Whether you’re familiar with his visual work in Lana Del Rey’s “Tropico” or Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” or his appearances in British GQ and Italian Vogue, Shaun Ross is a face one cannot easily forget. His role in the modeling industry as a young, Black albino man has opened doors toward representation for those with albinism. In his extensive portfolio throughout his teenage years to his trailblazing 20s, the charismatic model has been featured in high-end campaigns including Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, and Fendi.
Within his Bronx, NY-based roots, Ross recalls his first exposure to genre-hopping thanks to his parents’ elite music taste that spans from smooth jazz to electronic pop. His passion for music at a young age intertwined with an unfortunate past of bullying due to being ostracized for his albinism. Nevertheless, a young Ross was encouraged by his supportive family to pursue dance and be the shining star that he was meant to be. Eventually, Ross tapped into his career — both literally and figuratively — at the Bronx Dance Theatre before continuing on to the prestigious Alvin Ailey School.
After being discovered at 16 by a modeling agency via YouTube, Ross’s dancing career was abruptly swapped out for the fashion industry. The fast-paced change led him to Los Angeles, where he met stars like Rosalía and Lizzo — but more importantly, he met songwriter Rush Davis.
Ross transitioned from his modeling career to the music industry with his breakout single “Symmetry” in 2017, which was co-written by Davis. The R&B track, produced by Brook D’Leau, featured background vocals from Lizzo that set the standard for the rest of Ross’s musical sound. However, he understood that his journey while creating music would take a great deal of “reprogramming” to prepare himself for the versatility he sought to achieve.
“I knew [transitioning from modeling into music] was going to be hard as it is in its own way to be very honest with you because it’s reprogramming,” the 29-year-old New York native says. “That’s one of the hardest things to do when you are an existing individual to reprogram who you are to the world, especially if it’s something you want to do.”
Creed actress Tessa Thompson and Men in Black star Will Smith are two inspirations that Ross mentions when discussing Hollywood stars who haven’t been “taken seriously” by their audiences for their versatility. Ross continues to credit Uncut Gems actor Adam Sandler for his more underrated serious roles compared to his usual comedic films.
“It’s just about expressing the many different persons that live inside of you,” Ross says. “And I think it’s about conditioning the minds of the consumer to not just be one thing, since your favorite artists can be more than what they present themselves as at the first time.”
Along with being a model and recording artist, the multitalented creative is able to intersect his activism within his art. Along with a TED x Talk in 2014, he created the In My Skin I Win campaign to challenge societal standards of beauty and embrace albinism.
“You have so many different parts of you as an individual, and I think that a lot of people are afraid to hop outside of what the world expects them to be,” he shares. “There are probably so many other things that you can do, but the world just sees you as this one thing and only expects you to just do that one thing forever. And it’s like, no, that’s not true. And I believe that it’s important to express many different forms of you.”
Ross has traveled the globe, been featured in a music video for Queen Bey’s self-titled album, and walked in New York’s Fashion Week — yet when I question him about his best experience, his passion for creating music is the answer that resonated the most with him.
“In fashion, I’ve had a lot of great moments,” he starts. “It’s not so much about being on music videos, but I think being able to travel around the world, to be honest with you, and live in different countries has been like such an experience and a blessing. But when it comes to my craft, I would say, [my best moment] is definitely when it comes to music, because I feel and know that it’s something that I want to do.”
SHIFT, Ross’s debut album, is a 10-track collection released by his label Jex Records on May 7. The music is infused with disco, electro pop, and R&B, making the model-turned-musician the living embodiment of the word “shift.” Influenced by artists ranging from Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk to neo-soul vocalist Maxwell, Ross’s taste in music is transparent in his ethereal sound. If you’re looking for a track to add to your “roll-down-the-car-window” playlist, you’ll enjoy one of SHIFT’s 10 groovy anthems for the summer.
While adapting to the pandemic and simultaneously creating SHIFT, it’s under assumption that the album’s title is related to the artist’s pivot. While catching up with Ross during a Zoom call, he shares that the five-letter word is related to his goal of creating a shift in the music industry. “To be honest with you, [SHIFT] was named before the pandemic happened. I came up with the name maybe October 2019,” Ross responds.
In an Instagram post in late March, Ross credited frequent collaborator Anastasia Delmark for being “such an amazing director.”
“It all starts with believing, especially in a time like now,” Ross wrote in his caption. “We create ideas that feel natural but also ideas we can execute. The pandemic made it impossible for everyone to finish their work, but we still found a way to make it work.”
To begin and conclude the album, spoken-word artist and poet Ursula Rucker is featured. Having Rucker on SHIFT is a full-circle moment for Ross, who has been a fan of her work since he was a teenager.
“I’ve listened to Ursula Rucker since I was about 13 years old,” he says. “My mom would always play songs by her. She’s a phenomenal poet, and I’ve always just loved her voice. I feel like her voice is so learning.”
While attempting to contact her during the pandemic, Ross messaged her via Instagram, thus the unique collaboration was born. The intimate conversation held between Rucker and Ross is heard throughout the beginning and final track of the album.
“Most people, when you’re doing music, you go into a booth. But what people would never know is that she basically went in a bathroom and sent [the message],” he says. “What you’re hearing is a voice memo edited like you would do on your iPhone.”
“But the conversation with her was phenomenal, because she says [in the final track] ‘growing pain is just a temporary stitch, heal from it, learn from it, become one from it. Anyway, he said, let temporary have its way. I say dark days don’t always stay. Shit don’t last forever.’ And that for me, is a confirming moment.”
Released late January, “WX5” — the lead single for SHIFT — is an abbreviation for the 5 Ws, which ask who, what, where, when, and why. In the music video, Ross is serving an infectious energy that is described by Ross himself as a blend of Sade’s “Cherish the Day” meets The Matrix. The origin story for “WX5” began in Ross’s former art class when his teacher shared that any situation can be navigated by remembering the 5 Ws. Along with dancing upon a rooftop, he encourages his audience to “pay attention to your surroundings” and question the image we reflect to others.
In the music video for SHIFT’s second single, “YOU CARE,” Ross dons an all-white suit while communicating the entire track in American Sign Language. His goal is to convey to listeners that it’s important to care about communication beyond ways that are comfortable solely for them.
“Communication is the binding factor of our very existence, but we often fall short when learning new ways to express ourselves and understand each other,” Ross wrote in an Instagram post.
The lively, disco-esque “LIVIN” is the third single released that immediately places its listener into the soundtrack of a coming-of-age movie. The three-and-a-half minute visual directed by Delmark features Ross dancing throughout the Sepulveda Dam in a sepia-toned setting. Coincidentally, Ross’s inspiration for the music video location transpired from his 2013 cameo in American Horror Story: Coven.
“I was on American Horror Story, and I was on this little scene. And I remember, we shot in this area, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I want to shoot something here one day, but I’m pretty sure it would literally take like an army to shoot here,’” he says.
In late March after the release of “LIVIN,” Ross opened up via an Instagram post about how the process of filming the music video was “more than unique but rather confirming.” Following the death of his Aunt Margo and close friend and former director David Solomini in 2020, Ross dedicated the music video to the two that “truly believed” in him throughout his career.
Solomini was the partner of Delmark, Ross’s longtime collaborator, before his untimely death last year. After a minor setback while filming “LIVIN,” Solomini passed prior to the music video finishing filming.
“I had watched him go through the process of trying to heal himself in so many different ways,” Ross says while opening up about his grieving process. “It was just crazy. Like, yeah, he passed away. And it was just so weird, because I watched this person try to heal themselves. I watched him talk about me like he really, really believed in me even before music. He’s also the person who shot my first ever artwork from my single ‘Symmetry.’ And one thing I loved was that he always involved me in the conversation or whatever it was.”
A month later, Ross’s aunt — who was a grandmother figure to him — passed away.
“[Her death] was kind of surreal seeing, too, because when you see hard people in your family, you never ever think that they will go anywhere,” he shares. “You kind of look at them like superheroes that are undefeated But, you know, we are human.So yeah, that’s where that inspiration came from. It just felt like a new repurpose that happened for the song, and a new purpose for the video. So it was dedicated to people who I know and truly believed in me and who I was and contributed in the ways that they could with their time being here on this earth.”
In mid-April, Ross released the track list for SHIFT less than two weeks before releasing the fourth single “CREAM,” co-written by the aforementioned Davis. The euphoric synthesizer that introduces the track highlights Ross’s range while simultaneously comparing the confectionary taste of cream to honey.
As for Ross’s future within the music industry, he expressed that he’d love to collaborate with funk musician Meshell Ndegeocello and Scottish electronic music duo Boards of Canada. As I question Ross about his choice of dream collaborations, he shares that he loves working with things that “don’t automatically make sense at firsthand.”
“[Ndegeocello and Boards of Canada] don’t have a similar sound to mine, but I pull inspiration from them,” Ross concludes.
After our riveting conversation about his upcoming album, Ross and I share our similar interest in attending concerts and festivals, with him mentioning that he “cannot wait” for his live performances in the future.
Throughout the 10-track odyssey, Ross hopes that his listeners understand that SHIFT is a metaphor for letting life guide you on your destined path.
“Let the shift have you let whatever it is move you. Life I said, ‘let temporary have its way,’ let it do what it’s going to do to you. I think that in life we go through so much trauma because we keep trying to fight against what’s just supposed to move through us. But we’re afraid of change. So you know, it’s just whatever’s happened in your life. Just let it happen. What’s supposed to happen for one day, we prolong it by pushing it and ending up now being one month.”
This year is Ross’s year to define himself beyond his albinism, modeling, and well-known appearances. SHIFT is the embodiment of his ability to portray himself in multiple identities.