As early as transgender singer Shea Diamond can remember, she identified as a girl — and was punished for it. “I got whoopings for walking like a girl, for using the restroom sitting down like a girl,” says Diamond today. “Even singing when I was little, I remember being corrected: ‘Put some bass in your voice.’ It was like robbing me of the only joy I had in this world.” She ran away from home in Flint, Mich., as a teen, and at age 20 robbed a convenience store at gunpoint — desperate, she says, to fund her gender-affirming surgery. According to records, she was incarcerated at various men’s correctional facilities in Michigan from 1999 until 2009.
Behind bars, Diamond found her voice as a songwriter. After her release, she relocated to New York and entered the world of trans activism. When songwriter-to-the-stars Justin Tranter saw a video of Diamond singing a cappella at a Trans Lives Matter event, he reached out. Now, he’s executive producer of Diamond’s first EP, Seen It All, a collection of roof-rattling anthems showcasing Diamond’s soulful voice that comes out June 29 on Asylum Records.
In person, Diamond, 40, is radiant, reveling in one of several “firsts”: She has never been photographed for a magazine before. Eliah Seton, president of Warner Music Group’s Alternative Distribution Alliance (which includes Asylum), says the label is putting a strong push behind Diamond, and Asylum president Kenny Weagly adds that single “American Pie” has been targeted for synchs on TV and beyond.
“Shea transcends labels and limitations, even genre,” says Weagly. “She isn’t just an amazing trans or LGBTQ artist, but an amazing artist overall.” After a hard journey, Diamond has a team on her side. “Frankly, when I close my eyes,” says Seton, “I see her performing onstage at the Grammys.”
What has your experience as a transgender woman been like?
When I was in a male-identified body, it was “Oh, you a girl, girl, girl.” And now that I’m a woman, it’s like I’m not woman enough. It took me becoming a woman to finally become a man. Society lets you know that there’s no wins.
Were you making music at the time that you were arrested?
I was not. I was in the middle of literally trying to find myself, and I felt a little bit behind keeping up with my old classmates. I got a job at Meijer, a little convenience store, that was paying us every two weeks. But I was seeing my peers that had guap, a big ol’ roll of money, and here I am waiting on this check. I’m thinking, “If I can do this one time, I’ll be able to maybe have an affirming gender and change my life.” The first time I did something, I got caught.
Was it after your incarceration that your passion for music developed?
I actually recall writing my first song at maybe 12, 13. I was always writing little melodies. In school, all the boys wanted to be the next Boyz II Men, and a lot of them wanted me to be in their groups because I could sing. Someone would be like, “Let’s go to the mall, we’re going to be singing for some girls.” And everybody would come and listen. You felt like a star.
Where did your name come from?
It’s because, like a diamond, under pressure I was the best. Things that made other people sad and ugly, I was still smiling through. In prison, trans people [were] alienated to the point that they’re fantasized about just as much as cis women are. The male inmates would lust over these female officers that they had to walk past every day, and they would try their best to have us [trans women], too. Even the guards would do that. So we got raped by officers as well. But we’re never considered credible. We had to go through a lot of different channels to bring some of that stuff to light. I became a member of the warden’s forum, which meant I was able to talk to the warden about inmates’ concerns, things that they felt were injustices, things that would make their unit more livable.
You’ve said that in prison the other inmates would sing along to your song “I Am Her.” That really happened?
Well, no. I sang “I Am Her” everywhere. I was working on it, and I wanted opinions! So I used to sing it all the time, and the people whose cells were near mine would hear it. I remember singing it one time — well, a few times — when I was in segregation. Amazing acoustics, right? [Laughs.] I remember just laying on my stomach on this nasty floor, just wanting to get out this beat. People would be like, “Sing that one! The ‘Her’ one!” And these are straight men, who didn’t identify as being allies or anything else. They just liked the song.
That’s the song Justin Tranter first heard you sing. What’s he like to work with?
I’ve seen him on and off camera, and he’s authentic. He respects me as an artist and as a person. It’s “Come on, let me take you out to the club. You here in Los Angeles, I know you ain’t got no family out here, you got no friends out here… we’re going out tonight.” When my mother’s in town, “Let’s go out to dinner.” I feel like a part of this white family. Which is so weird. But it’s real.
What does Seen It All mean to you?
I thought that life was this open-and-shut book, and I knew every chapter and read every page a thousand times. And, for me, life just wasn’t going to be anything good. But now my song has changed. I had to write something about this journey — about this know-it-all who actually hasn’t seen it all.
This article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.