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Shamir Is Ready to Shake Up the Mainstream’s Status Quo: ‘I Want to Be the Pop Star I’m Still Not Seeing’

Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our June selection: Shamir.

Even in the face of a global pandemic that is keeping artists off the road and stuck in their homes, Shamir Bailey is thriving. “I’m an introvert, so I’m fine,” he chuckles over the phone.

It certainly helps that he is keeping himself busy — earlier this month, the 25-year-old dropped his latest single “On My Own,” and announced that he had a brand new album on the way. The news came as a welcome shock to many of his fans, especially after the singer dropped a full 9-track surprise album back in March.

But the thing that fans immediately noticed about his new song was its sound — the catchy, indie-pop vibe, mixed with clever songwriting and some grungy production, made Shamir sound almost as pop-focused as his entrance to the music industry was with his breakthrough 2014 single “On the Regular.”

As it turns out, that reaction was intended — with his new song and an impending independently released album, Shamir says he’s purposefully making music that’s more “accessible” than the rest of his indie work. “I could have done this much earlier,” he tells Billboard of his turn back towards pop. “I think I just wanted to get a lot of experimentation out there, and get sturdy in my artistry before I started to do anything more mainstream.”

There is a certain confidence in Shamir’s voice as he speaks about this new phase of his career. After seeing breakthrough success with mainstream pop music, and subsequently stepping away from that process to focus on a more DIY approach, Shamir sounds as though he has achieved a balance that he’s long been striving for.

“Pop music is very easy for me,” he says with a laugh. “This record was relatively easier than even something like Ratchet, to be honest.”

It was Ratchet that put Shamir’s name on the map — his debut project, released in May 2015, received critical acclaim, landing on multiple year-end lists at magazines like Rolling Stone and NME. Shamir was the name on everyone’s lips, as the world was just waiting to hear what would come next.

But for Shamir, Ratchet was the beginning of a fraught relationship between himself and his label, XL Recordings. After the success of Ratchet, Shamir was delighted that the public response to a black, queer, non-binary pop artist was so positive, but he wanted to move in a different direction. XL disagreed, urging him to stay with the pop sound that had earned him so much praise. When they couldn’t come to an agreement about his path moving forward, XL decided to drop Shamir in 2017, bringing his burgeoning career to a seeming standstill.

What followed that dropping ended up being one of the most profound moments of the singer’s career. Struggling through his soon-to-be-diagnosed bipolar disorder and considering quitting the music business altogether, Shamir wrote, recorded and released his second album, Hope, over the course of one weekend.

In the years since then, the SoundCloud-exclusive, 30 minute project stands as the quintessential cult record of Shamir’s career, and served to prove to him that he was in control of his career, label or not. “That record ended up being the key to my sound,” he says. “It was a way for me to push the restart button, and it was truly just a piece of my raw soul —  like I was cutting my leg off and throwing it to the wolves.”

Since his departure from XL and the reinvigoration of his solo career, Shamir has managed to keep his platform in place, still regularly garnering millions of streams on Spotify and maintaining a steadfast group of followers across social media. To this day, Shamir says he wants to make sure that platform doesn’t go to waste.

“It became a thing where it was like, ‘OK, well, I have to use the small amount of privilege I have for good — considering the fact that I am a part of just about every oppressed group,’” he says. “I’ve always seen my platform as a way for me to say something, to help, to bring other people up, not to stand on top of them.”

One of the ways Shamir decided to do that was with the founding of his very own record label; in April 2019, the singer debuted Accidental Popstar Records, an indie label he designed to help new artists find their way into the industry at large — with brand new acts like Grant Pavol, Southwick and Poolblood signing on.

Even though Accidental Popstar is his own boutique label, Shamir doesn’t actually release his own music on it. Both of the albums he released following the label’s founding (2019’s Be the Yee, Here Comes the Haw and 2020’s Cataclysm) were released independently, and he plans on releasing his forthcoming record in the exact same way.

The reasoning behind this? Shamir wants Accidental Popstar to focus solely on developing new talent. “I think of Accidental Popstar as less of a record label, and more of an artist development house,” he says. “The whole point is to help them with anything that they need, including production, visuals, videos, art direction, styling and releasing their records until they are able to get to a point where they don’t need me any more.”

It’s an area of the music industry the singer says is completely lacking nowadays, with major labels more interested in finding fully developed, completely realized talent. “I’m doing a job for free that labels just won’t do anymore,” he says. “There’s no money in the music industry any more, so now they want fully formed artists. I’m doing the job that no one wants, and I love it.”

When it comes to the singer’s aspirations, though, he doesn’t mince his words. “I want to get signed to a major label,” he says, matter-of-factly. After years spent operating outside of the mainstream music industry, Shamir says he has established himself as a musician and is ready for the rest of the industry to take him seriously,

“I avoided majors for so long, mostly because I was scared of being a mainstream pop star,” he says. “But now that I know how the industry works, now that I have a little bit more perspective in the industry, and now that I truly know myself as an artist, I think I’m ready to talk to them. It’s not a dealbreaker — if push comes to shove, I have no problem self-releasing again, because I know how to do it. But it’s tiring and hard, having to do everything yourself.”

Part of the reason he says he wants to enter back into the mainstream is for the simple fact that the diversity among the queer talent currently operating on that level is missing. Even saying the phrase “queer pop star,” he points out, conjure up images of stars like Troye Sivan and Adam Lambert: queer singers who are cisgender, white men.

“We need far more representation — the music we have now is not varied enough, and it definitely isn’t black enough,” he explains of queer music movement. “I’m operating in the hopes that me putting myself out in the mainstream again will be a good look for black non-binary people.”

Racial equality, both in and out of the music industry, is something that Shamir has spent most of his career speaking up about as often as he can. Back in 2018, he released his poignant single “I Can’t Breathe” as the opening track of his album Resolution, refusing to let the message of the Black Lives Matter movement fall to the wayside.

“There wasn’t a huge national conversation about Black Lives Matter when I released it,” he recalls. “A writer that I did an interview with at the time asked me, ‘Why did you decide to write this now, so long after Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner and all of these people who’ve died?’ I said, ‘Who said this problem has ended?’”

Shamir has seen the song take on a new life in the midst of the continued protests following the death of George Floyd — he’s glad to see people “waking up” to the reality he was singing about. But he’s also furious that it took this long for them to realize what was happening all along. “That song is still relevant now, it was relevant then, and it will continue to be relevant until actual structural change is done. Period.”

It’s clear that Shamir is an artist on a mission — he knows the industry both inside and out of the recording booth, he’s certainly talented enough, and he has a message of change that he’s ready to spread to the masses. The only question he’s left with is whether or not the industry is willing to let him back in. “I want to be the pop star that I’m still not seeing,” he proclaims.

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