Normani: A Pop Perfectionist Makes Her Move
Some pop stars might go through a few different versions of the video for their first solo hit; Normani went through about 50. Written with Max Martin and Normani’s tourmate Ariana Grande, “Motivation” was a blast of airy, sexy, rhythmically savvy pop. In the video, released last summer, Normani romps through scenes from videos she loved as a child ( J. Lo, Britney Spears) while performing some truly sick choreography, including a bit where she kicks, spins, and bounces a basketball off her butt.
Everyone loved the video — except Normani, who endlessly kept tweaking it. “I obsess over things like that,” she says. “She was really in tears at one point,” her dad, Derrick Hamilton, adds. Eventually, things got so bad that a member of Destiny’s Child had to talk her down. “I literally sent it to Kelly Rowland before anybody else,” Normani says. The pair had met when Rowland served as a judge on The X-Factor a year after Normani competed on the show. “She was like, ‘You bugging just a little bit.’ ”
Normani’s perfectionism comes from a place of early-career trauma. In Fifth Harmony, the singing group that also gave the world Camila Cabello, she was the underdog. As the only black member, she often felt like “the other one in the room.” She was targeted by racist bullies online after a subset of Harmonizers believed Normani had slighted Cabello by calling her “quirky.” Trolls posted Photoshopped images of her being lynched; others sent death threats. “She’s still scarred from that,” her dad says.
In the studio with 5H, she sometimes felt similarly disregarded, pigeonholed as “the dancer.” When she was the only member whose vocals were left off a song, she began to question what the hell she was even doing. “I was devastated,” she admits. “So many things start to go through your mind, like, ‘Maybe this is my fault? What could I have done differently? Am I not working hard enough? Am I not as talented? What’s wrong with my voice?’ ”
Since then, much has changed: After Fifth Harmony ended, RCA Records signed Normani to a solo deal. She became the Beyoncé she wanted to see in the world, presenting herself as a type of performer who feels almost old-school at this moment in pop: a big-voiced dance machine with a flair for diva-like showmanship.
She scored hit duets with Sam Smith and Khalid, and slowly found her own voice. In 2018, she re-created Janet Jackson’s “Pleasure Principle” routine at the BMI R&B/Hip-Hop Awards, as Jackson looked on from the audience like a proud mom. Nicki Minaj called her “that bitch” while accepting a VMA. Beyoncé told her she’s “proud” of her. Rihanna tweeted, “Ugh why can’t I be you?!” after the star’s dance performance on the Savage x Fenty NYFW runway. Normani was later named the lingerie line’s first brand ambassador. “I’m at a loss for words because it’s just all of the women that made up who I am,” she says. “They respect what I do. Like, they actually respect what I do and want me to win. Little-girl me would have never been able to even comprehend that.”
When I meet her one January day, at a go-kart track outside L.A., she’s dressed-down in black basketball shorts and a matching black Aaliyah shirt. Last month, she went go-karting for the first time, during a friends’ trip to Austin that otherwise mostly consisted of listening to the new Harry Styles album over and over. Today, she wants to try again, though it’s really an excuse for a self-professed introvert to get out of the house.
Lately, she’s been trying to prioritize the parts of her life that make her feel like she’s 23, like friends and dating. Her faith is a grounding bit of normalcy: She’s a devout Christian, frequently attending services in L.A. Even her high-profile friendships slant toward ordinary. She spent her January on a girls’ trip to Jamaica. While touring with fellow night-in enthusiast Grande over the summer, they watched Bohemian Rhapsody on the bus and did face masks together. “I know her to have a heart of gold,” Grande says. She picked Normani for the Sweetener World Tour and hyped her up on Instagram every chance she got during and after their trek. “She is such a gracious person, and I love seeing people win when they deserve to — both inside and out.”
Despite some go-karting bravado — she quotes Will Ferrell’s “If you ain’t first, you last” mantra from Talladega Nights — Normani comes in fourth, just ahead of the two novices she had to coach (her friend Josh and myself, fifth and last place, respectively). She’s only semipressed about the fact that her manager (second place) had been the one to crash into her on the track.
Soon she’ll have to get back to working on — if not obsessing over — her next big career milestone: her long-awaited solo debut that could turn her into a superstar. She estimates she’s about halfway through the album, and hopes to have a single out by summer. It’s a monumental step for someone who spent six years not having a say in her music. She’s learning how to open up so that maybe all the painful experiences weren’t a waste of her youth. “I want to be able to feel like I was represented in the most authentic way possible because I know what it feels like coming from a girl group and being told who to be,” she explains. “[It’s] just overwhelming now to have the opportunity to be all that I want to be.” In short, she’s figuring out what it means to be Normani, rising superstar.
By the time she was a teenager, Normani knew exactly what she wanted out of life: To be one of the “greatest entertainers of all time.” Her dreams of grandeur had started early. Soon after the Hamiltons relocated from Atlanta to New Orleans, a restless, three-year-old ’Mani began taking dance classes. “[My family] were like, ‘We got to get this girl in dance because she is bouncing off our walls,’ ” she recalls. Dancing was in her blood: Her mom was a trained dancer and her grandma had been a majorette.
In Louisiana, she spent most of her time with her maternal grandma while her parents, a flight attendant and a union president, traveled for work. Normani was shy but had a tightknit group of best friends. In 2005, when she was nine, her father was working in Tennessee when reports of Hurricane Katrina began to hit the news. Derrick realized his family needed to get out of the city, and the Hamiltons hunkered down outside Baton Rouge. Their home was destroyed in the storm, and the family moved to Houston. “It was hard for ’Mani,” Derrick says. “That’s all she knew. There were people that we knew on our block that didn’t make it. It was really traumatic.”
In Houston, Normani tried out four different schools before finding the one that made her feel the closest to comfortable. By sixth grade, however, her family decided she should be home-schooled — to better nurture her big dreams. “I was that young kid and my mom was that momager,” Normani jokes. The pair would travel back-and-forth between Houston and Los Angeles for literally any audition that came their way: acting, singing, dancing. She recorded a couple of songs that never saw the light of day, and auditioned for America’s Got Talent but never made it past the producers. “Girl, I was just trying to make it, recording trash songs,” she says.
While Normani was trying to make it big, her parents were struggling to make ends meet. “They never allowed me to see that or put that burden on me,” she says. Her career moves continued without pause. “Dance competitions that we probably weren’t able to afford. Singing lessons that I shouldn’t have been at I still did.” Now, her mom joins her on tour while her dad continues to put in long hours as a longshoreman in Houston. Normani credits him with giving her his work ethic. That came in handy when her career went full-throttle.
The members of Fifth Harmony had all auditioned for X Factor as solo artists, but were deemed not strong enough to continue competing on their own. Until the show’s “bootcamp” week, the members were strangers. Inspired by the success of One Direction on the U.K. version of the show, judges Simon Cowell, Britney Spears, Demi Lovato, and L.A. Reid put the five girls together in a group.
Though they finished third on the show, Fifth Harmony continued to get the 1D treatment: They were pushed out as a pop group that met at the intersection of Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child, with brash, empowering songs about being a “BO$$.” A handful of those songs became pop-radio staples, and their six years together revolved around an unenviable schedule of constant touring and promotion. The girls would only go home for the holidays, and even those periods were cut short by other commitments.
“We paid our dues,” Normani says, wide-eyed, remembering a time when they were on two tours at once, simultaneously opening for Lovato and headlining their own trek. “For us to be able to get through that . . . Basically, what I’m saying is, I could do anything. That shit made anything in the world easy.”
L.A. is where she has worked for some time, but she still doesn’t consider it home. She goes down South as often as possible to see lifelong friends in Houston and New Orleans, as well as her parents. When Normani would come home from 5H tours, life was moving forward without her. She missed out on prom and college, both of which her close friends experienced together. “I felt left out of some of those conversations,” she says, “and I couldn’t relate to the extent that they could because I wasn’t living that.”
For Normani, there was not much room for mental recovery on the road, especially while dealing with racist trolls. During the ordeal, Cabello came to her defense in a series of vaguely worded tweets, but Fifth Harmony were ill-equipped to handle the situation. Normani describes it as “them not knowing how to be there for me the way that I needed it because it wasn’t their own experience, and because when they look at me they don’t see me.”
Recently, Cabello came under fire when it was verified that she had shared and written racist slurs and memes on a personal Tumblr she maintained around the age of 14. Since 5H Cabello and Normani have interacted at award shows, where their paths have repeatedly crossed, but when I talk with her, Normani is still wrapping her head around those Tumblr posts. As a black woman with young black fans, she wants to be “concise” with how she addresses it. “I just want to make sure that anything I say is exactly what I mean,” she offers. “I’ll get back to you on that.”
And she does get back to me on – in writing, after deliberating for a couple weeks: “I want to be very clear about what I’m going to say on this uncomfortable subject and figured it would be best to write out my thoughts to avoid being misconstrued, as I have been in the past. I struggled with talking about this because I didn’t want it to be a part of my narrative, but I am a black woman, who is a part of an entire generation that has a similar story,” she begins, via e-mail.
Cabello has since apologized for the posts, calling the version of herself that made them “ignorant and unaware.” Many of those posts included flippant use of the n-word and black stereotypes, not too far off from the type of daily hatred Normani received while in 5H.
Fifth Harmony went the same way as most pop vocal groups: Cabello had been primed for solo success, teaming up with Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly for duets. In late 2016, after four and a half years as a quintet, Fifth Harmony announced Cabello’s departure, saying they had been informed she was leaving through her representatives.
In Cabello’s absence, however, Normani seemed to become the group’s de facto leader, dominating the solos and choreography. Her onstage confidence came to the forefront and caught the attention of both Tunji Balogun, who launched RCA’s Keep Cool imprint with her as the lead artist, and manager Brandon Silverstein, who began working with her in late 2017.
“Whenever I would see [Fifth Harmony’s] videos or performances, she always stood out to me,” Balogun says. He had met her through Khalid and Silverstein, but wasn’t sure he would be able to sign her because of 5H’s contract with a different label. Still, Balogun wanted her involved with “Love Lies,” as did Khalid, her duet partner on the song. Both were fans of her “star energy.”
Fifth Harmony released one more record together, then went on “indefinite hiatus.” Cabello became the first member to release an album and have a hit. Since then, every member has released solo music, to varying degrees of success. Normani is diplomatic when discussing the group, but she has kept a healthy distance from social media in the years since her traumatic bout of bullying. “I try not to take it personal, even though sometimes it does get personal,” she says. “I try my best not to say anything because nobody’s opinion is going to dictate where I’m going or what I’m going to do. Only I have the control to do that.”
On the Sunday of the Grammy awards, a couple of hours before Normani and I are supposed to meet for lunch, Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashes 18 miles away. Normani is a basketball fan who loved Kobe. Like the rest of Los Angeles, she’s devastated and postpones our meeting by a few hours. When we finally grab dinner at the vegan restaurant Gracias Madre, there’s a makeshift shrine in front, complete with candles and a box where patrons can drop in notes for Bryant.
Like many 23-year-olds, Normani is just beginning to learn how to cope with death. Her grandma on her dad’s side died a year before, and Kobe’s death resurfaced some of those tricky feelings. “I’m still trying to figure out how to move forward even when things like this happen,” she says.
A bigger challenge, these days, is just learning to be vulnerable. Her competitive dance and gymnastics background primed her for a life of performing through pain with a smile on her face. Even when she was bullied, she didn’t take time off work. Now, though, she’s trying to figure out how to go easy on herself and take her time.
When Normani posed for a photo with Janet Jackson last year, Jackson shared some advice. “I’m not going to say verbatim,” Normani says, “but she was telling me to be me first before I’m anything else. I can do whatever I want to do. You can have a super pop record with a super R&B record.”
Normani has been thinking about genres a lot lately, especially as she inches closer to the end of her album. She’s tired of “pop” being an insult. “It’s almost like [pop] becomes a negative when it’s a black girl that looks like me, singing the records that I choose to sing because I loved them. Let’s celebrate the fact that I’m able to have a record with Sam Smith while also having a record with 6lack!” Just an hour before dinner, she watched Lizzo take home a Grammy in a pop category, which she finds inspiring.
In the studio, she hasn’t felt constrained by either genre, working with everyone from recent pop songwriting heavyweights like Victoria Monét and Tayla Parx (both known for their work with Grande) to experimental R&B producers like Joel Compass (FKA Twigs, Jorja Smith). Along the way, she’s found herself recording music with Stargate, T-Minus, Raye, D-Mile and Bibi Bourelli as well. “I was trying to wrap my mind around it, feeling the responsibility and the pressure like I owe it to both sides,” she says. “Just now I’m coming to the realization I don’t owe anybody as much as I owe to myself first. I’m the one that has to perform these records for the rest of my life.”
Normani wants the album to be a confessional statement, less focused on hits and more on the longevity of her career. “I feel like I’m not the most open person,” she admits. In learning how to open up, she wants to write songs that connect on a deeper level with a fandom that has grown up with her. “I want every girl out there to feel like I’m going through the same thing.”
As for those Grammys across town, Normani isn’t too concerned about taking one of the golden gramophones home. She’s thrilled for friends like Lizzo and Rosalía, but the Christian side of her calls the awards “materialistic.” She’s survived the good, bad, and ugly of the industry, and being where she’s at now is enough of a reward for her.
“Oh, I’ve seen the ugly,” she says with a smile. “Even with those things, it amazes me how I bounce back. I didn’t know that I was as strong as I’ve been.”
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