At 20, out hip-hop star Shamir Bailey is an old soul … and a helluva musical talent
SCOTT HUFFMAN | Contributing Writer
Singer, songwriter and self-professed queer Shamir Bailey (known professionally simply as Shamir) seems to exist in life’s in-between spaces. At 20 years old, the performer is no longer a child, but neither is he fully an adult. Musically, his style is neither wholly pop, nor is it entirely indie. And the crooner’s vocal register often has first time listeners wondering if he is male or female.
“If I had a dime for every time I heard that comment, I would be so rich,” Shamir laughs. “I just have like this weird androgyny to me which didn’t start happening until puberty. With my guy friends, their voices deepened and they got more masculine features. For me, my features softened and my voice didn’t change too much. At 14 or 15, you literally feel like you are becoming this non-binary being.”
Non-binary being? That’s the kind of startling, old-soul observation that has made the openly gay Shamir one of the rising stars of hip-hop.
Rather than resenting this difference, Shamir — who performs Wednesday at South Side Ballroom as the supporting act for Marina and the Diamonds — learned to embrace it. Ratchet, the artist’s first full-length album that dropped this summer, is a collection of self-penned tracks chronicling his awkward and splendid transition into adulthood. Shamir feels that everyone else who has reached similar maturity will find a connection.
“I feel like my music is very coming-of-age,” Shamir observes. “It’s almost like a life if you think about the songs. ‘Vegas’ is about where I come from. ‘In for the Kill’ is about sacrifices — giving up things to do what you love. It’s relatable for anyone who is 18, 19 or 20. Older fans also relate to it because the style has a throwback feel, and they were that age once, too.”
Shamir fell in love with music early in life. At age 8, he began singing. At 9, his mother gave him his first guitar. By 13, Shamir was writing his own songs. He credits two artists — both of whom are known for defying neat conventions — as his main musical inspirations: eclectic vocalist Nina Simone and outsider musician Daniel Johnston.
“They both just did whatever they wanted to do,” Shamir says. “They never let anyone get in the way of that. Daniel Johnston built his own world for himself. His music is unorthodox, and he was still able to reach people with it. I just think that’s amazing.”
Many of Shamir’s album tracks, including “On the Regular” and “Call It Off,” are bouncy retro-tinged confections perfect for both workouts and the dance floor. Yet the haunting ballad “Darker,” a song Shamir wrote about the passing of his great-grandmother, is the songwriter’s favorite. It also highlights the artist’s wise-beyond-his-years appeal.
“It’s just a really cool song about death,” Shamir explains, “but looking at it in a more positive way. So many songs about death are sad, but sometimes death can be beautiful. I wrote it when my great-grandma died. She was like 96 and everyone was rejoicing and celebrating this long and beautiful life.”
The sweat equity that Shamir has invested in his artistry is now beginning to pay off. The artist was recently featured in a television ad promoting Apple Music, and was also recently a guest bartender on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live alongside Andy Cohen’s other guests, transgender actress Laverne Cox and fashion maven Andre Leon Talley.
“It was super surreal,” Shamir recalls about his Bravo experience. “They played my song like three times. Laverne Cox was dancing almost every single time. There was one moment when she was dancing in front of me. She tried to engage me. I was so star struck I was staring at her and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t make my brain work. It was so ridiculous.”
Shamir looks forward to bringing his road show — one he calls “a fun house party” — to Dallas. He hopes that his music will speak to everyone regardless of age, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
“I want my music to be as relatable as possible,” Shamir says. “Just because I’m queer doesn’t mean it’s not going to be relatable [to those who aren’t]. I want to bring everyone together with my music.”
With constant album promotion and a hectic touring schedule, Shamir is rarely at rest these days. And no one is more surprised than he is. His life seems a dream come true.
“I’ve already exceeded what I wanted to do probably within the first month,” Shamir says. “I enjoy music because I love the art. I never really wanted notoriety. It almost feels like greedy of me to have any more expectations than what I’m already doing now. Everything’s just so cool.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 9, 2015.