The first time I saw Shamir Bailey on stage was at the 2015 Treasure Island Music Festival, where the then-21-year-old exuded a cool confidence, secure in the knowledge that he’d achieved quite a bit in a compact time frame. After the success of his first full-length album, Ratchet, the future looked rosy for the Las Vegas native. His arresting self-presentation and expressive upper-register vocals make him a natural fit for a cultural moment where boundary-busting and unclassifiability were ascendant.
But apart from his incredible jacket and the way he moved his head, what struck me most about Shamir’s performance was that he smoked on stage. Smoking cigarettes can mean nonchalance or it can mean anxiety, and the latter emotion was already taking hold — and that pretty countertenor voice might be more vulnerable to polyps and swollen vocal cords than most. Having played at venues that watched him like a hawk when he was under 21 made the craving for artistic freedom acute. But instant success — stardom isn’t quite the right word — meant the industry began to exert greater, not lesser, control over his career.
Ratchet’s dance-pop sensibilities were not what Shamir wanted to be tethered to, but the suits wanted him to make the equivalent of Ratchet 2, and quickly. A few weeks after Treasure Island, Shamir went into what he later called a dissociative state during a performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, when the host introduced him as a “rapper.” He went on tour, moved to Philadelphia, and sought treatment for bipolar disorder before putting out an anti-Ratchet album, Hope, last spring. He’d recorded it in a single weekend. Ultimately, his label dropped him and he almost quit music altogether.
But Shamir quickly recorded a third album. Revelations was released in November, less than seven months after Hope. Working in bursts was not the plan, although moving toward an intimate, bedroom sound certainly was.
“It’s some kind of universal elemental thing,” Shamir says. “After Ratchet, every single time I tried to make music in a collaborative effort it just didn’t work out for whatever reason, you know? A lot of times, it had nothing to do with me, it was other people.
“I was just kind of putting my foot down about my unorthodox ideas,” he adds, “which I don’t think were even that unorthodox. But I wanted to stay away from a straightforward sound, you know? I think a lot of my ideas weirded out a lot of people to the point that they didn’t want to keep working with me or release the stuff I was working on, so I was kind of pushed to a point where I had to do everything myself out of necessity.”
Being young, Black, queer, and femme meant fewer people took him seriously, he says. But Hope and Revelations were cathartic — even if the possibility of a negative reaction was terrifying.
“I was very positive people were going to absolutely hate it,” he says of Hope. “I thought that it was going to be this thing that I did that felt very true to myself and that I put my heart and soul into — but at the same time wasn’t what people expected or were used to from me. And it was such a huge change, a complete 180.”
But not everything’s changed. Notably, his set at Rickshaw Stop on Saturday, Feb. 24 is all-ages, because he refused to play a 21-and-over show when he was under 21, occasionally accepting drink tickets from venues that simply assumed he was of age and biding his time when they knew the truth and stopped him.
“I don’t need to get mad,” he says of venues that did their homework. “They’re just doing their job. I just spike a water bottle. I can be discreet.”
Shamir with Pardoner, Soar, and DJ DYL, Saturday, Feb. 24, 8 p.m., at Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell St. $20-$24; rickshawstop.com
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