"Break the chains of old beliefs / I'm the flame that you can't unsee," singer Shea Diamond belts out, backed only by a single guitar, on the acoustic release of her single "American Pie."
"I find that music has to be personal," Diamond told BuzzFeed News. Diamond, who was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, pours all of her herself into her music and her debut EP, Seen It All. Her experiences growing up black and trans in the Deep South, running away from home in Flint, Michigan, at the age of 14, and spending time in a men's prison facility can all be traced through her brazenly honest lyrics. Yet her message, particularly on "American Pie," remains a universal one — everyone deserves to be happy, to be themselves, to be free. And that piece of the pie? It's worth fighting for.
It was Diamond's soulful a cappella performance of “I Am Her” at a Black Trans Lives Matter event that snagged the attention of Justin Tranter, a songwriter who has worked with artists such as Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, and Gwen Stefani. Now, with Tranter as her producer, Diamond is focused on lending her voice to those who have none.
BuzzFeed News spoke with the singer about her latest video premiere, her hopes for the future of trans representation, and why she won't stop singing until she is heard.
Music has always been at the center of your life, from singing in the school choir to writing songs during your incarceration — what does music mean to you, personally?
Shea Diamond: Music, to me personally, is like my heartbeat. I think without it I wouldn’t be able to live. I think without it I wouldn’t be able to feel much. I think without it I wouldn’t be able to understand or tolerate as much. It’s so much a part of who we all are, the decisions that we make. That’s why it’s so important to be represented in music.
You don’t see representation on TV, music, radio, of people of the trans experience — and that’s not the reality. We’re here, we’re definitely queer, and we’re making music. We’re making art. We’re talented as hell.
As a trans artist, as a black trans woman, how do your identities influence your music — is it possible to separate the two? Would you want to?
SD: I find that music has to be personal. It’s a selfish move if your dreams just include you. I read a quote like that recently: 'If your dreams only include you — dream bigger.' The impact that [having a role model] has on a person — I never had that growing up. I want my music to be a type of thing that you feel. Not just bops that I put together just to be popular — I want to send a message. "American Pie" is about everyone fighting for the American dream because it looks different for different people.
A line in "American Pie" jumps out to me: "Who's gonna say a want is not a need?" Can you expand on that a little?
SD: We look at a trans person and we don’t know their experience. What it took for them to be where they are, what it takes for them to get up each day and get out of the house knowing they could be assaulted or killed. You can say anything in my life is a want. You can say ‘You don’t really need that,’ but it’s not your experience. We overstep boundaries when we dictate what people want, what they should be doing, what we want them to be, what we think they should be, what people should have access to. No, honey, I need this.
And the line "All those looks that get so dirty / Lets me know that they're still learning"?
SD: I’m willing to be in this game. If it takes another 10 years for me to keep getting those dirty looks, and being this public person who isn’t popular, and delivering this message of change and hope for people who are more marginalized — then I’ll continue to be the bad guy.
I have to continue going against the grain, being the thorn in Hollywood’s eye. I may not get all the work, but at the same time, while I'm here I want to be at the table. I’ll be putting the silverware out at the table, putting the cups out. I’m not coming to the table to be a part of the problem. We believe that once we get one, we’ve done our job. "Yay, we’ve done it. Look at Shea, she’s a trans artist. We’re not transphobic!” Just like people who say “Oh, I’ve got that one black friend” to prove you’re not racist. It’s not coming from a place of authenticity.
What was your experience growing up trans in the South?
SD: My mother, she and I sort of had a disagreement at age 14 when I couldn't continue to be someone else anymore. I had to be myself. My heart, my body, everything was just demanding this happen because I wasn't really living. My whole life, I felt like Cinderella — I felt like I couldn't go to the ball. Life was my evil stepsister that would laugh at me, that wouldn't allow me to do anything, that would keep me down. Now, honey, Cinderella is at the ball, Cinderella ain't just dancing with the prince — Cinderella is raising hell.
This world tells you all the things you can’t be. As a shining young lad or a spunky young lady, you’re told all the things that you can do and that this world is yours. You’re told that you’re beautiful or you’re told that you’re such a handsome young man. But who tells the trans children that they’re gorgeous or that they’re handsome? That’s what is needed. We need love in this world if there is going to be hope.
Your time in prison, as it turns out, ended up being a time of growth for you as a songwriter. How did that time impact your work?
[Editor's Note: Diamond was arrested on armed robbery charges in 1999 at the age of 20, a desperate attempt to fund her medical transition. She served 10 years in various men's prison facilities.]
SD: My time in prison was a time for reflection, for growth. I got to know myself a whole lot better than most people will ever get a chance to do. I got to figure out what I actually wanted to do in my life. Most people in their twenties are distracted — Does he like me? How do I look? Your dreams are put on the back burner. I was working on changing my name, getting copyrights for my songs, and doing a lot of writing.
My transness didn't mean anything — I was just another guy. I would get tickets all the time for ignoring a direct order because I wouldn't adhere to someone saying 'Mister, do this' or 'Mister, do that.' I was a thorn in everyone's eye because you're not going to tell me who I'm going to be. What else did I have to lose, besides my life? They took my identity and gave me a number. I belonged to the state. A lot of times, I wanted to give up. I had no money. I had nothing. I wanted to die. I wanted to kill myself.
It shaped me as a diamond because I could withstand so much pressure put on me. Once I got out, I said, 'OK. Is that all you've got to give me? That's the worst you can do? That's the worst thing you can call me?' It gave me a hard shell.
The one thing that they always told me I could not have was to be trans. The one thing I was after — that killed me. But now I'm actually living it. It's tangible.
Laverne Cox recently opened up about the struggles many black trans women face and her own personal experience of dealing with depression, which you've also discussed. What keeps driving you to continue to push and create music?
SD: And you wouldn’t think she went through that. She’s the epitome of what Hollywood wants. You wouldn’t think that would be her experience, but we all have those experiences — the trauma that comes along with being who we are and representing what we represent.
We’ve always been stalked, gawked at. The world is going to always try to highlight your experience itself because you’re deemed a freak — and they’re wrong. No matter where you’re going, no matter what you’ve got on, you’re in the spotlight. They should applaud our strength just in being ourselves. Society doesn’t allow a trans woman to have a healthy relationship. And what does that do, not having access to healthy relationships? To family, to friends? If you’re not allowed to love a trans person, what does that look like for a trans person's life? A trans person who feels unloved, not able to get a job, not able to be loved by anyone — not even the people who gave them life?
Freedom is when you’re allowed to be yourself. Especially if you’re black, it’s even worse. We’re not free. That’s why I say we have to decriminalize being trans. We’re not free.
What would you say to other trans artists, trans women who are struggling to navigate their place in the world or the entertainment industry?
SD: Don't give up. It's not over. When I get messages in my inbox with people saying they're so disappointed that they aren't where I am, I tell them the same thing. This is not a race. Don't give up. Keep on making music — but don't just make music; make music that changes the world. There will be a whole lotta 'No' but make it about your story, our story. We are survivors. We're not victims of anything — we're survivors. Our stories will go down in history.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.