Singer SHAH is keeping R&B alive

This queer Gen Z songbird has all the right ingredients to be the next big thing

R &B is not dead, though social media might have you believe otherwise. Every other day, someone on Twitter laments about the heyday of the genre and how newer and younger artists aren’t living up to its legacy. But look no further than the energetic melodies of SHAH for proof that R&B is yet alive.

I first discovered the Lawrence, Kansas, native through a viral tweet of their cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Love Is a Losing Game” in July 2021. A quality production set in the middle of a racquetball court, their powerful vocal range was on full display. The video was refreshing to see from an independent music artist because good covers seem few and far between lately. But here was a Gen Z songbird who understood the power and nostalgia they encompass. And as SHAH puts it, “it was a little something for the SHAHties,” his loyal fanbase. The cover now has over 164K views and even caught the attention of one of his musical inspirations, Kehlani, who gushed over SHAH’s cover and encouraged their fans to listen to SHAH’s music.

Artist name: SHAH
Age: 22
Pronouns: he/they
Genre: R&B
Sounds like: The musical lovechild of Bryson Tiller’s clever pen and Kehlani’s spunk
First song you should listen to: “Honest”

Credit: Courtesy of lifeofshah.com

When asked why he does covers, something many indie artists now see as a waste of their time, SHAH says, “Covers are very beneficial for artists on the come-up. Some of my favourite artists that came up when I was younger, I discovered through covers.” One of those artists is Grammy-winning songstress Tori Kelly. But what’s so special about SHAH’s covers is the range of genres (jazz, alternative rock, Motown soul) he uses to showcase his dynamic vocal range. SHAH’s voice is smooth as silk, with a falsetto as airy as a cloud drifting in the night sky.

It took time, however, for him to find the right sound. In June 2018, SHAH released his first single, “Mamacita.” It’s an up-tempo pop offering lined with bass, but as a then-recent high school graduate, the lyrics were adolescent, and he’d yet to find the best direction for his pen. Later that year, SHAH’s steady-paced growth could be heard with the single “Let Me Know.” A second installment of their self-identified pop era, the track showed more care with production and song structure, making it the first original record in his discography with replay value. Then, in 2019, SHAH found their footing with “Wanna Be,” a contemporary pop and R&B single with stacked harmonies that perfectly showcased his vocal instrument.

 

By 2020, the music SHAH released was firmly rooted in R&B, having stepped away from the bells and whistles of pop, a pivot brought on by a change of environment. The young crooner moved to Kansas City. “I needed to be around more Black creatives, which unfortunately wasn’t the case in my hometown,” he says. 

The move, which allowed them to start performing, on average, twice a week at open mics, along with a shift in their songwriting style, helped birth SHAH’s current era. In April of that year, “Change Your Mind” was released. The R&B track is a sultry plea for a chance with a newfound love interest. Along with the release came a college-themed music video in which SHAH works in a campus bookstore where he first meets a new potential love interest. Featuring cutaways to him singing in a field of white roses, the visual tells a compelling story of young love that ends in rejection.

Being openly queer in his music, though, is still something SHAH is navigating. They’re concerned about being blackballed or pigeonholed.

“I’m not going to lie. The industry has scared me out of branding my sexuality this early into my career because I don’t want to be boxed in as a ‘queer artist’ instead of just being an artist that is queer,” says SHAH. Although he wants to be his whole authentic self, he is aware of the double standards he’ll face. 

“Black male artists aren’t given the same leeway as Harry Styles. That’s no shade to him, but that’s literally how this works,” SHAH continues. Whereas someone like the ex-One Directioner might get praised for gender-bending clothing no matter his sexuality, for example, SHAH contends that many Black male artists aren’t afforded similar freedom to do as they please. 

This caution isn’t unwarranted. Last month, SHAH went viral for falling off a stripper pole in his friend’s apartment while wearing a crop top. Some people made homophobic comments. The experience taught him that while many people are waiting to love him, there are also haters waiting to tear them down. “But yes, eventually, I would like to take that step, but I’m genuinely scared for the box it could put me in,” says SHAH.

These fears, however, aren’t stopping the music. Their debut EP, Ambivalence, is slated to release on June 9. SHAH says the album will centre on the concepts of duality and contradiction, which is fitting, considering the two lead singles, “Change Your Mind” and “Involved,” show two opposing sides of love. “Change Your Mind” highlights the initial pursuit of a crush, a track that sets the tone for what SHAHties can expect from the deeply R&B album. “Involved,” which tells the story of one’s realization that a relationship should end, most obviously highlights SHAH’s evolved pen:

You say you changed, but it’s a shame
You still ain’t found no ways to prove it.
You acting shady, but moving ruthless
How this sh*t turn crazy?
Call me Stacy cause I’m clueless.

The EP, which won’t have any featured artists—I’m not really a features person,” they admit—is about 12 minutes of easy listening split into six tracks, five songs and an outro. 

In April, SHAH released “Honest,” the final single from Ambivalence. It is a spunky thesis in defence of a situationship that could be more, though SHAH intends to keep it on the low. The song’s chorus was an idea that began rattling around SHAH’s brain two and half years ago, he says. “I was stumped when I was done with the chorus. I could not write a verse for the longest, for some reason.” 

He put a lot of time into creating the sole verse on “Honest,” replaying the chorus and testing what could work. “I knew this was a perfect hit because I could not stop playing it. So I had to put more time and brainpower into doing it justice,” says SHAH. Fast forward to 2022, and a hit it became. “Honest” is the most commercial sound in SHAH’s discography, something he was intentional about, wanting to catch people’s ears for the last single. The replay value is immense, with a rollout that keeps listeners coming back to the young, Usher-inspired, Y2K-esque song. 

Fans can expect two other songs on the EP, “Maybe” and “Comfort,” and the outro, which is a voice mail from his mom in which she reassures him that they chose the right career path. And I couldn’t agree more. Surely Ambivalence is a great entry point to what will be a musical trajectory worth following.

Daric L. Cottingham (she/her) is an award-winning news, culture and entertainment journalist. She is a proud Southern Black queer trans woman based in Los Angeles, holding a mass communications degree from Prairie View A&M University in Texas and a master’s in sports and entertainment journalism from the University of Southern California. Previously, she worked as a multi-platform editor at the LA Times, in podcast editorial for Spotify, and freelancing for publications like BuzzFeed, Harper’s Bazaar, Essence and The Washington Post. Beyond her portfolio, she does advocacy work as a general board member of NABJLA. Sneakers, animation, gaming, and sports take up her time when she’s not focussed on storytelling.

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