Justin Tranter is at the top of the pop game, writing songs for and with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber and Kelly Clarkson. Beyond being one of pop's most prolific writers, he's also a fierce advocate for the LGBTQ community, acting as a board member for GLAAD and promoting positive images of LGBTQ people in entertainment industry.
Tranter takes his activism a step further than many, using his privilege to uplift artists who may otherwise be marginalized by the industry. One such artist is Shea Diamond, a vocalist with an incredible story and a powerhouse voice. Born in the South to a 14-year-old mother, Diamond was raised by relatives until eventually running away from a home that didn't accept her for who she was. She cycled through the foster care system before making her way into the world, facing many of the struggles that so many trans women of color face, but not before finding her voice as a musician. Tracks like "I Am Her, "Seen It All" and "Keisha Complexion" are as lyrically complex as they are danceable, demonstrating a rare gift to portray raw, dynamic emotion in a way that moves the body as much as the spirit.
Diamond's debut EP, Seen It All, executive produced by Tranter, is out today. To celebrate, the two artists joined together for a conversation about race and gender in the music industry, finding joy in rejection and depression, and what still needs to be done:
Justin Tranter: Let's start all the way at the beginning, Queen. Tell me about your childhood and the very first moment of coming to grips with your gender identity and dysmorphia.
Shea: Looking back, I understand truly the difference between gender identity disorder and gender dysphoria. One you have the ability to work with, and is sometimes easier to treat. But with gender dysphoria, everything is urgent. So for me, I was in a state of urgency, where I knew right away that nothing identified on my body identified with my mind. I got into a lot more trouble, in a way. Coming from the South, everybody wants you to be a rock. It's done out of love because they're trying to prepare you for a rough world that doesn't accept that and doesn't acknowledge it in the same way you acknowledge it. It was torture. I was already imprisoned before I was physically in prison.
When those feelings started to show up when you were young, how did that affect your relationships with your mom and your siblings?
It was a new relationship that I was still discovering. I didn't know too much about my mother. I was still being introduced to her and to my uncles and aunts and everything else. I ran away from home, but my mother ran away from home as well. She just wanted to get away. Her stepmother shot at the car and said, "You're not taking my baby with you." (I was the baby). And so my mother, she left.
The moment they tell me about is when my mother came back to Arkansas five or six years later and stole me. They found me walking barefoot with no shoes and no shirt on and just a pair of pink panties. My auntie was like, that's your baby. My mother was crying. I guess I must've been big enough to walk. They brought me back to Memphis.
It's so insane that you can remember.
All of this stuff that was coming at me was definitely new when I came into the new world of living connected to my mother. At school and in the church, it was a problem with my femininity—my walk was too feminine, the way I talked was too feminine, the way I moved my hands, rolled my eyes. Everything about me was too feminine, so I remember just feeling depressed all the time.
That dichotomy of loving church and and loving to sing, but then also being shamed in that process, how do you as a young person handle that?
My imagination and it got me through. I was a little actress, and I'd watch everybody, my eyeballs were on everything. I would watch the way men walked and did everything to wear a mask of masculinity. I got compliments as much as I got ridicule.
I don't think I've ever asked you about the first moment you entered a foster care situation. What that first moment was like, especially going in there as a magical trans woman?
It was an adventure for me at that point. There's something about the night I ran away, and how afraid I was. I was contemplating committing suicide and in a state of confusion. I didn't know what to do. At that point I was given an ultimatum to not be myself or to get out the house. So I was literally like, okay, I can do anything and that would be better than what I was doing, this character that I pretended to be for so long. Watching everyone around me so happy living their lives, getting their first periods, getting pregnant, getting their first boobs, and I didn't get my first boobs [crying]. I was being punished for being myself. I didn't have a safe place to go to. The schools weren't safe, at home it wasn't safe. So I cut myself off. If I didn't have connection to anybody, I could be whoever I wanted to be.
I had just been in a play where I played character that was on the verge of suicide because he identified as gay and was accepted. I played it with such real emotion, because I could relate to this character. One of my best friends was in the play, and we talked and I disclosed to him my truth, or the character's truth that I was truth. How ironic that at this point I was given an ultimatum by my family to get out of the house, because they knew who I was. So I told him and he told me about a shelter that I could go to. I used the play as a lesson.
What's so amazing to see is how even then art and performance and creativity were reflecting your life.
It was so inspiring. I went to the shelter for youth. It was kind of hard for me, the process. But I loved the fact that people there were understanding and I could tell them what was going on. They saw that my parent wasn't willing to come to meetings to claim me or to develop any relationship. It was only a temporary shelter, so the minute they said you can either go home, or you can become a ward of the state, I chose to be a ward of the state.
Was there anybody in your childhood or teens that was a positive figure? Besides your friend that you confided in?
Definitely. I had an amazing foster mother. Out of all the struggles that happened in my life, she was really was a consistent in my life, even after I was emancipated at 17. She would tell me that there was something special about me and that I was destined for greatness [crying]. That was something I had never heard before. She was a singer as well, and she would always just make me a part of everything. She loved me.
Nobody wanted a trans child. I was a sweet child but still not really desired. I was too big, dark-skinned, and now you're trans? It was definitely a tough sell. If it wasn't a highly religious family shoving their views down your throat, it was the bad treatment within the household. But she was just amazing. She was African American and she just had a joy about her. Just like you, Justin. Every day when I was going through depression or issues at school or whatever, the encouragement that she gave was so important. She let me know that it was going to be alright. Knowing that she couldn't fix it, but she could help heal this child that was already broken.
It's just unfortunate that you had to go through all this to find that person in your life, but at least you found them.
People didn't just tell me that I would never be great, they tried to ensure it. So to have one person that saw me for me was everything. She didn't just see a trans child, didn't just see me being dark-skinned, she saw my heart and my capacity to love. She saw my talent, my compassion, my commitment.
Do you know where she is now?
I don't, I don't. I've been trying to look for her.
We've got to find her!
I know, that would be amazing.
How do you think everything you been through affects the music that you make?
Everyone goes through struggle; it's different for different people. But it's what we do with what we are given. A lot of people that are not able to see through their journey, people that didn't know they were strong enough. And a lot of people, they weren't give the opportunity to make that choice. It was taken away from us. So to be able to be here and be able to see so much, and to be apart of so much that's bigger than myself [crying] lets me know that I'm finally living.
I mean girl you're living, you're living. It's just so amazing to watch how music affects people and how music affects you. It's just so beyond beautiful. I remember when we met, I got a text message from this amazing friend of mine saying, "Oh my god, I just saw this woman perform, she blew my mind." She sent me a link to you singing a song called "I Am Her" at a Black Lives Matter rally. My mind was just blown. The vocal gift was there and the tone was so special but what blew me away the most was lyrically how advanced the song is, how honest it is, and how it's this empowering anthem, not just for trans people but for all people.
It also acknowledges darkness. It wasn't just some cheesy empowerment anthem. I knew that I had to find you. I think I emailed you first?
I emailed you like, I think you're amazing—and then what did you do?
I had already heard so many people saying I want to find that song or I want to find you, in prison.
People were trying to find you when you were still in prison?
That is amazing.
So I was not really surprised, I just didn't really take it serious. So I said, "Thank you so much for the opportunity, but I don't have any money to travel out there and all of that stuff. And you hit me backup like, "No, no, no, I'm going to take care of the hotel and fly you and your friends out." Then it started getting a little interesting. Either this person is really, really forward, or this is a horrible person, and if that's the case I'm going to get him together and by get him together I mean literally say no and be like "Look chile," that type of thing. So I just Googled you because there was a name attached to the email, it wasn't a secret. I saw the history pop up and I was just like, "Oh my god."
We met face to face when you invited me and another one of my trans friends out to a Cyndi Lauper concert. I was skeptical at first because again, I didn't know you. Me and my friend we were just gagging or whatever at the Cyndi Lauper event. And I met your mother, who is so real. I was in awe. I'm southern so I'm not trusting in anything; I'm kind and nice and respectful to everyone but I'm not very trusting. And so that was a great, great move.
Well it wasn't a move, that's just who I hang out with. [laughs]
Well of course now I know!
You thought I was pulling some slick executive move bringing my mom. What blew my mind the most was when you came out to LA. You had written so many songs on your own. But this is the first time you were ever going to co-write and build tracks on your own. I just couldn't believe it. You were way better than I was when I first got in the studio. It just blew my mind. And then when we recorded "Seen It All" which was one of my favorites. And then you were like, "Hey we got the song down, now can I do an ad-lib track?" I was just like, "Holy shit. This woman is not playing." The lyrics, everything. It was just unbelievable. What do you think, as a trans woman of color, navigating this music industry?
I'm not sure if I can properly speak for other trans artists. But it's very frustrating and discouraging. A lot of times people try to pressure you into sex if you get into someone's studio like, "Oh you're in the studio, what are you going to do for me?" It's that type of energy. It can be very draining if you're serious about the industry and serious about the craft. As a trans women, you just give up after a while because this is what it is. Like I'm not coming to have sex with you, I'm not coming in here to make you feel comfortable, I'm coming in here so I can record some vocals.
Obviously the homophobia that I experienced in this industry has been crazy, but when we first met and you were telling me all the situations and stories, it really showed me the privilege that I'm in. I was just like fuck, I had such a privilege walking into this industry. You're just trying to live your dreams and the fact that people are creating these environments that are opposite of healing is so fucked up.
It's like what you said, music is supposed to be freeing. And that is not freeing.
The first label that was interested in you, not our current one which is amazing, but the first label that wanted to sign you, I remember the CEO of the company called me and was like, "Her voice is so amazing. We're interested in working with her, but we're afraid the story will overshadow the music. Maybe the music shouldn't be so serious and talk about her experience? What do you think about her just making a dance record?" And I went off on this motherfucker. I went off on him, and was like, you don't want her to put her experience as a trans woman of color into her music, that is so transphobic and that is so racist.
It happens in the music industry all the time.
Girl, I always say to you If I had met you 10 years ago, I would have been so inspired and loved it, but I would have just written a song about you. But now in the last few years of my life, with the privilege I've been afforded, I don't need to write the song about you. I need to elevate you to tell your own goddamn story, whether it's paying its forward with connections or whatever the case maybe. I need you to tell it as honest and as real as you want.
And that's where we're going, and how we're moving forward. Because there was a point in time when you didn't even know you possessed privilege. And you have privilege, but you know what to do with it.
I try my hardest.
And if we could get more people to hear this, then there wouldn't be such a huge burden on one person's shoulders. We need more people to understand this.
What do you hope your music can add to your current state of music?
That everyone can be apart of it and everyone can tell their stories through it. There's no way that it can just tell one story. I hope that people understand that there is not just one trans woman. There is room for all of us to shine. It's so comfortable for people to say "Yeah, they can sing a little bit, have them do a dance song." People are more comfortable when they don't have to think about what's happening in the world. Just because you decided to tune it out, doesn't mean it's not happening.
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When the idea for "American Pie" came to you, which is my favorite song of all time, what were you thinking about?
It was this notion of just wanting the "American Dream," everything is American here, we even have an American Eagle, and American pie. I just thought, I am American, I have the same rights and the same desires as everyone else. So, who is going to say that my want is not a need? People say, "You're a trans person and you don't deserve, to be happy, to have a husband," basically they want God to punish you and God's not doing it fast enough so they want to do it.
I just want to make this American phrase a thing that people can envision. To make the American dream edible—something you can actually eat. How would it taste for you to be able to have a slice of it, something that you can put your fingers on, would it be good? In life, you think everyone is living so good and is so happy. You think they don't have to worry about work, how they are going to pay their next bill or if their healthcare is covered. All these things that people get naturally, what would it be like to have that?
I am going to make sure you I can do everything I can to make sure that you get your piece of "American Pie." You have my word, Queen.
This story isn't over and it continues every day. For me, it was learning that I had to still live and tell the story. When I found someone that believed in me, I was able to reconnect with my mother after 20 years and be the daughter I always was. I am the woman I've always known that I could be. It's so important for all women to aspire to be something and have hope, no matter who they are. Being able to see someone that looks like them and sounds like that and came from nothing, it gives people a chance to dream again.
Photography: Lauren Gesswein
Styling: Tasmin Ersahin