As 2018 winds down, Billboard is asking some of the artists who helped define the year in music to look back on their accomplishments, favorite memories and pop-culture obsessions from the past 12 months. Check out other interviews with St. Vincent, Anne-Marie, Kali Uchis, Dan + Shay, Swae Lee, Lauv, Old Dominion, Mitski, Sofi Tukker, Jason Isbell and Saweetie.
Shea Diamond’s music career is just getting started, but the singer has already found herself in rooms with some very important people in 2018: After releasing her soul-baring debut EP, Seen It All, which was executive-produced by hitmaker Justin Tranter, she performed for former vice president Joe Biden, among others, at a Human Rights Campaign event; later in the year, she joined Cyndi Lauper on stage for the pop icon’s annual Home for the Holidays concert, which raises money to help end homelessness for LGBTQ youth.
As a black trans woman — one who served a decade in men’s correctional facilities — Diamond understands the significance of these gigs, and she hopes they move the needle for trans rights: “It’s not too often where we’re in those rooms with influencers such as politicians and A-list celebrities. In those opportunities, I think about not only my music but [also] about how we can pass this message along. I think what’s been the problem for so long is that we’ve just done everything for the camera. Nobody talks about what’s happening behind the camera.”
Below, she tells Billboard about performing with Lauper (a childhood hero of hers), hearing one of her songs in an Uber for the first time and how musicians can better support trans artists.
Your debut EP, Seen It All, came out this year. What was the most surreal moment of that rollout?
The weirdest thing: I was in an Uber, and the driver was playing my song “American Pie.” It really threw me off. I was like, “Wait a minute, my phone’s not charging, so it’s not my phone playing the music” — that’s happened before. But it was literally playing. I didn’t say anything to the driver about it. I didn’t want to be like, “Oh that’s me!”
What are you most proud of accomplishing in 2018?
My performance with the Human Rights Campaign’s [National Dinner]. As a trans woman, I was afraid of being erased because of Trump and his latest rants. Just knowing that we have an organization like HRC that is still there delivering the message — that was my biggest accomplishment. It just really inspiring and hopeful.
You sang “American Pie,” and Joe Biden was in the audience. I saw a photo of you two talking after your performance. What did that mean to you?
To me, it’s definitely a stride forward. It’s not the typical meeting I would like to have. It’s not the typical setup I’d like to have, entertaining [a politician]. I would like to have a very intentional conversation, a very needed conversation.
What’s the best performance you saw this year?
I would say it was performing with Cyndi Lauper! ?And not only that, but to actually meet her as an amazing person and amazing activist. To not only just take a photo, but to actually use that moment to spread an important message: Trans women are beautiful from a cis perspective. That was the most magical moment — I was just so proud of Cyndi in that moment for being willing to do that. I’m a nobody, you know what I mean?
You’re hardly a nobody! You sang “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” with Cyndi. Do you have any memories of that song growing up?
It was the same song I sang when I was a little male-bodied child. That was the song that inspired me and gave me hope. It gave me vision, gave me direction. I just remember being young and using my imagination and connecting with my femininity outside of what was being yelled or forced down my throat. That was liberating. I connected with every lyric, and I still can.
You can never feel worthy in the moment. You never feel worthy because you’re singing with the creator, the one, the signature, the person who made the song great. You’re actually performing with this person — I’m still in awe and disbelief.
Who is a musician that you’d most like to invite to a holiday dinner with your family?
Oh, that’s tough. I think it would be Janelle Monáe. She’s going to be at the dinner, honey, and hopefully I’m cooking. So she can be like, “Oh, that girl can cook!” And we’ll be cool.
Her messaging and intentionality, her confidence and self-expression with coming out — I think it speaks loudly to women who may be doubting elements of themselves. To have a black woman or black man who can stand and be proud of themselves, knowing how harsh our community is, knowing that you lose your black card — she’s so brave and so selfless to share that story with everybody. I believe her messaging to be true, and I believe her to be who she presents herself to be. And that’s a rarity.
Is there a musical trend that you’d like to see go away in 2019?
Yes. Everything sounds alike. Every artist that I’m hearing is emulating — very strongly — somebody else. I feel like one of these little boppers comes out with a hit, and everybody emulates it. It’s passed down from generation to generation, and it never goes away.
Another thing: If these activists in Hollywood who claim to be “trans supporters” or “LGBT-friendly” can actually reach out to a bitch and say, “Hey, let’s do a song” instead of using our narrative for attention, [I’d like that]. If we can control our own narrative, that would be amazing. Why don’t they work with us and starting putting money in our pockets?