It was going to be the start of something big.
In 2019, H.E.R. inaugurated, curated and headlined her own festival: Lights On, a one-day marathon of young R&B acts that also included Jhené Aiko and Ari Lennox. It sold out the nearly 13,000 seats at the Concord Pavilion amphitheater in Concord, Calif., so a sequel in 2020 was the obvious next step. But with the pandemic, it had to wait a year.
For Lights On in 2021, H.E.R. didn’t just double down; she quadrupled, going twice as long, bicoastal and multigenerational. “I feel like it’s the perfect way to celebrate opening back up,” the singer and guitarist said by phone from Brooklyn earlier this summer, before rising Covid-19 cases had the concert business stopping, starting up again and adding rules about vaccines, tests and masks. For the events this fall, the festival will be following the rules mandated by each location’s local government.
The 2021 Lights On Festival in Concord expanded from one day to two, Sept. 18-19, to be headlined by H.E.R. and the earth mother of neo-soul, Erykah Badu; it sold out immediately. Then H.E.R. announced an East Coast edition of Lights On: two days at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn Oct. 21-22, with H.E.R. and the suave 1990s hitmaker Maxwell topping the bill. (On both coasts, the lineup also includes Bryson Tiller; H.E.R. did her first national tour, in 2017, opening for Tiller.)
With more than a dozen acts on the festival bills — along with surprise guests, H.E.R. promised — each day’s show is scheduled to run about eight hours. The California version of Lights On extends outdoors, with carnival rides, game arcades and sponsored exhibitions like Fender House, where concertgoers can try playing guitar. The large lobby at Barclays will also house some festival-style attractions.
H.E.R., 24, was born Gabriella Wilson; she has said that H.E.R. stands for Having Everything Revealed. She has been performing her own songs since she was a teenager: singing, rapping and playing keyboards, guitar and bass, flaunting an old-school, hands-on musicianship in the lineage of Prince and D’Angelo. H.E.R. won her first Grammy awards in 2019 for best R&B album (“H.E.R.”) and best R&B performance. When Shawn Gee, the president of Live Nation Urban, approached H.E.R. to build her own festival, she had a clear concept.
“R&B is not dead — that’s the slogan, that’s the theme,” H.E.R. said. “Rhythm and blues is the foundation of everything. It’s raw, authentic, organic — just truth and feeling, straight feeling. It makes you want to fall in love. It tells stories. It helps you through heartbreak. It’s literally the soundtrack of our lives. There’s so many different elements of R&B that live in other music, like country and pop and so many other genres. It’s in everything. And people show up for R&B.”
When the pandemic shut everything down, H.E.R. said she considered mounting a virtual festival, but, “It didn’t work out the way that we wanted it to.”
But she still had nationwide exposure during the pandemic. She sang Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” for the Emmy Awards in 2020, “America the Beautiful” before the Super Bowl in February 2021 and “Hold On” as a duet with the country singer Chris Stapleton at the CMT Awards in June. In April, she performed “Fight for You” — the song she wrote for the film “Judas and the Black Messiah” — at the Oscars; it won the award for best original song.
During the pandemic, all sorts of musicians did webcasts from their homes or in other bare-bones settings. H.E.R. started an Instagram Live series, “Girls With Guitars,” that became a showcase for fellow female songwriters. She believes the pandemic reminded listeners of the value of unvarnished, hands-on musicianship. “I think people forgot how much they loved that intimate feeling of just a singer and a guitar,” she said. “Like, ‘I haven’t seen that in a long time. I haven’t felt that in a long time.’ Now you’re watching me from my living room, and not a big stage, and you get a different feeling. I definitely think people were missing that.”
But H.E.R. got nostalgic for making live music in person again. “There’s nothing like performing in front of an audience that’s there for you, and that knows the songs,” she said. “It’s a different energy when you can be connected to the fans in that way. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most with everything coming back — just that connection.”
H.E.R. also used the isolation of quarantine, she said, to center herself after years of touring: to cook and play video games along with writing and recording songs. She completed an album, “Back of My Mind,” that was released in June, while in 2020 she also wrote “I Can’t Breathe,” her response to the police murder of George Floyd and to Black Lives Matter protests. “I Can’t Breathe” won the Grammy for song of the year in 2021.
“Seeing somebody that looks like me being killed or attacked — of course I’m going to write about it and feel very deeply about it,” she said. “As I grow older, and I’m seeing more and I’m understanding more and I’m learning more about my history, I think all artists should feel a responsibility to talk about what they feel. And how could you not feel something towards an event like that?”
As the prospect of live concerts re-emerged, H.E.R. was eager to resume and expand Lights On. “With more people vaccinated and things opening up, being able to put on a festival didn’t seem ridiculous,” she said. “We knew that things would have to come back eventually. We’ve been planning for the past year, but really just locking everything in” since January, H.E.R. said.
Putting on a festival in 2021 means reactivating complex mechanisms: staging, sound systems, lighting, security, food, promotion, sponsorships and more. But Gee, of Live Nation, said production logistics were easier to restart than might have been expected.
“Everyone was ready to go back to work, but everyone had to wait until when they were told when they could go back to work,” he said by phone from Philadelphia. “Fans were ready to go back and experience live music again in a safe, healthy environment. As an industry we listened to science, and we listened to governance. Each local government decided what can be done. And once everyone got the green light to start productions again, ramping back up was almost like muscle memory.”
Concert production companies had not been entirely dormant during quarantine. They had geared up to produce livestreams and other online shows instead. “Every virtual event still needed a big production team,” said Jeanine McLean-Williams, the president of MBK Entertainment, which manages H.E.R. “There was so much Covid testing! Even now, to this day, I’m vaccinated, but we’re Covid tested three times a week.”
The latest surge in infections, and the rise of the Delta variant, still presents uncertainties. “Honestly, we’ve just been praying everything goes well, and it always works out,” H.E.R. said. “We’ve been very blessed to have everything just fall into place. And if it didn’t, then it was for a reason and we recognize that later. So I’m going all in on this and I’m excited and I’m hopeful.”