R&B musician H.E.R. is singing “America the Beautiful” at the Super Bowl this Sunday. Four years ago, she won two Grammys for her first major record label. This year, she’s up for Song of the Year for her track “I Can’t Breathe,” which was inspired by the death of George Floyd. She also plays at least five instruments, including electric guitar.
In high school, while going through her “evolution of woman” — which she describes as avoiding heartbreak and learning what it means to become a woman — H.E.R. decided to envelop herself in music. She says music is where she could make honest and vulnerable choices. It’s that same devotion that inspired H.E.R.’s stage name.
“It stands for Having Everything Revealed. I feel like people can get to know me and everything about me through my music and my message, not knowing my name or what I look like or where I'm from,” she says.
H.E.R. credits her parents for exposure to music. Her father, who had a band, rehearsed in their living room, while her mom loved doing karaoke.
“It was just all around me. It's something that came natural for me, something that I loved and something my dad [and I] bonded over.”
At 10 years old, H.E.R covered Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” on The Today Show. By 14, she signed with RCA Records and HBK Entertainment.
“I feel like when you're a kid, you don't really care. You say what's on your mind and you kind of just do your thing. ... I was just in love with music and I had nothing to lose,” H.E.R. says. “I would play a song, and then I'd be back on the playground doing homework back at home. It was kind of something that was in me and just something that I was given the space to do.”
Life as an R&B guitarist
In melding both R&B music and guitar playing, H.E.R. sees an opportunity to fully express herself as a musician.
“I have been underestimated and people have told me, ‘When you go on tour, don't play [a song] that they're not going to understand, people aren't going to get it.’ And I totally disregarded that just because that's part of who I am. … It's what I do.”
She describes Prince as an inspiration for her genre-bending approach to making music.
“Nobody boxed him into any genre or any kind of thing. He did what he loved. And I think R&B is me at the core, and it's just a platform,” she says.
In 2020, H.E.R. collaborated with Fender to release a signature Stratocaster, replete with a holographic chrome color. She says it's based on a nail color she loved to use. H.E.R. is the first Black woman to have a Fender artist signature guitar.
Her latest Grammy nomination
The inspiration for “I Can’t Breathe” came when she was on a FaceTime call with a friend during the George Floyd protests last year.
“We just started asking these questions like, ‘How do we even cope? We don't love each other.’ And ‘Can you believe something like this could happen and it's still happening?’ … It feels like there's no hope.”
During that call, both began to write lyrics. At the time, H.E.R. was at her mom’s house, recording the song on an old acoustic guitar.
“I engineered it myself in the bedroom that I have at my mom's house, and I had to stop if the dogs were barking or if there was company over. I had to be like, ‘Hey, can you guys keep it down? I gotta record this song.’”
H.E.R. says the killing of George Floyd was an eye-opener.
“I think people are now educating themselves and starting to understand like, wow, you know, it's real. This is real in America. There's a lot of injustices that go unseen. I try to look at it as now it's being exposed. Now we can do something about it.”
Performing at the Super Bowl
When H.E.R. gets onto the stage at the Super Bowl, she’ll see it as an opportunity to symbolize possibility for young Black girls.
“Just my face being on such a platform like that, it's representation in itself. It's the idea that a Black girl can go up there at the Super Bowl or on a big television stage, and sing a song and be seen and give other young Black girls that hope.”
And despite the NFL’s history with supporting Black lives, H.E.R. has seen some structural change being made.
“I think the support is starting to get better as far as the Black community and people feeling obligated to try to make a difference in this world,” she says. “I think there's been some positive changes, and I'm only going to contribute positive [sic] no matter where I am, what stage I take. I think that's always the goal is to just represent what I represent and spread my message in any way that I can.”