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Shamir uses his androgynous voice to his advantage

Singer Shamir in his 2014 music video 'On The Regular'
Singer Shamir in his 2014 music video 'On The Regular'
Anthony Sylvester/XL Recordings

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After the release of his 2014 EP, "Northtown," Shamir quickly became one of the most talked about artists heading into the new year. His music garnered attention for its distinctive blend of R&B, house music, rap and even country, while his androgynous voice has been the center of attention. 

"I think, especially in music, people are just really hungry for something different," says Shamir, "and you know, me being different was kind of a bad thing but ... not a bad thing but just like no one really got it."

Born Shamir Bailey, the singer/rapper grew up in North Las Vegas, where the rural suburban environment influenced him to write from a more sentimental place, "as opposed to [writing] about fancy things as people would think that I would write about coming from Vegas," he says. 

Living next to a pig farm, Shamir began to write country songs at the age of eight because he could relate to the idea of a "home on the range." He competed in country music competitions and always got good feedback from the judges, but says, "It's just really weird for people to see me coming up with an acoustic guitar with bright colors and dreadlocks, singing Brad Paisley, and Sugarland and Miranda Lambert."

His appearance wasn't the only thing that stuck out, but also his distinctive voice. "People were obviously very nice and admired my singing voice," he says, "but they just couldn't put it in a box. They were just kind of confused by it."

Shamir says it's common for people to ask about his gender due to his voice, but wishes more people wouldn't be afraid to ask. "I'd rather you ask than automatically think that I'm a girl," he says. "It's kind of awkward to be like, 'Oh, I'm a boy.'" 

When Shamir was younger, he was teased because of his voice and would get irritated when people mistook him for the opposite sex. So he did some soul searching and decided it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Shamir says "huge androgynous figures like Nina Simone ... pretty much owned it and it's worked."  Once the singer owned his own androgyny, he found his voice in music. 

After graduating from high school last summer, he started to experiment with an old drum machine. A couple months later, he wrote and posted a song called "I'll Never Be Able To Love" on his Facebook page. "Everyone freaked out," he says. "So that's when I realized, Oh, maybe I have something."

The music industry also realized Shamir had something to offer. Within a year of  his "Northtown" EP on the New York independent record label, Godmode, he signed with the British indie-label XL Recordings, which is home to The xx, FKA Twigs and Radiohead.

Shortly after, Shamir became a finalist for BBC's "Sound of 2015" list, where industry tastemakers vote on who will be the breakout artist of the year. Last year's winner was R&B singer Sam Smith, who went on to sell more than two million copies of his debut album, "In The Lonely Hour," and is currently nominated for six Grammy awards. 

Shamir attributes his swift rise in the music business to the fact that he's different. "Especially in independent music," he says, "people are really open to unique and different things. So I was very happy and very overwhelmed by all the good feedback that I got from releasing my music to the world." 

The BBC’s “Sound of 2015” begins its top five countdown Monday and will announce the winner on Jan. 9.

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