Shea Diamond has a voice that slices through air. She speaks with a dulcet resonance which impacts the ear before her words even register. And, like many transgender women and people of color, Diamond has been punished for her voice, for speaking truth to power, for surviving. In her newest song “Presence of a Legend,” Diamond sings to honor the life of teacher, activist, and community elder, Mama Gloria Allen. “If it wasn’t for women like her,” Diamond says, when we spoke from our homes in New York by phone mid-May, “you wouldn’t even know about me.”
Transgender women often have a vexed relationship to history. Long lives are often ignored. Short lives are normal. “It’s important that we celebrate them while they’re here,” Diamond says.
Diamond learned about Mama Gloria when the director, Luchina Fisher, invited her to sing the opening song on her new documentary, “Mama Gloria.” “The movie is absolutely amazing, and necessary. I was honored to be a part of it. Gloria Allen is absolute perfection, such a sweetheart,” Diamond tells GO. “Presence of a Legend” borrows its title from the first lines of the film, which opens as Allen is presented the Living Legends award at the Trans 100 celebration hosted by LGBTQ center, Chicago House. “When you’re standing in the presence of a legend,” the announcer said, “you stand up.”
Born on Chicago’s South Side, Allen was the oldest of an entertainer’s fourteen children. “They called my mother the Black Marilyn Monroe,” she says in the film. Her mother and her grandmother, who was a seamstress and prepared the gowns and garments for the ballroom shows of the fifties and sixties, “knew what I would be,” she says. And they were supportive. In 2011, Allen decided to pass on the support and knowledge she received from her family to the transgender kids who found solace at the Chicago House.
It’s a narrative that appeals to Diamond, perhaps, because it presents a possibility for the way her life could have gone. Survival so often is a group effort.
As a child, Diamond entered foster care and lived across the country, in Little Rock, Memphis, and Flint. When she was twenty years old, Diamond was sentenced to ten years in prison after robbing a convenience store in an attempt to pay for gender affirmation surgery. “Music was one of the things I was told wouldn’t be afforded to me,” she tells GO. “They,” Diamond says indicating the they that surrounds us at all times: the tastemakers, the respectable, cisgender culture at large, “let me know that my work was over, that I was going to be a failure, I wasn’t going to go to college, I wasn’t going to do anything. I wasn’t willing to believe that. And so,” Diamond says, “in my circumstance, I thought that was the only way.”
The stories marginalized people tell about our pasts, our influences, the places and things that made us are of vital importance. “People don’t honor the space that we share with them,” Diamond tells GO. “We’re still loving, still giving. Not only surviving but thriving. We tell our stories through film, through music, through art, and we tell it through style, fashion. This is our history being made. I feel absolutely honored just to be able to do it in music.”
In prison, Diamond made make-up out of Kool-Aid, staining her lips a cherry red. That was against the rules and so the guards punished her for her crime and her identity. “That’s more time you have to serve just because of that,” Diamond tells me. In the yard, Diamond “was trapped between these fences watching people and listening to their stories, their last whims of hope,” and the stories moved her to tell her own story. She wrote “I Am Her” behind bars.
According to Diamond, you stand up with your body in the presence of legends and loved ones. In the presence of oppression, in environments where even the body is viciously constrained and–yes–policed, you stand up with your voice.
In “I Am” Diamond sings “There’s an outcast in everybody’s life, and I am her,” over heavy reverb. “There’s a shadow in everybody’s front door, and I am her. / There’s a dark cloud in everybody’s sunlight, and I am her/ Oh you know I am her.”
“I Am Her” didn’t start as a song but instead, a “last testament.” Diamond, who was released from prison in 2009, had worried she would not survive her sentence, and so composed “I Am Her” as a record of her state. “What happened was,” Diamond says, “I started humming, and it became a melody. I started singing for those inmates, and the inmates started loving it.” Diamond found that the acoustics of a prison suited her voice and offered temporary relief. “I would lay on the bare floor of the cell, and there was no light in there. So the only light you’re seeing was a little bit of light from under your door. I would get on the floor and start singing that song. It gave me a little bit of hope again. It made me realize I could dream,” she tells GO.
“People don’t like to hear somebody else’s sad story. They don’t like to think that while they’re eating caviar and going on trips on a yacht and flying on their private plane that somebody is hungry. It makes [cis] people uncomfortable when we bring in our art, because they’re still not comfortable with us.”
“Presence of a Legend” isn’t the only song where Diamond takes standing up as a central motif. In the summer of 2020, Diamond collaborated with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello on a song called–what else?–”Stand Up.” It’s a natural fit for Diamond. Among the RnB and Soul roots of Diamond’s music, there are unmistakable punk rock strands. In that track, Diamond’s voice crackles as she intones, “You are standing for nothing / Just shut up / ‘Cause your words mean nothing. / Everybody stares like I’m just my gender / I’m a living soul with my own agenda. / Tell me, how you are the priest and the prosecution, / Angel of a God who loves executions.”
Since her release, Diamond has cultivated a vibrant performance career, headlined Washington D.C.’s 2019 Capitol Pride, and put out eight singles. “Right now,” Diamond says, “I’m listening to Lil Nas X. He’s helping so many young people understand who they are, accept who they are, and be proud of who they are and that their dream isn’t over just because they’re gay. I’m here for just, like, all the greats, Anita Baker, Dolly Parton. Miley Cyrus,” she says. “I’m all over the place, and I love it that way.”
As many of us learned in 2020, it can be difficult to write the poem, sing the song, or paint the canvas while the sword of Damocles hangs over your neck. “All you can do,” Diamond says, “is continue to survive. Every day that you survived, it’s another day you have to fight to thrive. If you are a plant, and those around you are not watering you, not giving you any type of life, any type of light,” then stand up above them and get that light for yourself. “Surround yourself with people who love and support you before you get known. Honor those people.”
We stand up for them too, as a show of respect and in active solidarity. We should not wait until our mentors, friends, and family members are septuagenarians before we share their accomplishments, their talents, before we broadcast the immensity of their care. Every day that we survive and create, we celebrate our pasts and build our futures.