Shea Diamond commands attention. With her torch song “Presence of a Legend,” prominently featured in Luchina Fisher’s documentary Mama Gloria, a celebration of transgender icon Gloria Allen, Diamond not only bows down to those who came before but saunters directly into the sunlight herself.
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During the 2014 Trans 100, an event sponsored in partnership with GLAAD, Janet Mock, another important figure in the transgender community, honored Allen by telling the crowd, “You stand when you’re in the presence of a legend.” That moment hit Diamond hard. “It was everything I needed. It was so inspirational and reminiscent of what I’ve always told people,” she tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “When I go out and perform, I would say ‘everybody needs to get up.’ It is so important to respect our trancestors who’ve paved the way for us.”
I sing this song for those before me / I raise my hand / I raise my voice ‘cause I’m not worthy, Diamond sings over gospel-style production. I clap my hands / Raise the dead so they can hear me / A to Z without you G, the world wouldn’t know about me.
Co-written with Eren Cannata and Justin Tranter (Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber), “Presence of a Legend” comes on the heels of several 2020 single releases, including “I Am America,” and packs quite a vocal acrobatic punch. Previously, Diamond certainly left a mark with her debut EP, Seen It All (2018), but the bluesy baptismal arrives as her finest moment to-date. “I’ve been trying to work on delivery a lot more. Music has changed so much, and I’ve been trying to figure out who I am as a musician,” she says. “I don’t want to be put into a box. The voice box itself consists of so many tones and sounds that it can create, and I don’t want to ever feel limited. I want to sing rock, soul, blues, country, and everything else in between.
“I was teased for talking country, and I don’t want to lose that element. When I moved up north, they teased me for being cityfied,” she adds. ”When I moved to New York, I was influenced again. Everything I do and experience will continue to create the sound I do.”
Diamond’s story has been a long, winding road. Born in Arkansas, she was largely raised by relatives in Memphis before then spending most of her teenage years in Flint, Michigan. While struggling to find her voice and understand who she was, Diamond wrote her first song when she was 12 or 13. She already knew she had the pipes, but she wanted to tell her own stories, those she rarely heard on the radio, in her own songwriting.
“There was only a certain way you could be creative. It was very limiting. There was no way to openly do that. So, I got into the arts a little bit, and I was into drama,” she says, also finding expression through cosmetology. “There was no way to be me at that time.”
When she was 20, she held up a convenience store at gunpoint out of sheer desperation to find the money she needed for gender-affirming surgery. It was 1999, and she was incarcerated for 10 years. During her time in a men’s prison, Diamond dove further into her songwriting as a way to cope and heal. “That’s when it became serious. I had experienced so much at that point─experience of rejection, being an outcast, and feeling like I had no hope on the inside. And I was still fighting against the world with the title of she and her.”
That’s right around the time “I Am Her,” a funky boot-stomper, was born. “It was more a testament than it was a song,” she says. Across swampy bass and electric handclaps, Diamond declares her identity and snarls from the mountaintops, I am shame, she is me / We get down with our bad selves, figuratively.
“I had nothing else to do. Everybody else was going outside and working out. It was a very depressing time. Music was very inspirational. I realized I could do more than just listen to the music, and I could start creating songs. So, I started writing songs more than going outside,” she recalls. “There was something about the melodies I was writing that you knew they were hits. They stayed in the mind. Once I realized the inmates loved the songs, I knew I had to do something with it.”
Diamond was released from prison in 2009 and made a vow to pursue music. Initially, she finished out parole in Michigan before making the leap to New York City. “It wasn’t some walk in the park. It was trying, mentally and emotionally and physically,” she says of the move. “I loved the securities there in Michigan. When I was incarcerated, I felt I had nothing else to lose. Having spent 10 years in there, nothing was accomplished in my mind. I came out, and I could at least give it the ol’ college try. It all enabled me to be more of a force.”
Stars aligned when Tranter watched a video of Diamond performing at a Trans Live Matter event. They reached out and immediately wanted to fly her to Los Angeles to record some material. “I was in complete disbelief. People were always talking about buying my songs, even when I was incarcerated. So you had to decide if you wanted to sell that song for a carton of cigarettes and a few noodles,” she says with a laugh, “or do you want to hold onto it because you believe in the song so much.”
Well, Diamond flew to LA — and the rest is history. Tranter has been and continues to fight in her corner. “When you’re coming into the music industry, you’re dealing with sharks. It’s nice when you can find a family in music,” she says. Tranter’s compassion extends far beyond the music. In fact, they’ve been a guiding hand in every facet of her life. “Justin’s taught me how to go to the industry heads and how to present when going into meetings and things of the sort. The list goes on. I don’t think we have enough time in this interview.”
Tranter has also offered advice “when it comes to navigating life and how we’re our own worst enemy and about self-sabotage,” continues Diamond. “You need to hear it from these great producers who’ve laid down these classics and No. 1 hits to say, ‘Oh, I like that.’ Justin has literally been my biggest activist in my life and taught me so much on so many different levels.”
In addition to her solo work, Diamond landed two songs on last year’s Happiest Season soundtrack, including a collaboration with Bebe Rexha called “Blame It on Christmas.” The rising singer-songwriter expects to release a new song soon called “Smile,” for which she urges her fans to “put on your dancing shoes,” she teases.
The Gloria Allen documentary Mama Gloria is currently streaming on World Channel.
Photo by Morgan T. Stuart