H.E.R.: The Songwriters

H.E.R.: The Songwriters

H.E.R. began 2021 with a handful of live performances, each one more remarkable than the last. Then came a stream of trophies that felt like confirmations of her arrival in the entertainment establishment—two Grammys (her third and fourth), an Oscar (her first), a BET Award (her second), and, finally, Apple Music’s Songwriter of the Year. “It’s insane to me that a lot of songs that were super personal to me, that I felt were so specific, people all ages, from all different places, different backgrounds, can relate to the music,” she tells Apple Music. “They’re like, ‘This is exactly what I’m going through’ and I’m like, ‘Wow, really?’” Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is that these are accomplishments earned for work that predates her debut album, Back of My Mind, which she released in June, and for which she wrote or cowrote each of the 21 songs.
By the time Back of My Mind arrived, she was already a master of transforming the understated into grandeur. She wanted to go bigger on this one, to bridge the quiet elegance of her earlier work with the splashy musicianship that defines her live performances. “It’s a celebration of all things that make R&B—the different aspects, the different sounds of R&B,” she explains in the accompanying short film. “R&B is the foundation of all music.” She approaches her craft like a proud classicist at a time when some fans of R&B are decrying the hip-hop-infused version of the genre that more often cracks the charts or soundtracks the night. She could easily shy away from the classification, but instead she leans into it, bringing its elements into everything she touches to create the kind of music that can transcend its particulars. When she steps into a studio or onto a stage, she brings the whole of the tradition with her.
“It’s very difficult to articulate or come up with metaphors and analogies for what it is that we feel,” she says. “The best words to describe the life that we live—the things that we feel, the things that we see—is really a songwriter’s purpose, I think. It’s a way to tell stories and kind of leave a mark. If you never watched a documentary or read a book about it, you heard a song about it and you know this is exactly what happened ’cause Marvin Gaye said so or because Nina Simone said so. Thinking about that kind of role in history that songwriters play—it’s just another way of storytelling.”
So, when “I Can’t Breathe,” a song written in response to the wave of police brutality protests in 2020, wins a Grammy, or “Fight For You,” a similarly charged track created for the film Judas and the Black Messiah, wins an Academy Award, it’s about H.E.R. and her songs’ ability to respond in the moments that call her to greatness. But it’s also about R&B and lineage and history—all that the genre has been and all that it can be.

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