H.E.R. Recalls How George Floyd's Death Inspired Her Grammy-Nominated Song 'I Can't Breathe'
"I wanted to talk about the pain that only the Black community experiences," the singer-songwriter tells PEOPLE
H.E.R. has always had a special connection with music.
"Writing it, listening to it ... it's there when nobody else is," the singer-songwriter, 23, tells PEOPLE.
So when she watched the disturbing video of George Floyd's killing in police custody last May, she instinctively knew where to turn.
"I didn't really think, 'I'm going to write a song about this,' but I [started] catching up with my friend who I write with a lot," she says. "She's like my big sister here, and we were just having a conversation about everything going on. Like, 'Isn't this crazy? What can we do?' We're saying all these things, and I had my guitar in my hands."
Out of their conversations came "I Can't Breathe," H.E.R's Grammy-nominated protest song that's up for song of the year at this year's ceremony.
"The song kind of just happened," she says. "I started singing, 'I can't breathe, taking my life from me.' And it all just came organically. It was easy to write because of everything that was flowing."
With "I Can't Breathe," H.E.R. — born Gabriella Wilson — "wanted to talk about the pain that only the Black community experiences and dedicate it to George Floyd and all the protesters that worked really hard to fight for social injustice."
"We're suffocating as a people," she says. "Every day, there's a fear of being shot or killed or accused of something that we didn't do. Freedom is not living in fear, and Black people have to live with that fear."
"I don't understand how people don't recognize what privilege is, and how we, as Black people, do not get the same treatment," she adds. "It's painful to watch these men and these women die. In that, you think, 'That could be my dad. That could be my brother. That could be my sister. That could be my daughter.'"
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Since releasing "I Can't Breathe" in June, H.E.R. has already seen the impact it has had on people.
"What's crazy about music is; music influences people," she says. "It's like timestamps. It helps so much when it comes to history and explaining what's going on. It's a language that everybody speaks."
"Somebody told me that their like 70-year-old Jewish father was listening to the song and saying, 'This song really made me rethink the way that I think,'" she continues. "I thought that was really cool to hear. So sometimes you don't know what music does, or how much it teaches and informs people. It was unexpected because I was just writing what I felt."
Check out PEOPLE's full Grammys coverage to get the latest news on music's biggest night.
As an artist, H.E.R. says she feels a "responsibility" to use her creativity "to express what's going on in today's times."
"Kind of like Marvin Gaye or Nina Simone [did], and use my emotions and my creativity to educate people," she says. "To start a movement, to help a movement. It's very important."
When she found out about her Grammy nomination for "I Can't Breathe," as well as her two other nods for her songs "Better Than I Imagined" and "Slow Down," H.E.R. says she was shocked.
"We've all worked really hard this year despite all the madness, but I was really surprised," she says. "I wasn't really expecting to get a nomination. I was super surprised and super excited, and it just felt really unexpected. I was really grateful."
Though she's received nods at the awards show the past two years, the nomination for "I Can't Breathe" felt "extra special."
"Mostly for the reason that I didn't really intend on the song being successful, or for it to be acknowledged for song of the year, or any kind of award," she says. "Just because I wrote the song based on how I was feeling, and the anxiety of the protests, and everything that's happened this year. I just didn't expect the song to take a life of its own, so it's crazy."
Despite the difficulties of the past year, H.E.R. says she feels fortunate to have been able to continue making music.
"I was still able to do my thing and give people hope through music," she says. "2020 was a year of realizing a lot of things, and seeing a lot of things. I think 2021 is going to be a better year."
PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly are also teaming up to bring you some glamour and award show speculation ahead of the Grammy Awards on Sunday, even if most of the nominees and guests will be at home wearing sweatpants.
Hosted by PEOPLE (the TV Show!) New York correspondent Jeremy Parsons and PEOPLE Every Day podcast host Janine Rubenstein, the livestream will air ahead of the award ceremony from 6:30 p.m. ET to 7:30 p.m. ET (3:30 - 4:30 p.m. PT).
The livestream will broadcast live from New York City and will feature celebrity interviews both virtual and in-person from the Grammys red carpet in Los Angeles.
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