I Am Her is a simmering Southern blues rock torch song that shoulders the enormous weight of being a woman in a world that treats women as second class citizens, shamed for their sexuality as the keepers of original sin. But there's a difference that gives the song a jagged edge, because Shea Diamond is a black trans woman with a chequered past that would have Simon Cowell salivating down the front of his trademark half-unbuttoned shirt.
With the refrain "There's an outcast in everybody's life and I am her," Shea acknowledges a society that turns its back on certain people because it would be so much more convenient if they simply did not exist. And while there is a dark and unsettling mood to the song, the lyrics reclaim some dignity from the shame and regret society expects from its exiles:
"I am Shame / She is me / We get down with our bad selves figuratively / Don't care too much what other people say / I get along swell by my goddamn self / Never asked for no one's philosophy / It's obvious I'm proud of me".
I Am Her lands at a pivotal time. More people are prepared to recognise gender fluidity as natural and normal, yet the conservative right seems to be more threatened by that idea than ever before. But ShaGasyia "Shea" Diamond isn't necessarily the obvious candidate to convince the moral majority - from the age of 19, Shea spent ten years in a men's prison for a crime she says she committed in order to fund her medical bills for gender transition.
"I don't like to... talk about my crime that lead me to incarceration," Diamond says, "because it’s not really important. Survival looks different for different people. What’s important is that I did my time."
When she was released from prison she left Flint, Michigan and headed for New York, where she "navigated through the shelter system with a bag of clothes, cosmetology supplies, a shit load of songs and a book I wrote while incarcerated". She saved up some money to record a demo of I Am Her and eventually came to the notice of hot shot songwriter Justin Tranter, whose already lengthy catalogue of hits includes Justin Bieber's Sorry and Good for You by Selena Gomez. Tranter signed Diamond to his production company and brought I Am Her to the world.
I've exchanged a few emails with Shea and her passion and ebullience for what she's doing is infectious. And you've got to admire any songwriter who can pull off using the word "figuratively" with such elegant ease. Almost every line of her emails ends with an exclamation: "I have an amazing band that accompanies me during most performances!" she says, and "It is about time for us to change the hearts and minds of others and be the change we expect to see in the world!" and "Gender is fluid and sexuality is just as fluid and I believe the music industry as well as the entertainment industry should look the same!"
I discovered this track last year on a Billboard magazine list called 25 Top Feminist Anthems and so I asked Shea - who cites "the late great Whitney Houston, Tina Turner and Nina Simone" as childhood influences - what songs she would include on a playlist of music that inspires you to fight for your rights. "It would include Survivor by Destiny’s Child," she says "I’m Black and I’m Proud by James Brown, U.N.I.T.Y by Queen Latifah, Fight the Power by Public Enemy and of course I Am Her by Shea Diamond."
It may be thanks her own inner strength rather than the penal system itself, but Shea Diamond seems like a pretty good advertisement for what can be achieved after a decade in prison. She is building a career and using her position to inspire others to express themselves and stand up for their freedom, working as an activist at The Women's Building, a hub for women's social justice in New York.
But Shea Diamond's insider's view of the US prison system is predictably negative, calling it a "modern form of slavery".
"Human beings are considered disposable," she says. "Prison reform is a joke... You can’t fix a system that is doing exactly what it was designed to do. After going ten years you learn that the prison system is a business. They are in the business of upholding and monopolizing modern day slavery! I’m proof that if we invest more into human lives than prison bars we follow a moral compass that promotes human lives over hefty government checks!"
With a US tour and an EP of new songs due this year, which promises to continue the story of Shea Diamond's life that started with I Am Her, the spotlight she is hoping to step into will inevitably come with a much greater degree of scrutiny from the media and the public. The details of Diamond's crime are only a Google search away and as her career develops, she may need to confront the past in order to own her own future.
"As long as we live, people will sit in a place of privilege and try to determine and justify who is deserving of human rights or equal rights," says Diamond. "Music saved my life and hope to make music that will save or change the lives of people or at least make a difference. With trans women being killed as if our lives are disposable, it’s not only important but I think imperative we are more than visible - that we have a unified front and stand in formation and realize it's our responsibility to be our sister's keeper."
You can learn more about Shea Diamond here
About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.
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