She chose a mysterious name -- H.E.R., an acronym for Having Everything Revealed -- and only teased her silhouette on the covers of her respective 2016 and 2017 EPs, H.E.R. Vol. 1 and H.E.R. Vol. 2, but the 21-year-old R&B singer born Gabi Wilson couldn't stay anonymous for long. Fans figured out her real name last year, when they found H.E.R.’s cover of Drake’s “Jungle” in a 2015 post on Wilson’s SoundCloud. In March, Janet Jackson raved about her on Instagram. And after his Aug. 25 tour stop, Drake himself posted a picture with her at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“Everybody can be famous on the internet, so when is it about the music?” says Wilson, eyes shielded behind her trademark dark sunglasses as we chat at a wood-paneled 1960s-style diner in Glendale, Calif. “I wanted to make it just about the music.”
Like fellow young stars Ella Mai and SZA, H.E.R. puts a moody, confessional spin on traditional R&B, and it has earned her spots opening for Chris Brown and Bryson Tiller and, in 2018, eight entries on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart. But she’s an extrovert onstage, with a low-key star power reminiscent of Miguel and other descendants of Prince. If you haven’t already seen her viral performance at the BET Awards in June, check it out on YouTube: In the midst of quietly commanding the stage singing her sultry slow-jam “Focus,” she suddenly straps on an electric guitar and delivers a scorching solo, then brings Daniel Caesar onstage to duet on Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo’s “Nothing Even Matters.”
“It was crazy,” says the Vallejo, Calif., native, who’s now based in Brooklyn and also plays bass, drums and piano. “Live, I knew I was going to really be able to showcase my musicality. I didn't want to reveal that right away. So, it was a shocking thing for people.”
In person, she’s still reluctant to let her guard down, though she lets out the occasional giggle. Still, when her first full-length album, I Used to Know H.E.R., arrives in November, she’ll be fully prepared to capitalize on her nascent fame. She has been playing to huge audiences since age 10, when -- after killing Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” on Today and The View -- she was hailed as a child prodigy. Keys became a mentor, and H.E.R. signed with RCA at 14.
Wilson has waited all this time to release a full-length in order to put some distance between her adult image and that kid on TV. The album, she says, is “an ode to my younger self and finally coming into my own. Every song is unique in a way that [shows] all different versions of me.” She promises another collaboration with Caesar and a song inspired by her religious beliefs (today, she’s wearing a glittery diamond cross around her neck). “I’m working on living in the moment, because I used to be really bad at that,” she says. “I’m always thinking 10 years from now.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of Billboard.