Soundtracking the emergency: Is there space for climate change in dance music?
Shamir Bailey gives me a hug and rubs down my sweaty cycle arms: "You’re all wet!" We’ve never met before, but he’s been waiting in the top room of his label XL Recordings' headquarters in London’s Notting Hill for a run of press, on a corner couch flanked by posters and paraphernalia of Robert Johnson and The White Stripes, a row of standing bongo drums in the corner. "I love everything in this room," he says, "It’s so camp."
Creatively known simply by his mononym, Shamir is a new signing to the iconic label responsible for some of the most successful indie acts in the past couple of decades, "Twigs, Adele, obvie, Vampire Weekend, um, Radiohead," he muses on his favourites in a softly-spoken countertenor voice, draped across the couch while chewing on a gummy sweet, "This whole roster is just, like, insane."
The Las Vegas-born and based artist is hugging a backpack printed with multi-coloured icy-poles, wearing a Disney-branded sweatshirt and black nail polish. He’s about to release his highly anticipated album debut, ‘Ratchet’, and if you’ve heard the convulsing dub bass rhythms of On The Regular, you wouldn’t be wrong to compare the music – along with its colour-blocked visual aesthetic – to that early '00s dance-punk revival birthed in Brooklyn’s by-now-vanished warehouse scene.
Except that Shamir is somewhat different. He’s an epicene performer from Nevada’s Sin City, where an under-21 music community doesn’t exist and the only musicians of note to come out of Las Vegas recently are The Killers and Imagine Dragons. More geared towards young adult rock and EDM entertainment, Las Vegas conjures ideas of a place where music goes to die rather than flourish; an end-of-career cash cow where the likes of Elton John, Celine Dion, even Britney Spears, perform long-term residencies at Caesar’s Palace.
"No one lives on the Strip. It’s just completely geared towards tourists. It’s just something to see," says Shamir about the "three or four miles" of the resort and casino route Las Vegas is famous for, "It’s almost like, oddly, not even part of Vegas. It’s just like it’s own little entity and no one lives there." Beyond there, life goes on as normal in suburbs, except that that ‘normal’ is one that seems far more accepting and diverse than even some of the more famous cultural centres of the States, and Shamir – a "super rare" third generation Las Vegan in a transplant city who’s into stand up comedy and horoscopes – is its personification.
In other interviews it’s mentioned that your mum’s pretty interesting – she’s into witchcraft, or something?
Shamir: "[Chuckles] Pretty much, yeah. I guess, for lack of a better word, like, Paganism."
But you were raised Muslim?
Shamir: "Muslim, yeah. But we’ve kind of left Islam behind. My mum’s dad was in the Nation [of Islam] and they converted my grandma, but then my mum’s dad died when she was four, so she never really got to know him and I never really got to know him – but my grandma always kept the whole Islam thing going. She raised them to be Muslim, and then my mum kind of raised me to be Muslim, but I was really young and she never really pushed it on me like her mum did. So we kind of grew out of it together. We grew into our own separate ideals, and both our ideals are different, but we kind of just accept each other. It’s really cool – my mum’s always been really free-flow like that."
You don’t believe in god, right? Or like, an institutionalised, religious one?
Shamir: "I believe in the universe. I don’t do the Pagan stuff – stones and twigs and spells and stuff like she does – but I definitely do think everything is moved by the universe in that type of way."
People tend to focus on the casinos in Las Vegas, but what’s the culture like outside of that, particularly in terms of diversity and acceptance?
Shamir: "I was able to grow up and be who I am and never really got picked on. It’s very tolerant. I think even sometimes more than places people think of as really safe and liberal and more forward-thinking, [like] in New York and LA. I’ve seen more prejudice in New York and LA than in Vegas, honestly. It’s just that not many people live in Vegas, so it’s not that big of a deal. Like you hear about trans people getting beat up in Brooklyn – I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything like that in Vegas, and there’s definitely trans people in Vegas."
Would you say that you’re more queer-identifying than part of any particular gay culture?
Shamir: "I see myself as just, like, a being, and genderless. I don’t see how I can be part of the gay culture, because I’m assuming gay culture is homosexual men who like other homosexual men – I’ve never been in a serious relationship with a guy, my only serious relationship has been with a female. But I don’t like to identify strictly as a male, [and] I don’t like to identify as a female. I don’t feel tethered to a gender like that, you know?"
Do you have a preferred pronoun, do you get annoyed if people refer to you as ‘he’?
Shamir: "I don’t have preferred pronoun, but if there was a preferred one, I probably would be 'he'. I have male parts and I’m proud of it; I’m happy to be a male, physically. Like I said on Twitter, I don’t let that be my whole being. Just because I’m physically a male, doesn’t mean I have to do these things or be this way. I don’t let it box me in to mentally being a male because I like certain typical male things, and I like certain typical female things. Like, I was that kid who would go and play with some action figures and then go play with my Easy-Bake Oven – I never really saw a problem with it. I’m like, why can’t these two things merge? Why do they have to be so separate?"
"I was that kid who would go and play with some action figures and then go play with my Easy-Bake Oven – I never really saw a problem with it. I’m like, why can’t these two things merge? Why do they have to be so separate?" – Shamir
I think a lot about politicising people as a subject of representation. Part of me feels like the point needs to be made, but the other part of me feels that if I believe something isn’t an issue, then we shouldn’t make an issue of it.
Shamir: "Exactly. That’s why I don’t like to talk about it – everyone else wants to talk about it. I just make my points and then leave it there. Because you’re exactly right – why talk about it? I feel the same way with that, and even sometimes race. My whole Twitter set of talking about my gender and everything, that was recent. I never felt the need to address that up until recently, after Call It Off came out and it had the big YouTube push and everybody kept tweeting me and asking me.
"It was really uncomfortable for people not to actually pinpoint my gender, and I thought that was ridiculous, because my only job is for me to give you music. Why is my gender such a thing if I’m just a musician? That’s why I said that – I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowing my gender just because they want to know it for their own benefit, because I’m just supposed to give you music. I don’t have to give you anything else. Then I also do address it to people who do ask me ‘What preferred pronoun do you want?’ or whatever, but like I said, it doesn’t matter to me. You can call me whatever you want.
"I don’t like ‘they’ though, because I’m just one person. I know that 'they' is the neutral term now, but I don’t prefer it. I’m just like, ‘You can call me ‘he’, ‘she’, whatever, but 'they' is kind of weird. It’s fine if you use 'they', but I just find it funny because that’s, like, multiple people, and I’m only one person! [Laughs]"
It’s interesting how people become a social representation as if they’re nothing more than that, like ‘best female rapper’. But at the same time people become really affronted by your very existence, but maybe they need an access point, to be able to understand that there’s more to identity.
Shamir: "Yeah, who knows? Maybe one day at an award show I can win best male and female vocal."
Yeah, even that. It’s like segregated toilets.
Shamir: "I can tell you how many times I’ve walked into the men’s bathroom, get the stares and they’re like, ‘What is she doing in here?’ And I walk up to the stall and pee and they’re like, ‘What!? What is going on!?’ If I had a dollar for every time that happened…"
Sometimes I find myself doing double-takes trying to figure out what part of a binary a person falls on, and I shouldn’t.
Shamir: "But you know what, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I do the same thing because also some people prefer one pronoun, especially if you’re transgender, you shouldn’t call them their born sex. So I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. And also I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask, too. I don’t get offended when people ask me, if you're doing it just for that reason only, rather than trying to figure it out for your own selfish needs."
You’re very wise.
Shamir: "I don’t think I’m wise, I just think I’m practical. I don’t think I’m saying something really that substantial. I think I’m very honest with myself, and that’s something a lot of people aren’t. And that oddly comes off as wise."
"I don’t think I’m wise, I just think I’m practical. I think I’m very honest with myself, and that’s something a lot of people aren’t. And that oddly comes off as wise." – Shamir
You’re giving me very balanced opinions but you’re a depressive, right?
Shamir: "[Laughs] Nooo! No. And that’s because I’m able to get that out through my music, like that’s my therapy."
Okay. Maybe I was just think about a lot of the people I know with high anxiety and depression tend to have the most balanced opinions.
Shamir: "I guess it’s very easy for me to be dark and sad sometimes because I’m a Scorpio, and this is how we are sometimes. We’re quite goth by nature [laughs]. But also I’m a very bubbly person, and I think I’m able to be very positive and upbeat because I’m able to get all those dark things and demons off my chest through my music and art. If it wasn’t for that I probably would be a more sad, darker person."
Are you into horoscopes?
Shamir: "A little bit, yeah. I’m not too deep into it, but I do think the aligning of the stars do affect who you are as a person – like on the night that you were born and everything. And I’m definitely very much a Scorpio: I have my dark moments, I’m very quiet, I’m timid and to myself; I’m very introverted. But I’m also very talkative, and very bubbly, and very much a people-person because of my Gemini Rising. And that’s sometimes such a battle because I feel them both and sometimes it’s like, ‘Do I want to go out and be a person, or do I want to stay in my bed and not leave for like three days?"
i don’t know my rising sign because my mum doesn’t remember what time I was born.
Shamir: "[Laughs] She was just ready to get you out!"
XL Recordings release 'Ratchet' on May 18th 2015 (pre-order).