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On a new album, 'Heterosexuality,' Shamir tackles the trauma of being oneself

Shamir Bailey.
Marcus Maddox
Courtesy of the artist
Shamir Bailey.

Shamir Bailey quickly became a teenage sensation back in 2014, when his debut single, "On The Regular," blew up. But instead of riding that wave of success to the top as a pop star, Shamir retreated from the public eye just as fast, because the media focused more on his identity as a publicly out, nonbinary artist than his music. "It was rare that I would interview and anyone would want to talk about my music – like, at all ... it was just about my identity, my sexuality, whatever. And I'm, like, 19."

Seven years and many recordings later, he's set to release a new album, Heterosexuality. The new music arrives to a culture more accepting of gender expression outside of the traditional binary, and in it Shamir tackles some of the trauma that resulted from that initial spark of attention.

"My trauma lies in just like the world, like basically being mad at that," Shamir says to A Martinez of NPR's Morning Edition, in a conversation about his initial debut and what he hopes listeners take away from the new record. "I think this record is about society's problem with me."

A Martinez, Morning Edition: I want to go back to your first big break. "On the Regular" was a huge hit, and that intense spotlight made you retreat from writing music for a while. Can you take us back to that time in your career, what you were feeling and why you did what you did?

Bailey: Well, I wrote that song in like 15 minutes as a joke and it just took on a life of its own. I didn't think anyone would like it. Then, you know, it became what it became and then it took over my life and everything else.

It was really, really hard for me because after that song and after that whole album [Ratchet], I did not feel in control of my art. I felt like the teat of a cow – I felt like I'd been wrung out for my sweet nectar and the people in charge will do what they want with it. I think that stress made me basically stop producing the milk. It wasn't until I felt a level of liberation that I was able to create again.

Cover art for Shamir's new album, <em>Heterosexuality</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Cover art for Shamir's new album, Heterosexuality.

When Harry Styles was on the cover of Vogue in a dress, it was so well-received. You were not allowed to maybe do some of that a few years earlier, but a white pop star gets to do it – and all of a sudden now, everyone is good with it.

I mean, this is a tale as old as time. I felt nothing and felt congratulatory all at once. Like, great. This was like a furthering of a certain type of liberation. But the person who is going to move the totem pole is always going to be the person with the most privilege.

I was saying this to a friend who's also a musician who's also Black... we can't allow ourselves to care about what's fair, or like true equality in this business, or at least just in this society. If we allow ourselves to be uprooted by frustration, then the same systems they'll be fighting against have won, but just in a different way. They got through a different door.

You've said that Heterosexuality is an album where you're really addressing some of the trauma you've experienced in the past. For people that are going to be listening to it, what are you hoping that they're hearing? What message are you putting out there with this?

There's really no mission statement in this. A song like "Cisgender" is clear about what it means to me, but it can mean a lot of other things to people who aren't queer, or who are cisgender. I got signed because the head of my label, who is a cisgender heterosexual man, was so moved by "Cisgender." Being able to take something that I feel very alone in and turn it into something that can resonate with anyone ... it helps me, and it helps me feel less alone.

To hear the broadcast version of this interview, use the audio player at the top of this page. Shamir's new record, Heterosexuality, is out Friday, Feb. 11.

Audio edited by Phil Harrell, digital version assisted by Ashley Pointer contributed to this story

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Victoria Whitley-Berry is a director and producer for Morning Edition. They also briefly helped to produce NPR's history podcast Throughline. They joined NPR in 2016 as an intern for All Things Considered on the weekend. Born and raised in Tallahassee, Fla., Whitley-Berry has a bachelor of arts degree in journalism from Texas Christian University.