by Ash B.
As a passionate lover of music and self-proclaimed band nerd for life, I love analyzing the music I listen to. I enjoy paying attention to all the choices that go into a work of music – the chord structure, time signature, melody, instrumentation, and so on – and I love identifying the possible musical influences that affected those choices.
Music is fascinating, in part, because so many different styles connect in some way, even if those connections are not immediately obvious. However, innovation doesn’t occur out of thin air; new musical styles have always developed out of existing ones, with artists often blending different cultural influences to create new sounds. I believe that understanding the history of American music is essential to fully appreciating the music of today, and to do so, we must center the musical innovations of Black Americans.
And now is the perfect time to do so!
While it may be a coincidence, I find it extremely fitting that June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month as well as Black Music Appreciation Month. While we don’t know how many of them would label themselves with today’s language, many pioneering Black musicians throughout history defied gender norms, had same-gender relationships, or both. Some expressed their sexuality quite openly, such as Gladys Bentley, a 1930s blues singer and pianist who performed in men’s tuxedos while flirting with female audience members. Other musicians were not as public regarding their sexuality, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gospel-singing, electric-guitar playing “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll” who had relationships with both men and women.
Regardless of the labels that would best suit historical figures, it is worth recognizing the personal complexities of artists who lived these intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. A refusal to acknowledge the intersections between Black music history and LGBTQ+ history would be a failing to understand the foundations of American pop culture and music.
Black LGBTQ+ artists continue to have great impact on the American musical landscape: Janelle Monáe, Lil Nas X, Kehlani, and Frank Ocean, just to name a few. However, there are still many incredible artists that don’t get the amount of attention they deserve, and that is why I’d like to shine the spotlight on the singer-songwriter and activist Shea Diamond.
Shea Diamond’s music draws upon her lived experiences as a formerly incarcerated, Black trans woman, speaking to the challenges of navigating a society that has frequently marginalized her, all while remaining confident and determined to create space for herself.
Her first EP Seen It All was released in 2017 and is definitely among the most mature and masterful debuts I’ve ever heard. Shea’s dynamic, powerhouse voice conveys raw emotion, amplifying the message of her vulnerable and authentic lyrics. From playful to proud, celebratory to somber, reflective to resilient, Shea seamlessly weaves threads of her experience together into a tapestry that portrays the complexities of her life, all in five gorgeous songs that show an impressive musical range.
While she is predominantly considered a soul and R&B singer, her music has a very strong rock/pop presence that incorporates elements of funk, blues, gospel, and folk. Many artists are skilled in their musical range, but I find Shea to be unique in the particular way that she cohesively brings together the aforementioned genres. Her music is fresh and contemporary while being clearly rooted in these American musical traditions, and the message of her lyrics is amplified by the corresponding musical style and instrumentation of each song. I don’t think there’s any other artist that can get me from dancing to crying and back again as quickly and as powerfully as Shea can!
Ultimately, I find her most inspiring because of the authenticity and passion she brings to her work. She is an artist who knows the power of her voice, and she isn’t afraid to use it – from her emotional vocal techniques to the lyrics she sings. Shea Diamond has a lot to say; will you listen?
Interested in listening to CDs, too? Check out our current bundle bag options for Black Music Month and Pride in Music.
Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch. They grew up playing piano and clarinet, and are now slowly learning the ukulele. At any given moment, they might be thinking admirably about Janelle Monáe.