Meet Bilal Hassani, the Queer Pop Newcomer Pushing Boundaries in the French Music Industry
French pop singer Bilal Hassani has been branded as “different” by music labels in his home country. Sporting androgynous looks and being unafraid to share his authentic self with his fans, Hassani says that it has been hard for him to break through in a business that rewards familiar music tropes.
“They tried to make me look like some kind of teen pop star, like a Justin Bieber format,” he says. “And I'm really not against that, I think it can be cool, but I always fought with that. So I sort of got blacklisted from everything.”
Instead of giving in, the singer is hitting back with his new music video for “Shadows,” premiering below. The dark, stripped-down song shows Hassani wearing long hair and a genderless outfit, which he says is meant as a direct message to those who have denied him access to the music business. “This was kind of a 'fuck you' to them when I wear the wig, because I know it's going to piss them off.”
Hassani talked to Billboard about his new video, connecting with his fans via YouTube and more.
What was the inspiration behind these lyrics?
So, the inspiration behind this song was that I was feeling kind of depressed, and I got the idea really late at night, because I was all in my head and in my thoughts, running around with this messy stuff and this very depressing stuff. So I started to write this song, and it's about the feeling that you get when you feel like you're in a rush all of the time, especially when you're chasing success. And since I'm starting to become an adult, I have to take on these big responsibilities, and I don't feel like I'm ready yet, and I think it's stress and pressure mixing together in some crazy thoughts, and so that was the idea behind it.
I think you reflect that in the video. What was the creative process with the video like?
Well, when I finished writing the song, I already had some initial ideas for the video. First of all, I had this thing about how I had imagined myself in my sleep. When I'm dreaming or having a nightmare, I have this long hair, so I really wanted to wear a wig. So it was part of that first step, I was like "I need to have long hair." And I wanted there to be a lot of different faces to represent different mindsets in the shadows that pull me in.
Let's go back and talk about the look you had — it felt very androgynous. Was that intentional and important to you?
It is exactly what I was going for. I didn't want it to be full-on drag, but I really needed something subtle. So the very long hair, but still no shape or no forms that define me as more feminine or manly, I wanted to be that blurry line in the middle. I think it worked, I mean I hope so. [laughs]
It's very important for me to try and break barriers, because in my country, France, it's very rare to see a pop singer or a singer in general that is trying different things. So I really wanted to showcase that, because I know that the community is big in France, but there is not much representation at all. So I tried my best to kind of show that other side. I've been working in music since I was 10, and I've been signed and unsigned, and I was on TV and everything, and it has been really hard for me to get recognized in the industry because people try to block me because I'm different. So this was kind of a "fuck you" to them when I wear the wig, because I know it's going to piss them off.
You said you've been signed and unsigned — can you explain what happened there?
Well when I was just, like, 10, I got the opportunity to sign to a label. I've always wanted to sing in English, because I always thought that it sounded better even though I love French, I love my language. But they kind of forced me into French. So I was already resistant, saying "I'm not going to sign your contract." And I ended up not signing it. And then I had a few starts of things, a few starts of albums, and every time, they did not go in my direction at all. They tried to make me look like some kind of teen pop star, like a Justin Bieber format. And I'm really not against that, I think it can be cool, but I always fought with that. So I sort of got blacklisted from everything, and now everytime I meet someone in the industry, they're like, "Oh, it's that guy. The guy who doesn't want to listen."
Are you currently signed to a label?
No, I'm not signed. I'm completely independent.
What is that like for your creative freedom?
It's so good, but it's so hard. Sometimes, I feel like it's so so hard, but at the same time I have a lot of friends who are signed, and I see how they cannot go through fully with their art. But I see that I can just go ahead and write a song and immediately, when you're done, it's the best feeling ever. I really love it. I work with very few people, but it's the same people — it's a real time, and it's very free.
You were one The Voice Kids in France — how did that affect your approach to making music?
Well, The Voice Kids was a very artistic experience for me, because I learned a lot. I really did not have that much experience on stage, so it was really good for me in that way. But it also showed me that I really needed to be me, because when I was there — and I'm never going to complain about the experience because it was great, but I saw when I was there that they were trying to guide me in a certain direction. They wanted me to have this personality on TV that did not represent me, so yeah. That was definitely the downside of it, but it definitely taught me a lot.
You've also garnered a considerable audience on YouTube, with a pretty passionate French following. Why do you think there is so much resonance between your work and the gay community in France?
Well, I don't even know how it all happened, but like a year after The Voice, I started going on YouTube and making videos because I think it's a really good platform for independent artists in general. So I started putting out these fun videos and covers, and a lot of people started following me! I never started taking that for granted, because I know how hard I work, I've been through all of this. And it's not an absolutely huge fan base, I'm obviously not the biggest star in the world, but I still really cherish my fans, and I love them so much.
I'm really close to them, and I think it feels like a really honest relationship between them and I, because I can talk to them and they can talk to me. I reply to things, and I feel like I need to talk to them, because I feel like there's not that much representation for queer people in France. A lot of my audience are members of the community, so I try to talk to them and let them know that they're not alone. I think that makes them more passionate, I guess.