Next week Shamir releases his much-anticipated debut album, Ratchet, which blends hip-hop, EDM, and good old-fashioned dance music. Early singles such as "Call It Off" and "On the Regular" bristle with sass, youthfulness, and originality. His videos also feature bright and madcap worlds where puppets reign and Fisher-Price phones throw shade.
Oh, and maybe you've heard? Shamir is genderqueer.
Not that the musician, whose full name is Shamir Bailey, would describe himself as such. He'd rather do without labels altogether, thanks. In fact, Shamir is a little taken aback that the media is so interested in his gender identity. He's just doing his thing, having a good time and creating cutting-edge music.
But for many in the media, especially right now in a post-Bruce-Jenner-coming-out media landscape, Shamir’s gender identity is a gigantic part of his story — and he gets that.
“It’s OK,” Shamir says, on the phone from Los Angeles, where his band is rehearsing. “But it’s definitely more thought about on their side than mine. I think they kind of think this is like a spiel or a gimmick. But it’s not something I try for. I wear menswear all the time. I don’t do anything to make myself look more feminine. I naturally look and am more feminine.”
Male, female. The singer says he’s always just been Shamir. (Or, as he recently tweeted to the confused, “To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give.”)
“Ever since I was little I showed traits of both masculine and feminine energies. Androgyny was never something that I thought about or tried for,” explains Shamir, who you might guess doesn't much care which pronoun you use. “But like in high school, puberty hits hard, and I was like, OK, all my friends are getting body and facial hair and their voices are getting deeper, and their features are getting more masculine, and my voice is like, not changing.” Shamir bursts out laughing, which he does frequently. “I am lucky to have a chin hair!”
It’s true. Despite four years of smoking cigarettes to toughen it up, Shamir’s singing voice is still high-pitched, almost a falsetto. Except now Shamir considers that an asset.
Born in North Las Vegas, Nev., away from the casinos and nightlife, Shamir lived across the street from a pig farm. The slow pace allowed him to discover music at an early age. “When you’re from a boring town, you have to find things to do,” he explains. “It’s funny, I always knew I wanted to make music, so I was always kind of ahead of my peers. I had an MP3 player by the time I was in the fourth grade.”
After teaching himself guitar and dabbling in country music for a spell, he and some friends formed a lo-fi punk band called Anorexia. He also developed a love of fashion. At school he “dressed all kinds of crazy,” wearing punk garb one day and a dashiki the next. “What you see in my videos is how I was in high school,” he says, laughing. “It was jarring for people, but they learned to accept it.”
Despite the slowness of Northtown, Shamir says he dated, and he thinks he may have even been in love once. “I guess. Kind of. It was a long time ago,” he says, giggling, adding that he got “three or four good songs” out of the heartache.
The idea that sexuality must be defined is boring to Shamir. “It makes no sense. I don’t see why there has to be labels. Why do you have to be put in a box and be one thing?” he asks.“I get preferences, I guess. But then why isn’t there a term for someone who likes only blonds? Why isn’t there a blondsexual? I don’t see the need. That’s always been so weird for me since, like, forever.”
However, boys, girls, blonds, “ratchet guys” — everyone is off limits right now. Shamir says his focus is on his exploding music career, explaining, “I don’t think it’s fair for musicians to be with someone. I’m never in one place for a long time."
It’s true. Once he finishes today’s phoners with press all over the world, Shamir and his band will be on a plane to Europe for a quick tour that will take them through the U.K. and into France and Belgium. Then the gang will head back to the states to play a slew of high-profile shows, including the super-hip Pitchfork Festival in Chicago.
Not bad for a kid who until recently worked at a Topshop in his local mall. Did he ever foresee jet-setting back and forth to Europe? “Not at all!” says Shamir. He admits that sometimes he’s a bit overwhelmed by the pace at which his career is happening. He mentions the recent day he spotted his face on a billboard in Times Square. “It was almost uncomfortably surreal,” he says. “Right in that split second when I walk out of the building and that’s my face, my brain couldn’t even fathom or process happiness. I was just like, What the actual fuck?”
The buzz has been building for the past year, and started reaching fever pitch in March. At the annual music conference South by Southwest in Austin, Shamir — dressed in a Yo Gabba Gabba T-shirt – gave a now fabled performance as part of the NPR musician showcase.
Shamir laughs at the thought of it all. “I don’t know what I did! I just got onstage. I don’t know why it was so magical. I think I just give a vibe,” he says. “I don’t really like to ‘put on a show.’ I don’t like it to be like, I’m here. You’re there. Watch me sing. I kind of like to make my shows interactive. People kind of feel like they’re at a house party and I’m like a drunk person that just got onstage.” Nearly all of the reviews mentioned Shamir jumping offstage to hug concertgoers. “I do that at all my shows,” he says, as if it’s the most ordinary thing in the world.
Since then, Shamir has released several videos, including one for the single “Call It Off.”
For the clip, director Philip Hodges hooked up with puppeteers from Jim Henson Studios. “I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen in the video. I was like, ‘So you’re telling me they are going to make a Muppet version of me?!’” he says. He admits it was a major thrill seeing himself in Muppet form, right down to his signature nose ring and dreads. “It was amazing.”
Is Shamir afraid that morphing into a Muppet may have brought his career peak too soon?
“Not at all,” says the singer. “Because that’s a pretty good peak!”
Even without the Muppets, the toys, the bright colors, and vivid clothes, Shamir projects sweetness. The most flippant songs on Ratchet somehow sound upbeat — sassy instead of snide. At first, the album seems to have nothing in common with his musical heroes, jazz superstar Nina Simone, and punk singer Ari Up, who fronted the 1970s British punk band the Slits. But listen closely and hear Shamir's fearlessness in doing something fresh and outrageous, and the influences begin to make perfect sense.
He learned a lot from each singer’s delivery. “They were both really bold. They both have such unconventional voices and they know how to use them, and to use them in a powerful way,” Shamir explains. “That’s what’s inspiring to me as singer. I don’t think I’m a singer that likes to flex my vocals. I’ll do some runs and a bunch of high notes, but that’s it. I really pride myself and I really work on just trying to sing. Like emotions. Just using my voice, not doing anything extra. Both of them don’t do anything extra. They just open their mouths and people hear them.”
Shamir says Simone influenced him personally, too. “She had a very androgynous style. Growing up, I heard her music and I asked my mom, ‘What’s his name?’and she said, ‘Her name is Nina Simone.’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s so cool.’ That deep, rich tone.
“So listening to her my whole life, and now being, like, compared in that androgynous aspect, I guess she’s always been like my beacon.”