When singer Shea Diamond teamed up with her frequent collaborator Justin Tranter to write her latest anthem, “I Am America,” the goal was simple: create an empowering track to serve as the theme song for HBO’s We’re Here.
“It had to be for the show, so we needed to talk about We’re Here and have it represent what the show stands for, but I still wanted to make sure it feels like a Shea Diamond song,” Tranter recalls of the initial writing session. ” Like, ‘What can we say that no one else has the guts to say?'”
The result was just that — an anthem of love, joy and acceptance that wasn’t afraid to fly in the face of those who would detract from queer people, transgender people, or people of color. Lyrics such as “my existence is a riot, so don’t you dare even try it” land with both delight and defiance. Or as Tranter put it, “a Shea Diamond song.”
But in the two months since the song was officially released, it has gone on to become something bigger: It’s been added to countless playlists (such as Spotify’s flagship LGBTQ collection Out Now), listed as a top-contender for this year’s Emmys and transformed into an anthem that captures both the spirit of Pride Month 2020 and the ongoing civil unrest of the Black Lives Matter protests.
That last fact is one Diamond is particularly proud of. “We as a marginalized community usually have to ask amongst each other, ‘Hey, can we get these resources?'” she says. “So to be in the community and to get to represent ourselves in a hopeful, accurate kind of way lets the world know we are actually here. They will know what we went through; they will know we that we were victorious; they will know about the struggle all through the music we represent.”
Billboard caught up with Diamond and Tranter to discuss the process of writing “I Am America,” its newfound relevance in a time of social disruption, and how they hope it will continue to evolve.
You two have been working together for a while now. When the opportunity arose to write this, what was it like getting together again to make this song?
Justin Tranter: Yeah, we met Steve Warren, who is one of the co-creators and executive producers of We’re Here. Me and Shea met him in different ways, and he was like, “Well you guys work together all the time, any chance you guys would make a song for our show?” Of course we were so excited and said yes, and we watched the first two episodes early on just before writing the song.
I remember Shea and I were up in the writing room of my house with our collaborator Eren (Cannata, who co-wrote and produced the track), and he was just playing a riff and me and Shea were talking. It had to be for the show, so we needed to talk about We’re Here and have it represent what the show stands for, but I still wanted to make sure it feels like a Shea Diamond song. Like, “What can we say that no one else has the guts to say?” And Shea just said, “Well, I am America.” And I said, “Well, song’s done, we can go the f–k home. You are America.”
Shea Diamond: We actually have gotten accustomed to making anthems together, and it’s usually unlikely anthems because we’re just telling true stories. So it was so important to speak about just the division that we face as LGBTQ people. People tend to forget, especially Republicans, that we are America. Especially as Black Americans, we get left out a lot of times in conversation as if we’re not patriotic. We all built this amazing thing, and gave it this amazing title — America. We all came together to make this, so nobody should be able to get left behind.
The song is really excellent at balancing heavy themes like racism, homophobia and rebellion, while also being a very joyful celebration of identity. How did you approach achieving that balance?
Diamond: I felt like all of my other songs … not that I have anything wrong with a good cry, but I just wanted something that we can celebrate. I felt like we didn’t have a song that was uptempo, upbeat, and still telling you the truth all in your space, but in a celebratory way. It’s encompassing so much of our joy and our celebration, of our victories. It was more an exclamation of saying, “We’re here, and that’s that.” It’s something we can dance to and celebrate.
Tranter: I came across Shea on YouTube years ago, when a friend sent me a link of her singing at an event for trans people. Shea was in this circle of people singing her song “I Am Her.” What I have always found so powerful about Shea is, even in these songs like “I Am Her,” “American Pie,” there is so much weight and depth to them, but when she sings them live, Shea finds moments where she’s smiling.
When she first came out to L.A. to work with me, one of the things I was so struck by was just Shea’s joy. You have so much joy, Shea, and for all of the adversity that you’ve seen and that you still see, you’re still so f–king joyful. We might be p–sed at something together or talking s–t on somebody who deserves it, but you’re still so joyful.
So this song, coupled with the HBO show, was the perfect opportunity for a big, uptempo celebration. We’re still talking s–t in the lyrics, but when you’re marginalized, simply being joyful is an act of resistance in itself. So “I Am America” is still a protest song, but it’s a prideful, joyful one.
Diamond: I used to get flack a lot for that joy when I was incarcerated; they said I was too happy when I was in prison. They were like, “Why are you so happy?” Because I’m freaking alive!
Whatever is in the world, we just have to smile, because it takes more energy to frown than it does to smile. I look at everything as a lesson or a blessing, so I carry that with me everywhere I go. I’ve had plenty to care about and celebrate, honestly!
Like, I always dreamed about walking the red caret and living this life, and when Justin contacted me, I just thought, “This is just another gag or something,” and Justin was like, “No, I’m flying you out, I’m putting you in the studio, I’m putting you in a hotel and I want to record that song.” So just having the opportunity at my age, in a world that’s transphobic and racist as hell, you just don’t expect these opportunities to be presented. So there’s another level to my joy.
In the current moment, “I Am America” has kind of been adopted as a protest anthem for both Pride Month and the Black Lives Matter reckoning. For you, how has the song’s meaning evolved in the months since you released it?
Tranter: It is so amazing to watch people wake the f–k up to Shea’s music over the last month and go, “Oh, right. She’s been talking about this for years. This is what she’s been singing about.”
The roles in the last couple of … I mean, it’s crazy to watch how her Spotify numbers have grown in the last month, just seeing everyone sharing it and coming to this realization. So not only do I think “I Am America” means a lot more all of a sudden, but I think Shea’s entire catalogue means more, and I think who Shea is means more.
Now, I wish the whole world was understanding how powerful her music was five years ago, but I am still gonna focus on the positive that in the last couple weeks, people are waking up. There’s some big collaborations and news about to happen that we can’t tell you about just yet, but it’s really f–king cool to see who is all of a sudden realizing how important Shea is. You’re gonna freak out.
With Pride Month taking place in the midst of all this, it feels like a lot more queer people are parsing the intersectional nature of Pride. What have you noticed about that intersection over the last month?
Diamond: It’s clearer to those of us who experience it — I can’t separate my blackness from my transness. We’ve been a part of every single movement because we’ve simply had to. If we sit back and let one marginalized group be discarded or killed or discriminated against, then eventually, it’s going to come back around to us. It’s this divide and conquer way of winning the fight. So we’ve always come together, whether we were marching with Martin, or marching with Malcolm, we always did it together.
You didn’t know back then who was queer, who was trans; you just saw a whole lot of Black folk and white folk marching together. That’s what we need to do now: Start looking for the content of people’s character. Whether I’m marching with queer people, or transgender people, or Black people or white people, I need to be marching with someone who I know stands with me and stands for my cause.
Tranter: You need to, at some point in your life, be at a protest with Shea Diamond. Every protest I’ve attended with her, at least two blocks’ worth of human beings follow every word she says. She leads every chant, she starts every song, it is f–king amazing to watch.
I will say, too, unfortunately, all communities have racism and racists in them, and that very much includes the LGBTQ community. There are still plenty in our community who need to get their lives the f–k together and stop being racist. But overall, it has been great to see the LGBTQ community finally wake up to this movement, to not only “not being racist,” but being anti-racist. Of course there is still a lot more work that needs to be done in the community, but it is awesome to see a lot more people stepping up to the plate now.
“I Am America” has already taken on this sort of new life just a couple months after its release. What do you hope this song goes on to accomplish when all is said and done?
Diamond: I hope that it will leave a lasting impression after we leave this Earth; I hope this sends a message to people that they are the things we should all hope to be. America is supposed to be the land of the free, home of the brave, all of these big ideas. A lot of people sacrificed their lives, and sacrificed the lives of their family just to be here, and yet lot of us that are here are treated like we do not belong here. So I want to inspire people, showing them we built this place brick by brick, and everything we’ve done … we are all what makes America actually great.
Tranter: Boom. For me, seeing this song so high up on the L.A. Times contenders for the Emmys was very, very crazy. It’s so rad, like, we need that moment! And I get asked a lot, “What does Pride mean to you?” And I always say that Pride started as a protest, and became a celebration. Both of those things are valid — Pride always needs to be a protest and a celebration. Shea’s point of view is exactly that.