EBONY Exclusive: H.E.R. on Performing at the Apollo Theater and the Transcendent Power of Black Music

On a brisk November night, the fall air was filled with electricity as hundreds waited outside the world-famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem for the latest installment of Sirius XM and Pandora’s Small Stage, featuring Academy and multiple Grammy-Award winner H.E.R.

From the moment she hit the famed stage, H.E.R. wowed the crowd with her incredible vocal prowess, impeccable musicianship, and infectious personality. Although the theatre was filled to capacity, H.E.R.’s vibe made the performance feel like an intimate gathering amongst friends. Flanked by three talented background singers and a tight band with organic chemistry, the songstress performed her vast collection of hits including”We Going Crazy,” “BS,” “Focus,” “Best Part,” “Come Through,” and “Damage.”

Without question, when it comes to curating a live performance, H.E.R. is one of the best performers in music. At any given moment, the accomplished musician could be seen playing the acoustic guitar, the electric guitar, the bass, and the keys, all with great dexterity. And along with her own hits, she gave a soulful rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and an epic cover of Lenny Kravitz’s “Are Gonna Go My Way.”

EBONY caught up with H.E.R. and discussed the magic of the Apollo Theatre, why it’s important for her to use her voice to address the issues of our community, and whether she’ll be dropping a Christmas album soon.

EBONY: Tell me, what is your first music memory?

H.E.R: My first music memory? Oh my gosh! I have tons of those, but probably watching my dad and his band play in our living room when I was just a toddler; listening to James Brown and a lot of the old-school music that they used to play.

Growing up in a musical family, did you feel destined to be a musician?

Definitely! I think music is in my blood. However, I don’t think because it’s in my blood that it was destined. It was all the moments that showed me that it was destined; the times I felt the passion for music when I watched something or I would sing and people would react and feel something. I would say to myself, “I want to do this.” Even though I was so young, I may have not connected to what I was saying, but the emotion in my voice was there.

Throughout the history of Black music, there have been so many singers, songwriters, musicians, and artists who’ve come from the Bay Area. Tell me what’s special about the music of the Bay area and how does being from there influence your musicianship?

Being from the Bay has given me so much musical knowledge. This love for music—that I think you could only find in the Bay area—culture, constant festivals, and live bands that would perform since I was young, it’s influenced me to want to be a better musician and also just want to make music that feels great. I think it’s brought people together. It gives me a sense of community. So it’s not just influencing my musicianship, it’s influencing even the way that I see music. I love the fact that I was exposed to so much music from the Bay. It pushed me into music. I think there are certain choices I wouldn’t make if I wasn’t from the Bay Area.

Your latest project, Back of My Mind has received widespread acclaim from critics and fans alike. What emotions did you feel after releasing your debut and having it be so widely acclaimed?

I’m really thankful for the love because there were a lot of expectations and I really pray that I met them. I made an album that I love and I think that’s all that matters. The songs on the album all represent the things I’ve been through in my life and—my new perspective—the perspective I’ve grown into as a young woman. The album is a lot of the moods of R&B. It’s a very important album in my career.

After being in quarantine last year, how has it been for your creative energy to return to live performing?

It has been the most amazing thing ever. It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been through so much the past year and a half, but there’s nothing like that connection that you have with an audience. I love performing, I love the stage, and it’s not the same without the people. I’m so thankful to be back.

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The Apollo is legendary in Black culture for some of the greatest performers and performances of all time. How does it feel as an artist to be a part of that legacy?

It feels crazy to have been there at nine years old then now to headline the Apollo. I kept thinking about all the people that were on that stage before me. I just carry that with me everywhere I go now. That stage, it’s kind of like another home.

With all that is happening in our country, why is it important for you to use your music to address issues that affect Black people?

Because I’m Black, it’s important for me to talk about my own experience and to talk about the experiences of the people that I love, the people around me, my own community. The truth is the truth. I always speak it. I have to keep speaking on it. We should actually feel the urge to express ourselves and use our platforms to share what’s going on in the world. Not because we have a platform. Not because I’ve got people listening to me or because everybody should have an opinion. It’s not about that. If you have any kind of compassion or hope in this world, you’re going to speak on the things that happen around you to try to make things better.

As we come upon the holiday season, I must ask, will we ever get a H.E.R. Christmas album?

What’s funny is I was trying to get Daniel Caesar to do a Christmas album with me. We’ll see if that ever happens, but I definitely want to do some Christmas music.

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