Forget ‘hidden messages’ about exes — Normani is here to change pop music all by herself

After bringing the world to a standstill with ‘Motivation’ the 23-year-old—our Jan/Feb cover star—is casually reinventing the game.

Normani Cover Story

What colours do you want to hear?”

Normani must have asked this 10 times a day when she started vision-boarding the video for ‘Motivation.’

The ‘you’ in question was…you, me, and the other 100 million (and counting) people who would soon stream her bop of the summer on repeat.

In case you took the entire season off from the internet, a quick refresher: Out of nowhere, former Fifth Harmony singer and casual A-list collaborator Normani Kordei Hamilton dropped her first solo single on August 15, and everyone with a screen—from Apple Watches and incognito YouTube windows hidden on work desktops to iPads and even those giant contraptions (“TVs”) some people insist on keeping at home—watched.

The dance sequences were the perfect explosions of eye candy none of us knew we needed: full splits on concrete, synchronized twerking on a chain-link fence, elegant ballet pirouettes worthy of Misty Copeland. Not since Jennifer Lopez took jazz, house, and Latin dance breaks in the middle of 1999’s “If You Had My Love”—or since Britney Spears unleashed a sideways body roll, without moving her rib cage one centimetre, in “I’m a Slave 4 U”—had we felt such a collective burst of sheer exhilaration from pop music choreography by an artist not named Beyoncé.

Just like Normani planned, the final product was bursting with colour. Pink, graffitied on her cropped tee, to highlight what she says is the main message of ‘Motivation’: that women should own their sexuality. Dusky lilac, in the sky behind her during that pas de deux, suggesting some nighttime debauchery might be minutes away. Gold via rows of trumpets: the colour of hit records. And another colour, one Normani wanted to emphasize more than any other.

‘I told the director, “I want this to be as black as possible,”‘ she says, sitting at a café after spending hours browsing the soul section of Amoeba Music in Los Angeles, her fingers gently plucking through cassette tapes and vinyl records. ‘I was like, let’s show black culture. Why does pop music have to be so white? Why don’t we make it a little bit more me?’

Speaking up for herself like this has been a pretty recent development for Normani, who says she’s spent the majority of her life hiding. Born in Atlanta, then raised in New Orleans and eventually homeschooled in Houston, she was an introvert. She spent her afternoons watching MTV, where Britney, Shakira, Christina, Mandy, and Jessica engaged in bubbly banter on Total Request Live. She lived for their music (…Baby One More Time was Normani’s first-ever CD purchase), but it also made her feel invisible. That’s why every Saturday, she’d turn to reruns of 106 & Park on BET, where she saw Lil’ Kim own the stage and Ciara one-two step for the first time. (It’s also why her now-famous video begins with a black tween rushing into her family’s living room to watch that very show.)

Normani Cover Story
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As a kid, Normani was a talented gymnast (like, seriously talented: she still holds a Texas state record for floor routine), and one has to assume the crowded gyms, the sparkly costumes, the rapid-fire movements, the frequency with which she faced away from the audience in order to stick a landing…all allowed her to disappear behind the sport’s razzle and dazzle. She’d never taken dance seriously until a local Houston instructor happened to sit next to her mom at gymnastics practice. ‘Who is that girl?’ the woman whispered. ‘Look how strong she looks. I need her in my class.’

Normani became the youngest student in the dance studio, a team player who eventually got the chance to be the star. At her first solo performance, wearing a homemade tutu and rhinestone gloves, she gingerly made her way to the spotlight, froze, and ran straight back to the wings.

So maybe it makes sense that her first real break came in the form of a crowded quintet. And that even her own mom assumed her daughter would wind up in a Destiny’s Child–like collective so she could stay out of sight. ‘I remember always being asked, “Why do you wanna be in a girl group? So you can hide?”‘ Normani says now. ‘And that’s exactly what I was trying to do.’

Still, the steady six-year grind of manufactured ingenuity frustrated her—especially since she never got to sing lead, something she slowly started to realize she needed to do.’ I’m not sure what that turning point was,’ she says, ‘but I was like, Normani is enough. You can be on stage and perform and you can be enough.’

Two more albums followed Fifth Harmony’s platinum debut, Reflection, and then it happened—the band went the way of O-Town, LMNT, Danity Kane, and countless other formulaic groups thrown together on reality audition shows. It turns out, “making the band” is more of a short-term business than an earnest attempt to expand the canon. (About the rocky breakup rumours, Normani says, ‘People do what people do—take the information they have and blow it up. I’m happy everyone has an opportunity ’cause we worked our asses off. We do our own things. We’re good.’)

Normani Cover Story
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Normani started planning what she felt had to be done: injecting some sorely needed fun into today’s messy music landscape of singles that are buzzy because of ‘hidden’ messages about exes. But Normani’s a loyalist to the positive, uplifting power of pure pop and the magic of pairing those beats with insanely amazing choreo, just like her ’90s idols used to do, so that one day, fans will bust out their ‘Motivation’ moves—after feverishly searching YouTube for step-by-step breakdowns—at house parties and weddings, ‘Thriller’-style.

Somewhere along the way, her persistence has cured or at least overshadowed her lifelong shyness. Once she realized people would listen—were listening—she got louder. Bolder. ‘There are a lot of moments where I feel like I have no room to make mistakes,’ she says. ‘I could fall down a million times, but that is not enough for me, ever. I’m gonna get back up.’

Trust that as we all wait for Normani’s next big hit, she’s on it. She’s working on a full album (the only hint she’ll give is that Brandy has been a constant influence), too busy to date, and enjoying praise for side projects like ‘Bad to You,’ her new song with Ariana and Nicki Minaj from the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack. (Just try listening to Normani’s pre-chorus verse, and the very specific way she sings the word ‘chain,’ without it seeping into your soul.)

Normani Cover Story
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She’s in a place now where her heroines—Ari, Rihanna, and Kelly Rowland—are all on the record as Normani stans. (According to her, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have stanned off the record: “The specifics of it I like to keep to myself because it’s just so special,” she says of the contact she’s had with the empress and emperor of contemporary music. “But Bey and Jay-Z have definitely been vocal about how much they want me to win.”)

As much as that means to her, she reminds me she’s not doing this for them. If legends like Billie Holiday and Etta James started it all by inspiring Diana Ross and Tina Turner, who paid it forward to Janet, Whitney, and Mariah, who did the same thing for RiRi and Bey, then Normani is just the new-new in a long line of strong black pop artists. Now, it’s her turn, she says.

Normani Cover Story
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‘Those women before me, I wanna finish what they started.’ And she gets to do it on a way bigger stage than 106 & Park and in a more authentic way than she ever could have in a group. She’s making her entrance in Jordan 11s, not six-inch Zanottis. She performed at the VMAs in one of those $30 Juicy Couture velour zip-ups, not Saint Laurent tights and a La Perla bodysuit. ‘I’m gonna make whatever I do black,’ she says. ‘You’ll know that I’m a black girl, even if it’s on the quote-unquote whitest record ever.’

And instead of laying careful steps toward a Serious Actress second career, she just wants to be Normani—someone who, through her songs and her messaging and especially her moves, is making art. ‘You’ll hear me more when I’m dancing than if we’re sitting here having a conversation. You’ll be able to see me.’

For more on Normani pick up our January/February issue, on newsstands on 16 December, or click here to subscribe.