When Shamir Bailey picks up my 10 am Skype call from the comfort of a Lower East Side hotel bed, he sounds a bit drowsy. Turns out he spent the night prior tipping back cocktails at a Vogue fashion show to celebrate the new issue he’s in. “I accidentally tripped on Zendaya,” he says with a laugh. “I fell, like, on her back, and she almost fell over. Thank God she didn’t, because that would have been the end of my life.”
Of course that’s how he spent his Monday night. When you’re a rising pop star with a ridiculously affable personality and lowbrow-turned-highbrow aesthetic, these things happen—to quote his hit single—on the regular. It’s the life of someone who gets to go by their first name. It’s the life of a 20-year-old (though he’s days away from turning 21) critic darling. It’s the life of Shamir, and every single moment is rightfully hyped up.
The Las Vegas-based singer-songwriter dropped his debut LP, Ratchet, earlier this year to high praise from critics. On it, Shamir (who ditches the surname for his stage name) weaves a delightful form of pop with roots in hip-hop and dance, coming across like a four-flavored Fun Dip that never loses its tart taste. It’s odd for such a sugary sound to come from Las Vegas. “There’s no scene at all there, except for maybe metal and pop punk,” he admits. “That’s about it. It’s not what people think of, especially where I’m from, North Vegas. It’s pretty much life centered around a pig farm.”
Shamir has his family to thank for that. From pre-K to third grade, he was surrounded by music since he lived in a house with his mother, her twin sister, and her sister’s son. His mother’s sister, who is as vocal as she is caring, is a writer-turned-poet who eventually dug into music while he was growing up. “She began slowly building her room into a home studio,” recalls Shamir. “She would invite friends over and I would be there, little me, like, ‘Hi, can I come in? I just want to watch y’all play. I promise I’ll be quiet!’ That was the seed that was planted for me to start writing music on my own.”
Over the years, he tried it out firsthand. Shamir started playing piano at age eight, got a guitar at age nine, and, from then on, there was no looking back. “Obviously middle school is a hot mess for everyone, and on top of that mine required we wear uniforms,” he says. “I felt creatively stifled because of that until high school, but middle school is where I found out who I was. I was really weird, obviously very awkward, and didn’t have many friends. My best friend in the whole wide world and I didn’t meet until eighth grade. Up until then, I was a loner. I’d be in my room for hours on end, practicing guitar, writing, hoping to better myself as a musician. By the time high school came, songwriting was a breeze for me.”
Today’s songs are clearly more layered than the acoustic numbers from Shamir’s youth (though he does do stripped-down performances from time to time). The synth dance of his sound often comes from his producer and label owner, Nick Sylvester, whom Shamir loves dearly. “If he doesn’t send me a beat or a demo that he’s working on, then I will write a song on piano or guitar and record it on my phone,” Shamir says. Their friendship results in a creative explosion of pop that shoots even the most stiff listener with an urge to wiggle in their seat.
Songs like “On the Regular” and “Call It Off” rack up millions of YouTube views. That’s because they combine youth and adulthood seamlessly with synthpop structure and dominant lyrics taking the reins. In that, his music combines youth and adulthood seamlessly, making songs for someone of any age. For Shamir, it’s not hard to write in that style. It’s a reflection of his 20 years growing up. “I’ve never felt young my whole life,” he says. “My mom would tell you that ever since I was a 5-year-old, I thought I was a grown up. It’s not that I tried to be older than my age, but rather that I like to be as independent as possible. By nine or ten years old, I was washing my own clothes and cooking dinner for the whole family. My mom would literally only cook on Sundays. That was her day since it was the family day. Throughout the whole week, I was the cook. I loved being independent.”
It comes as a shock that Shamir isn’t old enough yet to drink, yet he’s writing far beyond his age. Given his onstage persona is even more playful than the record—yet totally stands as its own dominant force—his charming, freeform pop bends kitschy hooks into confident lyrics. Like Robyn, Marina & the Diamonds, and those before them, he drafts up lyrical content that goes overlooked when battling its own beats – but that’s on purpose. The combination of upbeat, happy music allows people to lose focus while the lyrics highlight the core of his heart. “The combination is how I look at life,” he says. “It’s intentional in a way. It allows people to overlook the lyrics in favor of dancing. That’s always been the goal and the inspiration.”
One of Shamir’s biggest struggles is the battle with others understanding his own sexual identity as a genderqueer human. “It’s never something I’m not going to talk about, but I’m not going to lie: it is annoying when that’s the driving point in the conversation,” he says when asked how the press piles up. “I want to talk about my music. When they focus on that in their article, the press isn’t treating me as a musician. They treat me as a thing. I equate that to asking me what it’s like to be a black musician. I’m not a black musician. I’m not a queer musician. I’m a musician who happens to be black and queer. It doesn’t direct my music directly and I’m not trying to push an agenda with my music.”
But the plus side is the exposure of genderqueerness being accepting as a normal sexual orientation. In that, he has become a role model of sorts for those who identify in similar ways. Back when he was still looking up to his own role models, his youth used to shape itself as a double-edged sword. Now he’s in a “normal” age bubble for musicians, but many others who aren’t yet 21 years old have to face the pitfalls and pros of being a prodigious teen.
“In a weird way, you’re more intriguing as a young musician,” says Shamir. “My tour manager is 46 and he says all the time how he’s seen seasoned musicians drop off because age plays such a big part. Yet in a weird way, there’s an obsession and that’s wrong. They pick the young musician because they’re young and youth sells. It looks down on the young musician because it implies that they think they’re mediocre, but their cuteness makes up for something. Then if you don’t get better, that’s it. Your 15 seconds of fame are over.”
So when I ask for bands that seem young to him, he starts rattling them off, starting with a Philadelphia band of 16- and 18-year-olds he manages called Joy Again. “They’re some of the most talented kids I’ve ever encountered in my whole life,” he says excitedly. “My roommate when I worked in New York, Chloe Chaidez, is in a band called Kitten. I first discovered her when I went to the Paramore concert instead of prom. She was 18 at the time and that show was amazing! I thought that was so cool. Plus Frankie Cosmos! I love her.”
When looking over other youthful acts, Shamir tries to support them but also. “You have to be a little more fearless. You have your age against you, you have your naivety against you—either from you or those around you who are judging—so you have to go for it. You don’t have much to lose, either. Go full speed. Don’t try to be careful.”
SHAMIR + HANA. WED 11.18. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/18+/$17. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM.