"You have to understand--I am a country girl," says Little Rock, Arkansas-born singer/songwriter ShaGasyia "Shea" Diamond with a hefty, joyous laugh. It's one of those infectious, musical laughs that lights up a room, a laugh that would make anyone cheese from ear to ear.
"When I was younger," Shea remembers, "I used to sing 'Private Dancer' by Tina Turner all the time. There was something about the way Tina sang that song and I don't even know if I understood what a private dancer was. I just really loved it."
In October 2016, Shea Diamond pumped through the building and snatched the airwaves with "I Am Her," a powerful, throaty anthem about possibility and the importance of living out your truth. "I refused to believe I couldn't be successful because I'm trans," she says. "I refused to believe that was the end. There were family members who said I wouldn't make it, friends who said I wouldn't make it because I was trans. They tried to get me to de-transition. I had to prove that I was possible."
Based in New York City by way of Flint, Michigan, Shea is a glorious talent, a legend in the making, a soldier who has fought hard to be where she is today. She ran away from home at 14 and became a temporary ward of the state. At 17 she was emancipated, eager to live an independent life outside of the foster care system. Desperate to find the financial means to transition to her true gender, she committed a crime that landed her 10 years in a men's prison.
"After I was incarcerated I really didn't have any resources. I was in Michigan and there weren't a lot of things that were set up to help you transition from imprisonment to society. I wasn't able to get the basic necessities. I wasn't able to get food stamps and I was having problems getting into college."
Shea Diamond's story is an elixir of triumph, resistance and strength, which in dark times are often the only things queer people and people of trans experience have to hold. You can hear the triumph in the way she laughs, you can hear her strength in her music, and you can feel her resistance in her activism.
"Trans people have never had our talents nurtured," Shea says. "We've only been known through RuPaul so people have only had that identification of us. Another representation of us has been on Jerry Springer and shows of that sort. Then came Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and still we haven't progressed any further than that.
"Interest in trans people has usually been on our gender identity or our gender expression instead of on our talents," she continues. "Now we're at a point where people are looking at us a little differently--there are a lot of talented people in our community who need space, visibility, and opportunity."
One thing you notice about Shea for sure, hands down, and without a doubt is that girlfriend can sang. "Even when I was locked up they would say, 'You sound like you got a church voice!' So when I was trying to sing these sexy songs and stuff, I sounded gospel so I said, OK, listen, I have to switch it up a little bit.
"There are certain songs I sing when I'm hanging around the house and I'm like, "Oooh, I wish I recorded that!" Or certain notes I hit, I be like, girl you know I should've recorded that!"
Shea Diamond is the rare kind of artist who uses her artistry to sing truth to power.
"It would be easy to write about sexual expression or sexual acts, even, but it's more challenging to try to get people to understand trans issues. 'I Am Her' is about people who are different, people who may not be the typical idea of female or that you would think to call 'her.'"
In college, Shea was regularly harassed by a staff member for using the "wrong" restroom, an issue that should not even be up for debate. The woman would see Shea at the bus terminal near campus and shout at the top of her lungs, "You're going into the wrong restroom!" in front of hundreds of people coming into one central location, coming in from all sides of Flint, Michigan.
"People just want to use the restroom," Shea says. "They just wanna pee. And when you're talking about trans women, sometimes they just want to look in the mirror and get their hair together."
When she's not hitting those notes--and baby can she hit them--Shea works as a community organizer at the Red Umbrella Project in Brooklyn, where she strengthens community among trans people in New York City.
"We amplify the voices of those most marginalized," she says, "and right now that's sex workers." The sex industry is often one of the few places trans women can find work.
"I always said I would never do sex work or rely on sex work for survival. But I ended up having to do that. I always had strong moral beliefs that it was wrong, that I would never have to do anything like that. But being faced with that reality changed my views. It made me think about different people in my situation."
Today, Shea Diamond is a politically engaged artist who really knows how to use her voice--an upbeat, shining example of what's possible. "I'm so excited!," she says. "There's so much love in the music."
We ended our conversation while she was on her way to the movies. "I'm actually putting my heels in my purse right now. I tell my friends that I carry my diva in my bag. I wear my flats on my way to events but then I whip out the heel on 'em. So I got my diva in the bag.
"People see me when I go on the train, they be like,'Oh, she's cute, she's put together--she shouldna worn that shoe, though!'"