Normani is charting new territory — rooted in relatability | Sunday Observer

Normani is charting new territory — rooted in relatability

25 October, 2020

Normani always wanted to be in a girl group. When she tells me this, about 35 minutes into our conversation, my brow instantly furrows — not that she noticed, as our Zoom cameras were requested to be off. It’s hard to imagine someone with her star power preferring to sit unseen, but she shares with me that when she was younger, she told her mom that her dream of being in the next Destiny’s Child was because of her undying admiration of the group that gifted us Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle. Today, she admits that she was scared of standing on her own.

“There was just that level of comfortability and security, and me feeling safe with being seen, but not too seen,” she says, pausing for emphasis. But her pause is perhaps too long, long enough for me to sense her discomfort in what she’s just shared. She breaks the tension with a singular self-knowing laugh.

At this moment, it all begins to make sense. The reason we’ve been waiting more than a year for new music, following her critically acclaimed debut single (and of one of 2019’s best songs), Motivation, is because the Atlanta-born, 24-year-old is anxious. After all, Normani is a black woman charting a new territory that’s rooted in relatability — and one who is simultaneously incredibly talented. “Vulnerability is talking about the fact that I do get anxiety sometimes, and just showing the consumer what that feels like for me,” she admits. “Just the fact that I am in a position that I’m in, but I don’t want to be so unattainable. I’m just the girl next door.”

Every story that might influence an aspiring pop star suggests that being a darker-skinned black girl is an insurmountable barrier. The popular-music-and-media diet she consumed in her youth and the well-documented history of colorism in just about every industry — from music to movies, beauty to fashion — sent the message that it would be harder for her to make it to the top of the charts. This requires a great deal of consciousness as it relates to the task at hand, in order to be successful. Excellence, then, is not just an aspiration: Normani must be a living, breathing example of it at every turn.

“There’s so much expectation that I have for myself, so adding [fans’ expectations] onto that can be a lot, but it really does motivate me,” she says. “I really want to create a body of work that’s going to count, you know? I’m never going to get my first album back.” By now, Normani’s life story is fairly known. Raised in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina displaced her family to the Houston area in 2005, as a kid, she was a competitive dancer, gymnast, and beauty queen. She recorded her first song, a pop track called Do, at 13. Following a successful 2012 solo audition on The X Factor, the judges placed her into a girl group, which eventually became known as FifthHarmony, for the rest of the competition. They placed third and went on to become, according to Billboard, the biggest girl group of the 2010s.

From the outside looking in, Normani was living the dream, and she often, likely unintentionally, pulled attention away from her other group mates. She was just that good, in the pocket of every beat and performing at a level that demanded audiences take notice. Even before Fifth Harmony went from five to four members, many often said she should be the Beyoncé of her group. When Fifth Harmony went on indefinite hiatus in 2018, there was one question on everyone’s mind: What will Normani do? Her answer, through a series of actions, was career-defining. Following a two-song EP with Calvin Harris, she released Waves, featuring the rapper 6lack. The music video, a sensual, space-set production for the vibe-y breakup song that superbly showcases her dance skills, eye for detail, and overall talent expected of an up-and-coming legendary child, won a 2019 MTV Video Music Award for best R&B video. She released Love Lies with Khalid, a duet with Sam Smith called Dancing with a Stranger —both that went No. 1 on Top 40 — and cemented herself as one to watch with the visual that accompanied Motivation. She followed that up with soundtrack collaborations: Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj for Charlie’s Angels; Megan Thee Stallion for Birds of Prey .