Black Queer Artists: Shea Diamond, Arlo Parks & More

A photograph collage of Arlo Parks, Janelle Monae and Shay Diamond surrounded by pastel, rainbow colors. The rest of the background is grey with large, black letters that read: "Black Queer Artists"
Graphics by Sarah Tarlin

WERS is wishing everyone a happy Juneteenth! With this anniversary of emancipation comes a re-instilled effort to amplify Black voices. Plus, with Juneteenth, Black Music Month and Pride Month all aligning, we couldn’t think of a better time to spotlight a handful of Black, queer artists who have truly changed the game. Read on for profiles of these four music greats you should know…

And, don’t stop there! Read our deep dive into Genre and Gender-Bending Black Musicians, including a reminder that for rock and roll we have African-American music pioneers to thank. 



By Sofia Giarrusso, Staff Writer

ShaGasyia “Shea” Diamond shines bright among the names of today’s soul and R&B scene with her showstopping vocal and songwriting abilities. While born in 1978 in Little Rock, Arkansas, it was during her childhood in Flint, Michigan where Diamond became inspired by talent like Whitney Houston and Tina Turner. Her music is centered on the power of protest through art as her intentional lyrics shine by way of her beaming performance and raw instrumentation. 

Diamond’s songs “I Am Her” and “American Pie” have shaken the music scene for their unabridged subject matter and passion. Diamond is known for challenging societal norms and the status quo by advocating for transgender and incarcerated rights in America. A Black transgender woman herself, Diamond experienced institutional discrimination within the prison system and beyond in America. This prejudice led her to write “I Am Her” while incarcerated which ultimately grabbed the attention of Justin Tranter, a successful pop songwriter, who helped catapult her career. 

Diamond’s work has garnered the attention of household names; “American Pie” was endorsed by Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign and used at his rallies. Additionally, Diamond’s “I Am America,” an anthem about unabashed pride, is the theme for HBO Max’s series “We’re Here.” The series follows RuPaul's Drag Race queens as they put on one-night-only drag shows in small towns across the USA. Shea Diamond’s impact is apparent and led her to be nominated for the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Music Artist in 2019. 

Shea Diamond has released two EPs and 11 singles thus far with the latest release being in 2023 with her EP, Memory Lane. Diamond shows no signs of slowing down and continues to advocate for awareness, equity and positivity. By using the vehicle of music as a platform for change, Diamond proves to be an influential and important voice.



By Avieana Rivera, Music Coordinator

Although Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, her music career was born right here in Boston. During her time as an undergraduate student at Tufts University in the ’80s, studying anthropology and African studies, Tracy Chapman started to write music. Shortly after, writing evolved into performing, and busking in Harvard Square and on red line MBTA platforms. She even got involved with Tufts’ radio station, WMFO, in order to record demos of her songs. 

Chapman made her big stage debut opening for Linda Tillery at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. After that impressive performance, a friend of Chapman's smuggled one of her demos from the radio station to his father, who helped Chapman get signed to Elektra Records in 1987. The next year, Tracy Chapman released her self-titled, debut album. 

The album’s lead single, “Fast Car,” took off after Chapman performed it at a televised tribute concert for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. Her album rose to number one on the US and UK charts, and “Fast Car” went number 6 on the US Billboard charts. In 2010, Rolling Stone would feature “Fast Car” as number 167 of their “Greatest 200 Songs of All Time” article. Her self-titled album won her three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Fast Car.” 

Chapman was quick to follow with her second album, Crossroads, in 1989. She would go on to release six more albums over the span of almost 20 years, releasing her latest album, and eighth overall Our Bright Future in 2008. While Chapman strives to keep her personal life separate from her career, she has been known to be politically active, constantly advocating for human rights throughout her career. 

In 2023, country singer Luke Combs covered “Fast Car.” The cover went number one on Billboard’s Country Airplay charts, bringing new life to a beloved song, and introducing a new generation to the legendary Tracy Chapman. In 2023, Chapman won the Country Music Association Award for Song of the Year. This historic win made her not only the first Black woman to take home a CMA award, but also the first Black songwriter to win Song of the Year. Because of this resurgence, Tracy Chapman joined Luke Combs onstage during the 66th Grammy Awards to sing “Fast Car.” This was hugely unexpected, as Chapman has only performed on camera three times since her last tour in 2009, according to Variety

Tracy Chapman is a pillar of Folk music, and a legend among musicians of her time. She has broken barriers for Black women and queer women in the music industry, and done so on her own terms. 



By Nora Onanian, Web Services Coordinator and Tatum Jenkins, former Music Coordinator

Actor, musician and trailblazer, Janelle Monáe is an all-around talent and a fierce voice in this world.

Growing up in Kansas City, Monáe learned to sing at their local Baptist church, and early inspirations began to take root. They always dreamed of being a performer, but it was the character of (fellow Kansan) Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz that solidified that dream for them. At twelve years old, they wrote a musical inspired by Stevie Wonder’s album Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants. In high school, they became involved in a playwriting group and then took steps to pursue a career in theater. Monáe started as a student at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy as the only Black woman in their musical theater classes. They dropped out after a year and a half for fear of losing their sound, a clear testament to their strong sense of identity even at such a young age. Throughout their career, Monáe’s owning their sexuality, gender identity, sensuality—even—, has inspired countless others to do the same.

After their time in theater school, Monáe enrolled at Georgia State University. While there, they began to write their own music and, in 2003, self-released their first album The Audition. The album caught the attention of rapper Big Boi, one of the members of OutKast, who had Monáe feature on OutKast’s album Idlewild. The label Bad Boy signed Janelle Monáe in 2006, and a year later, they released their first official project— an EP called Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). The EP was beloved by critics and got them a Grammy nomination. 

Their first full-length album The ArchAndroid, released in 2010, revolves around a character named Cindi Mayweather, an android and Monáe’s alter ego. A second concept album was released in 2018, titled Dirty Computer, a show of their continued creative genius that received even more critical acclaim. Monáe has since put out their beautifully boldest release yet: 2023’s The Age of Pleasure. The album got them the nomination of Album of the Year at last year’s Grammys. In an interview with The Current, Monáe described the album as "a movement" and "a soundtrack to a lifestyle." Here, Monáe stresses being unapologetic of your pursuit of joy and expression. In the lyrics and video of “Lipstick Lover,” for instance, Monáe is proud to sing about who they love. They even pull a line from Stevie Wonder, a nod to their continued adoration of him, singing “‘Cause for your love, I’ll take my time.” 

Monáe’s accolades feel too many to count between their ten Grammy nominations, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Trailblazer of the Year Award from Billboard, among others. Speaking perhaps most loudly to their icon status, though, was Monáe’s invitation to stand among soul greats like Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Tessanne Chin and others at the White House in 2014 celebrating the genre and the impact these artists had on not just music, but American culture. 



By Ella Mastroianni, Blog Assistant

On May 26th, 2023, Arlo Parks released her second album, My Soft Machine. The 23-year-old British musician won the 2021 Mercury Music Prize for her debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, and a little over two years after putting that album into the world, it was time for her sophomore release. However, before all of this, Parks was Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, an artist from London with a deep connection and love for words. 

Parks began as many artists do nowadays, by turning to the internet and submitting things. Parks uploaded some of her early music to BBC Music Introducing, and from there she released her first EP Super Sad Generation. However, it wasn’t until Collapsed In Sunbeams that the game changed for her. Her songs such as “Eugene,” “Caroline,” and “Black Dog,” (which begins with the delectable line “I'd lick the grief right off your lips,”) made up an album that emphasized her poetic ability and even more so than people discovering her music, Parks’ indie-pop music with R and B influence was finding and connecting with people. 

Parks has had an NPR Tiny Desk Concert and has performed at KEXP and Coachella, giving her a solid foundation impressively early in her career. She has written for Beyonce (specifically on the song "YA YA”), has collaborated with Phoebe Bridgers, and has opened for artists such as Harry Styles, Billie Eilish and Clairo. It is her sixth year releasing music, and as of late, she has added being an author to her resume. A few months after My Soft Machine, she released a poetry book called “The Magic Border,” which included more information about the tracks on her sophomore album emphasizing her love of words with the addition of some of her poetry (p.s.: I can attest the poems alone are worth the read). 

There is no doubt that Parks has a way with words (Take “Weightless,” for example, which opens with, “Cardamom and jade as your eyes streamed/ On the night you showed your volcanic side”), and it is clear upon listening to any of her songs that she loves the craft of writing. Her songs are literary in many ways, and they’re also simply fun and lovely to listen to at any time—it isn’t every day that an artist can so seamlessly make indie-pop music that can also be categorized as R&B or even folk. For listeners of these genres, she is a lovable songwriter. For lovers of these genres, she is a household name.

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