TRANSCRIPT: TransLash Podcast Episode 47, ‘Trans Soul Music: Shea Diamond’

Imara Jones: Hey, TransLash family. It’s Imara Jones. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show, where we tell trans stories to save trans lives. Well, it’s been a difficult past couple of months, maybe a difficult year. But one of the things that continue to get us through is music, music, music. Especially music that is made by trans people with all the ways in which trans people blend genres, and create New Frontiers by seeing music and music possibilities differently. That’s why I wanted to talk to one of the standout artists in our community, Shea Diamond, whose barrier-breaking music and music styles, continue to create entirely new, sound imaginations for us all. And expose this to the power that we have, when we tap into trans creativity.

Shea Diamond: There are trans individuals coming to shape the airwaves. To not only come through and do what I’ve done. But to excel in the music industry, if given the opportunity, if given a fair shot, they’ll be able to change music in a way we’ve never seen before.

Imara: But first, since this is a music episode, and music creates Trans Joy. Let’s start with Trans Joy. Many hearing folks assume that music isn’t for the deaf and hard of hearing. But that’s a huge misconception. Members of these communities have always enjoyed music, and many are musicians in their own right. Today, I’m excited to highlight the accessibility-focused and boundary-pushing work of Alter Boy. Alter Boy is an Australian, Queerlectro Pop Group, created by three deaf and hard-of-hearing artists. Their lyrics explore themes of disability, community, transgress, and religion. While their unique live performances, incorporate elements of drag and Australian sign language interpretation. Here is Alter Boy’s lead singer, Molly Priest to tell us more.

Molly Priest: I enjoy writing about shame. I enjoy writing about grief and loss. For me, being trans and having a queer body, isn’t— It’s not all about pride and joy. For me. It’s about being able to choose myself even when it’s hard to do. Even when it’s scary. Even when it hurts. Even when it’s complicated. And it doesn’t happen in a single act. And so, for the past couple of years, I’ve been writing music about this experience. About having this body and that the songs just keep coming, I can’t move away from it.

Imara: Molly, you and the members of Alter Boy are Trans Joy.

Today, I’m thrilled to be talking with the singer, songwriter, and activist, Shea Diamond. Shea is known for her gritty and so far blending of genres, like R&B, Rock, Folk, and Gospel music, as well as her lyrics that inspire both protest and celebration. Shea is a rising star in the world of Soul music. She found her voice while incarcerated for 10 years, where she wrote her empowering Trans Anthem, “I Am Her.” 

Shea’s stunning debut EP, Seen It  All, was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award. Her protest anthem, “I Am America”, serves as the theme song to HBO’s Emmy-nominated, We’re Here. It’s also featured in HBO Max, “And Just Like That.” Shea has performed for presidential candidates and super fans, like Sam Smith and Demi Lovato, have sung her praises. As a fellow superfan, Shea. I’m totally and continually blown away by your incredible talent and really appreciate you joining me for today’s show. I know you’ve had an extremely busy Pride Month.

Shea: Yes. And I don’t think it’s over yet. I just got, um, an invitation to perform in October for Pride. So I’m like, oh.

Imara: It never ends. Well, that’s good because your career is never-ending. It is continuing to take off. And just congratulations on all the things that you’ve accomplished that we spoke about in your intro. But before I kind of dive into– just the power of the moment for you as an artist. I wanted to just take people back and take you back a little bit to the beginning. And I’m wondering if you can tell us when you first knew the power of your voice. Like, how old were you? And what was that moment?

Shea: When I was younger and I was in church. I remember my mother trying to get me to sing at the church. And all the kids were, you know, act and sing. There was like this huge gift basket that they were giving out in return for you singing. And I just remember how shy I was. And how I didn’t want to be judged. I was afraid. I was thinking like a girl, and I would be punished for it. So I did not sing. And I remember regretting it and seeing the other kids get their baskets. But I remember also, the feeling that people knew that I could sing. But I started in high school, actually singing songs that– and I remember that– I wasn’t really popular in school. I– was nice. I was the nice one. So people said hello and all that great stuff. But nobody hung out with me like that.

But I remember, I started singing at the lunch table. And it changed everything. I was at a table that everybody wants to seat at. At some point, there was like a sing-off between tables. So it was something– a new tradition that I started. I realized that– you know, I could connect with people that way because I was so awkward that people, you know, really couldn’t connect with me, you know.

Imara: Wow. Do you remember what song that was? Like, what song did you win in the– in the table sing-off? Do you remember what song it was?

Shea: Oh, I do not. But I remembered that I actually took, “Can we talk to the road.” So basically they had a talent show. And so, it was like, the biggest one in school I had. And people will come over from other schools to watch it. And to also enter it, into it as well. And I remember, singing, Tevin Campbell, “Can We Talk.”

It was the day I ran away from home. So basically my mother had seen some things, you know, in my drawer that would imply that I like boys. And she went hysterical, said not in my house type of situation. And I remember, I was trying to figure out where I was going to live at this point. And friends of mine– was that– you have to be in the show. I was like, well, you know, my mother just kick me out. I have nowhere to go. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.

So I remember, I had run away with just the clothes on my back. It was like, no socks in a Burton shoe. And that’s how I performed in the talent show. And I remember it being such an emotional moment and that, you know, everybody was like, looking forward to me, singing. So, I realized I had a little power in singing.

Imara: Yeah, it’s really wild. It kind of reminds me of this anecdote of Ella Fitzgerald being homeless and living on the streets of Harlem and walking into the Apollo to sing at their kind of open mic night. I think she was 14?

Shea: Oh, my god.

Imara: And that’s how she actually started.

Shea: I was 14. I was 14.

Imara: Yeah, that’s how she started. It’s really wild that that came to mind. So you learned that the power of your voice could help connect you to other people and get you through really tough situations. Because of your sexuality and gender identity at home that still provided a way out for you. And then you continue to experience really difficult situations in your life, including being incarcerated.

And I’ve heard you talk about that experience, and how at key moments when you were incarcerated that the power of your voice, as well, was something that got you through. Can you just talk about that? Because that just seems to be a theme.

Shea: Oh, my God. I remember this– the day, I was incarcerated. I remember her– a feeling of just feeling alone. You know, the judge gave me a hell of a lesson. He really did. He gave me a lesson about the loyalty of the people in your lives. Like, you know, when people– when you’re doing great, you know, people are happy and proud to be in your lives and to know you and all that great stuff.

But when doing something that is from the point– that’s when you know when you actually have people in your lives. And the judge said, you know, I must be a horrible person because not even my mother showed up to my court. You know, here I am accused. I got judged more severely because nobody showed up. So the power for me of people showing up is really really important.

Also when I was incarcerated there was this sense of loneliness too. Because, you know, everybody got a visit. The most hardened criminals had a visit. I mean, they had visits from someone. And here I was, I didn’t have any visits at all. So for me, my voice was my comfort. My voice was my solace. It’s how I carried on, you know, it filled that void of loneliness. So I was able to communicate these thoughts in these words that I would never say to anyone.

But I wanted to– if anything had happened to me while I was in there, I wanted that message to live on. I wanted people to know what my life was like because of who I was. And to also let other people know that were like me, that they weren’t alone. So it was more of the last message to someone who thought that they would make it through a situation. So during my darkest time, I wanted to be able to shed some light on people who were going through the same thing I was going through.

Imara: Right. I think I’ve heard you talk about a story of once– where you were kind of in a row of cells and it was a really dark space. You sang to someone or are you singing to yourself? And that was a really powerful moment. Do you remember what I’m talking about?

Shea: I do, I was in segregation. So you know, we got oftentimes, we got punished for being trans, right? No one wanted to have responsibility over this trans body that stick out so much from the rest of the inmates. So they would look for ways to put us in segregation and say that we were a threat to the good order of facility or– or something of the sort. Just so they didn’t have to deal with that. So out here was a time I was put in segregation. I just started singing because, you know, there was a lot of stuff going on. You had a racist that was right next to me, that would say the n-word, every 15 seconds.

So, you know, you had people that were yelling to the top of their lungs, fighting with the guards, fighting with each other, all through the cells, of course. So I would just sing. And I remember people would hear me singing, and you know, they would tell me to sing louder. I would leave by like beating my poem on the desk and singing a song to actually laying on the floor where there was like a little piece of light under the door where you could see.

And I remember, just like singing– and every time I stop singing, people would tell me to sing that song again. Funny enough. It was “I Am Her” that they would love to hear the most. Here was– was a cell full of guys, and they wanted me to sing repeatedly, “I Am Her.” The message within the song is translated beyond genders. Beyond gender identity, beyond gender expression. This was a song of hope. And I remember that– normally, they would tell people not to sing, like, the guards will stop you from singing. But I remember the guards used to love me to sing too.

So it was like, you know after I got finished singing, there would be applause and everything. I remember– for me, I love the acoustics, you know, it was crazy. It was the worst place to be in the world, but the acoustics was amazing. And singing the songs that I had written inside. And the impact it did on people’s lives. Like I was saying, when I left– it was my final day of being incarcerated. I remember that the officers and the inmates were crying. And I remember a guard telling me that he had never seen anything like that in his life, to where all the inmates were crying, and all the guards were crying for one person leaving. So it let me know that I had impacted so many people. 

Imara: It’s interesting because I think, “I Am Her” has now passed a million streams, right? That’s the song that…

Shea: Almost. It’s almost there.

Imara: Alright.

Shea: “I Am America” has reached it. “I Am Her” is on the way.

Imara: Well, maybe that’s– everyone listening. Do you know what your assignment is? To get Shea over a million.

Shea: Yes.

Imara: One of the things that are so clear from all of your music to me is bravery. There’s so much bravery and the way that you approach songs and your ability to part Rock, part Punk, part Pop, part R&B, part Gospel. You know, that’s like, very much kind of your style and it takes a lot of bravery to be able to execute those in a single song and art form. And I’m wondering if that bravery that you have is something that you always had? Or is it the sum total of the experiences that you’d been through? Being isolated, being kicked out of your house, being incarcerated, being trans, being a Black trans person, making it in music. Like, I’m wondering if that was– you always had that bravery in your music and your voice? Or is it something that’s just been amplified through your life?

Shea: I believe it was amplified because it was “Shea Unleashed.” Before them, as I explained to you, I was very awkward, very shy, believe it or not. I didn’t reconnect with people very well. I mean, people knew me as being sweet and, you know, all that great stuff, but they didn’t know me as being bold. There wouldn’t be a word to describe me, would be bold or brave or anything. But it was something about the music aspects that let me connect with people more. And I really doubt that I would have had the strength or the courage to actually put myself in front of an audience to actually sing on this level without having been incarcerated.

Because after you have like a near-death experience or you have some type of tragedy in your life, you feel like you have nothing else to lose. And that aspect, I felt like I had nothing else to lose. I had been at my lowliest point. And there was nowhere to go but, up. It was like a nightmare, like being incarcerated and not having the power to do all these things. You saw all this art before you– you saw all these artists that were emerging. And here you were, stuck in a cell.

You had music in your heart. Music in your mind. Music in your soul. But the only way you could release that was in a cell, singing for people that were incarcerated. So it gave me the practice to be able to unapologetically let my voice be the light and hold power in the insecurity in that. So yeah, I would have never done it. I would have never felt like there was urgency.

So after I was incarcerated, there wasn’t a certain urgency that I had to do this. It had always been my dream. But again, we were told that our dreams meant nothing if we were queer. After incarceration, I wasn’t worried about support from family and friends that didn’t show up while I was incarcerated because I knew they wouldn’t show up. This couldn’t be a vessel or vehicle for me to gain closeness to my mother, my father, my siblings, and my friends.

It had to be a vehicle of hope for me to continue because, as I said, at my lowest point, where I didn’t want to go on, here was music coming to save me, to tell me that there was another option. But as long as you have you, you have the power inside you. You have determination inside you. You still have that dream that is still alive inside you. You have the strength to go on. And so that’s what gave me the strength and the courage to go on, was that music and being able to express that music.

Did I think that I would ever come to this level from that dream? From that thought? No, I did not. I didn’t think there was a possibility. But I realized that it wasn’t about my singing voice. It was about my story. My story of trials, that many people were too afraid to divulge. You know. We all want to be a superstar, right? We all want to be famous. We all want to do these things. But we don’t want to walk in the shoes to do the things that you have to do, in order to ensure that. That was my learning. I was going through some things that most people would have broken going through.

So I realize walking in my shoes that I had a unique pair of shoes on. In order to change that– not only my narrative but the narrative of people like me, as well.

Imara: That bravery that you talk about, was accumulated through your life. And your voice has led you to some really powerful places, performing with Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, and Sam Smith. The list literally goes on and on. You recently, as we mentioned, made Billboard’s list of the top LGBTQ Anthems ever. With all of that as a kind of reality and a backdrop for you, what do you think is really important about your presence as a Black trans woman in music? That is to say, what’s different in music because Shea is there?

Shea: There isn’t much different, besides there is a little bit more visibility. But there isn’t enough visibility. I think what my presence means is there is time for a change. And what the time for change means is that there are trans individuals coming to shake the airwaves, to not only come through and do what I’ve done. But to excel in the music industry, if given the opportunity, if given a fair shot, they’ll be able to change music in a way we’ve never seen before, And I feel like what makes us so powerful is that we have stories to tell that no one else can tell except for us.

A lot of times we share so much of our culture with others, and they benefit so greatly from our contributions. But we’ve never been able to benefit ourselves. The future and the future that we’re creating is one that will be greater than ours because they won’t have to go through the things that we had to go through in order to open up those doors.

Imara: What does the music industry need to do to support trans artists? And what do you think overall that the music industry doesn’t get about trans artist that they need to get in order to better support them?

Shea: They’re overthinking. They’re overthinking it. Because with music, right? We hear a sound and we liked it, right? We love it. But society has been taught to judge us, that who we are, and who loves us is not the norm. So even by listening to our music, as his head person, specifically, a male is deemed to be homosexual or whatever you would call him in this aspect. So, there isn’t any freeness that happens when they’re able to listen to our music.

It’s almost like they have to sneak in this entire music like, they have to sneak in to be with us. So it’s like you’re listening to a trans person sing a song, you know, are you attracted to the trans person? What’s going on with you? Other artists don’t have to go through that. You hear a song from us, queer people are listening to us, straight people are listening to us, there’s no problem. But when it comes to us in our contributions, people feel like they have to judge us first. They feel like they have to highlight the fact that we’re different. It slides over to more tokenism than it does, actual celebration, or actual allyship. If people were allowed to just be, if they were allowed to just listen without fear of judgment, I feel like, you would see more trans people on Billboard’s top 100.

Imara: But if you are thinking about the people who made decisions about which artists get platformed. And if you are thinking about executives in the music industry, what do you think that they have to do differently in order to support trans artists in the music industry? What are some of the things that they need to do?

Shea: First of all, they need to step out of leadership and allow someone who is– of that experience to be their guiding light. Because I don’t think they can be objective in that way, I believe they’re used to a certain norm. And so they only expect a certain thing to succeed.

Imara: One of the things that are true is that trans people are changing music as we know it, through hyper pop, which in many ways may be the future. Of course, what you’re doing is I mentioned, the fusion, in many ways, trans people are visionaries when it comes to music. And I’m wondering for you. What other trans artists and musicians, you right now are a fan of?

Shea: So, yeah. You already know the main ones. Sophie, Kim Petras. Neverending Nina notes are one that is on my radar. That is like setting a blaze of fire behind her. And Angelica Ross, you know, our sister. She’s out here and she’s doing music now. So it’s powerful to see, you know, us out here. You got MJR here as well. Again, it’s about people showing off for us.

Imara: You’ve shared the stage with so many powerful people. As you move forward, what are you thinking about in terms of the dreams that have yet to be fulfilled within music? What is Shea envisioning right now, for herself and for her artistry?

Shea: Well, I’m hoping that I can secure a TV show, that’s centered around Shea Diamond and her music, and her journey in music. And overall, you know, obtaining that Grammy. And being acknowledged by my own community would be amazing.

Imara: Well, all of that is, I think something that everyone listening to should help bring about. And I support and acknowledge so many of the things that you say. There’s a lot of work that has to be done in terms of creating space and opening doors. So I hope that all of that flows to you. My last question is about the world, in which your music is taking place. We’re having this conversation in July and of course, July is the month when the United States celebrates its birthday. And one of your most powerful songs is “I Am America”, as we’ve discussed, which has been streamed a gazillion, trillion times. And at the same time in that you say, you are America, right?

This Black trans person who is formerly incarcerated is America and you want to be included in the American story. And you want a piece of the American Pie. That’s what the song is about. And at the same time, so many people are despairing about where the country is, our race, our issues, on the basic control of our bodies. And so, I’m wondering what your thoughts are about that contradiction, and how you personally navigate the tough times in which we live and move forward with the hope that’s in your song.

Shea: “I Am America” was burst. You want a time when there was rebellion. And we, as artists had something to say, well, I know, for me, I wanted to have something to say. A hope, a song of resistance, and a song of action. “I Am America” is reminding folks that regardless of what gender they push on us, we are the fabric of America. That Back people are the fabric, the foundation of America. The Black trans people led so many fights for equality. Women’s rights, there are gay rights, and there are trans rights. We were there at the intersection of it all. So we are the fabric of America. We are what makes America great.

“I Am America” is a reminder of that of the power that we hold. “I Am America” was a reminder to not only the cishets, they were trying to erase us, they were trying to kill us. But also to ourselves, to remind us of the power that we hold in this here country. And that we built it with the fabric, with the Cherry Pie on your lips, baby. With that Gin and Juice, honey. You know, go ahead and take a sip. It was to let our community know. And let the world know at large that we are all America. And there’s no difference between you and me, I’m a stranger just like you where all the strangers on this land, didn’t belong to any of us. So, America belongs to all of us.

Imara: America belongs to all of us.

Shea: For good or bad. Let me say that first, you know, a lot of people like, you know, you cannot have it. But for good or bad. This is where we belong. This is where we are and it’s ours. We won’t be thrown off of it. We won’t be intimidated by the power that we hold. We’ll know who we are. And will hold those truths to be self-evident. 

Imara: Well, what self-evident is the power of your music, how much passion do you bring to it and I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to join us and to talk about your life and what’s important. I’m so grateful. So grateful for you.

Shea: Thank you so much. I’m so grateful for your platform. And you’re doing amazing things. And I’m so happy to be on this journey with you.

Imara: That was Shea Diamond, a future Grammy award-winning artist. Thank you so much for listening to the TransLash Podcast. And stick around all the way to the end for something special or at least, I think it’s special. But speaking of special, special thanks to El Capitan E for giving us a five-star review on the Apple podcast. El Capitan E says, Imara, team and guests are magic. You are all Trans Joy. I have deep gratitude for you all. El Capitan E, we have so much gratitude for you. And thank you so much for your kind words. And if you want to get a shout-out on the show, head on over to the Apple podcast and leave us that five-star. You heard that right? Five-star review. You might just hear your review on our show.

You can listen to the TransLash Podcast wherever you get your podcast. Check us out on the web at transflash.org to sign up for our weekly newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at TransLash Media. Like us on Facebook and all the other social media platforms. And be sure to tell your friends. The TransLash Podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TransLash team includes drumroll– Oliver-Ash Kleine and Aubrey Callaway. Our intern is Marana Munson-Burke. Xander Adams is a contributing producer to the show. And our sound engineer, digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and is also courtesy of ZZK Records. The TransLash Podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners like you.

So what am I looking forward to y’all? Two things. First, vacation, vacation, vacation. I will be out of the country for a substantial part of July. Just getting some head-clearing, space, time which is so important when we are in this intense work or when I’m in this intense, working in this intense society. I’ve got to create a long break so that I can recenter myself. For some people, short breaks work, and that doesn’t really work for me. I have to have long stretches of time to really reset and ground. So I’m totally looking forward to that. And if y’all want to be nosy and know where I’m going, just go on over to my social media accounts. Pretty much all of them are at Imara Jones. Or I think Instagram is “Imara_Jones_dontask”. And y’all can see where I’m going. But I’m looking forward to my reset time.

And the second thing is that I’m so excited about and so proud of everyone at TransLash for the work on this project. Two of our films, from the Trans Bodies, and Trans Choices series are going to be featured in Outfest this month. And that’s just such an amazing honor and is a tribute to the powerful stories that trans people shared with us about their experience with bodily autonomy and the need for access to abortion and reproductive services for trans people. So those are two things that light my fire.

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