Shea Diamond is not attached to labels. Instead, the soulful and defiant singer-songwriter prefers to focus on keeping things as limitless as possible. “Sometimes people are taught to live in a perfect box,” Shea explains, “but they aren’t so happy in that box because it’s created by others.”
Shea (pronounced SHEE-uh) has been fighting boxes her whole life. As a transgender woman, she grew up enduring attacks on her femininity from her family. “I am a girl, and I’ve always been a girl,” she says. “When I was younger, people always thought I was a girl, so why was there a need to fight that?”
She attributes shame to her family’s desire to assign to her a gender she didn’t identify with. Their shame even extended to her voice: they felt she sang in too high a register. Eventually, Shea stopped singing, the joy of her artistry stripped away by the amount of control exerted over what she could sing and how she should sing it.
Shea didn’t find that joy again until years later when she started singing in the most unlikely of places: a men’s prison. At 19, Shea was desperate for gender-affirming surgery and low on funds. Realizing that her financial goal would take forever to reach at her 9-to-5, she decided to do the only truly bad thing she’d ever done and rob a convenience store. In fact, upon sentencing, the judge questioned how someone with no record any trouble could commit such a crime. He struggled to believe Shea wasn’t caught up in some bigger trouble and sentenced her to ten years behind bars.
“The one thing I learned from that time was to never be a product of my environment. I was so easily influenced and I wanted to ft in and be liked so badly,” Shea says of herself at the time. It was a hard lesson to learn. “ They waited until I was twenty-one to send me to prison. They didn’t want to send me to a youth facility because they were afraid I’d corrupt children as a trans woman,” she says.
In prison, Shea found time to reflect. “I didn’t have the freedom to really own my voice until I was locked up,” she explains. Joking about the “amazing acoustics” in prison, she began to hone in on the deeper tenor of her voice and embrace the richness and depth it offered. Shea found singing to be a way to heal her pain and combat the injustices of life in prison. “I’m not citing it as a good thing at all,” she clarifies, “they were horrible, horrible conditions. Sometimes, under the most pressure, you find a way to shine your light. And that’s what ended up happening.”
And shine her light she did. Shea was given the name “Diamond” by her peers in prison. “I was always sparkling and shining,” she explains. (Her full name, Shea Diamond is a shortened take on the a affirmation “She is a diamond.”) Apart from singing, Shea petitioned the warden to create a salon for the inmates to get their hair done and worked hard to support her fellow trans inmates. “I got in trouble multiple times for being too happy, but I was so happy to be alive,” Shea shares.
Even in darker moments, Shea managed to find and share her light. Fed up with the mistreatment and blatant misgendering she endured, Shea wrote what might be her most iconic song so far, “I Am Her.” Other inmates—and even guards—took note when Shea sang her songs, sometimes asking her to sing specific ones. “It created a kind of positive vibe in there,” she says. It was their love for “I Am Her” that led Shea to copyright the song, a task she undertook while still incarcerated.
While it’s a soul-shaking trans anthem, the rawness of her voice and confidence of her lyrics allow “I Am Her” to resonate with men and women, cis- and transgender individuals, and people of all races in all walks of life. It’s impossible not to feel Shea’s defiance as she sings, “I am shame, she is me/we get down with our bad selves figuratively. Don’t care too much what other people say, get along swell by my goddamn self.” In telling her truth and owning her story, Shea manages to continue to shine her light to everyone who hears her music.
When Justin Tranter, former lead singer of Semi Precious Weapons and songwriter for megastars such as Britney Spears and Ariana Grande, saw a video of Shea performing “I Am Her” acapella at a Black Trans Lives Matter event, he knew he had to work with her. “Justin is positive as hell,” Shea tells me of their partnership. “It’s important to keep the positive people around and back away from negative people.” The two ended up co-writing three of the five songs on Shea’s EP, Seen It All.
A powerful ride without a single filler track, Seen It All only disappoints because it’s over so quickly. Since it’s release in June 2018, people have stood up and taken notice of Shea’s talent: she’s performed “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” alongside Cyndi Lauper, received a GLAAD Award nomination for Outstanding Music Artist, joined the HRC’s Equality Rocks Campaign, and secured a spot headlining Washington, D.C.’s 2019 Capital Pride celebration.
As her reach continues to grow, Shea makes a point to highlight causes and movements she believes in on her social media, exposing fans to real issues and remaining true to herself and her experiences. “I believe I was put here to connect and change the world,” she says. Shea doesn’t shy away from political posts, highlighting the inadequate media coverage of violence against black trans women and calling on politicians to support equality for all people.
I ask Shea what she’s most proud of in her story so far and I can hear her smile through the phone as she responds. “I can’t pick one moment,” she protests, explaining that she’s accomplished things she never dreamed of. “People always say the sky is the limit, but I don’t believe that: I don’t think there is one.” For Shea Diamond, the future appears exactly how she envisions it: limitless.