“We’re activists, we fight every day of our lives,” says singer Shea Diamond. She’s speaking for herself and hitmaker Justin Tranter, who executive produced her debut EP “Seen It All” (Asylum Records). The two plan to celebrate its release by taking in a movie. “We need one night to let down our hair,” she adds.
Tranter, formerly the frontman of Semi Precious Weapons, has had issues with the music industry, and consequently now prefers to work behind-the-scenes rather than on stage. “This business has proven to be just as racist, transphobic, homophobic and misogynistic as the rest of the world, so that’s the obvious challenge [for Shea],” Tranter tells Variety. “The more subtle challenge is that most people don’t want people who’ve actually experienced the hardest hardships singing about them because it’s too real. They’d prefer a white, straight, cis ‘ally’ singing and speaking about it because it makes them less uncomfortable. But those days are over, honey. The truth should come from the source.”
Tranter, who has previously collaborated with the likes of Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, admits, “I don’t get to address the current social political climate in most of the music I work on.” He considers Diamond, whom he discovered performing at a Black Trans Lives Matter event, the ultimate source. Says Tranter: “[she makes] soul music with the most honest, progressive, underdog perspective that one can imagine. Her voice is sent down from heaven to help her tell the raw poetic truth about the hell she has overcome.”
As a boy who always identified as a girl growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas (before moving to Memphis and then Flint, Michigan), Diamond was raised on gospel music and later gravitated toward Diana Ross, Tina Turner and Dolly Parton. As a transgender teenage runaway, she robbed a store at gunpoint in an attempt to pay for gender confirmation surgery, but wound up serving a decade in the men’s prison system despite her comparatively young age and conflicting identity.
Consequently, Diamond is getting a relatively late start on her career aspirations. “I tell people all the time: I’m closer to the grave than I am to the cradle,” she cracks. “Honey, look, I have pennies older than half of the people that objectify me or feel a certain way about how I live my life. So to be a 40-year-old woman, a trans woman, to make it to that age it’s not really heard of. We get killed off before we’re 25. The only type of entertainment you want from us — no shade — is Jerry Springer. People don’t want to see the struggle of what it takes for a trans woman to survive. It’s more comfortable for people — for everybody now — for entertainment purposes to see a drag queen. That’s a person who can take it off. The trans experience is a person who isn’t doing it for entertainment purposes. Everything this person does is for survival. What does survival look like? It looks like [me].”
Diamond’s talent has already been showcased on TV, but instead of a trashy talk show it was on episode one of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose,” which focuses on transgender women of color taking on the mean streets (and the after-hours ballroom scene) of New York City circa the ’80s. Diamond is hoping to be similarly embraced by the music business but she has her doubts. Says Diamond: “How many dark-skinned artists do you see with my complexion? That wasn’t a rhetorical question. There aren’t many. If you too dark, you asked to lighten your skin. If you weigh too much, you asked to lose some weight. If you’re trans and you’re my color, trying to do anything — absolutely anything, honey — it’s not going to be an easy fight. We’re at the same place we’ve always been: If it ain’t white, it ain’t right. I was just fortunate and blessed to meet Justin for the visionary he is. Otherwise, all those songs would have died with me.”
“Understand I wrote songs that I couldn’t shake. That I wrote in prison,” Diamond adds, referring to “I Am Her,” which has already been heralded as a trans anthem of empowerment. “Even the inmates on the inside were singing along to it and kept on asking me to sing. That has to mean something. I didn’t want to be buried with [my songs].”
These days Diamond has opportunities to perform outside of correctional facilities; last month she played Hotel Café in her adopted home of Los Angeles, for instance, and finds herself hobnobbing with the likes of Nile Rodgers out on the town. “I’m in awe right now,” says Diamond. “If I can be completely honest, and I mean completely honest, there were times I had very lucid, vivid dreams that something like all this amazing stuff that is happening, and I would wake up in a cold cell. So somebody is gonna have to pinch me.”
Diamond insists that “Seen It All” is merely an introduction to the woman she fought hard to become, and is currently at work on a full-length album. “I think about influences like Madonna who reinvented themselves time and time again,” she says. “My music is gonna shake your brain up. If you think this [EP] is something, you’re going to go crazy. Creatively I want to go beyond: I want to blur the lines of what gender is and sexuality is. Don’t just look at: ‘Oh, that’s a trans woman’ or ‘that’s a woman of color.’ This is somebody who is making some dope music, some music that has to be made. This music is a testament of our time. … I want to shake things up. I want to exact change — I believe we can do [that] through our music, but we have to come together and stop demonizing each other. This isn’t a competition. We all can win. We have a hell of a fight of ahead of us, and some good music is not gonna hurt.”