson.’ Then we got into listening to [the gospel singer] Kim Burrell and to Yolanda Adams. And then, as she got older, I was like, ‘Okay, well, let’s listen to B.B. King’ because I wanted her to learn how to play guitar.”
And though she plays several instruments, guitar—as her Grammy performance with Lenny Kravitz attested—remains her most impressive, especially since it’s still so rare to see any woman playing the epic acoustic instrument. On top of that, far too few people know that a Black female guitarist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who influenced Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, was an early pioneer of rock & roll. For many young girls, H.E.R. is their archetype and it’s a role both she and her father cherish.
When I flip through Instagram and see parents buying their daughters guitars and dressing them like H.E.R. for Halloween, I get teary eyed. That was my dream for H.E.R.—to change the way that little Black girls thought about music.
For her dad, his greatest hope was that his daughter “ would change the whole perception of what being a Black woman that plays electric guitar is.” And that hope has been realized. “I just got to go to Paisley Park and that was insane to see where Prince did that concert DVD that I played over and over and over again with my dad,” she shares. “It’s really dope that I can live that dream, especially for my dad.”
“I often think that this is for him because I know he believed in me more than anybody. So, it’s cool to be continuing that and to now be in the position of some of the artists that I grew up watching,” she continues. “And, to now hear about young girls at home doing the same thing I was doing, but with me, watching my video, and [going] ‘I want to play guitar and I want to do that’—it’s mind-blowing.”
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