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Braylen Dion

‘When you love yourself first, it’s easy to be in love all the time’: serpentwithfeet interviewed

Following the release of his beautiful second album, Deacon, Josiah Wise aka serpentwithfeet talks creating his own path, black gay love and being in love with yourself.

09 Apr 2021

“There are lots of people that make money for their mouth”, Josiah Wise’s mother reminded him when his teachers complained about his rowdiness, “as long as you’re not disrupting anyone, talk as much as you want”. 

Raised in Baltimore, Josiah, known professionally in the music world as serpentwithfeet, always had a creative spirit fostered by his parents, despite his teachers’ protests. “My parents encouraged my curiosity from when I was very young”, serpent tells me over Zoom.

The 32-year-old singer is a reputable source of sonic versatility, garnering support from collaborators Björk and Ty Dolla $ign. Few artists have the range to dip their toes in with artists who bolster such disparate sounds, yet serpent has seamlessly traversed genres with ease since his EP blisters in 2016 and debut album soil in 2018. Pigeon-holing his historically haunting and experimental style is near-impossible, and frankly, pointless. In his second album Deacon, serpent continues in his genre-bending ways, transforming his sound into one that is sensual, warm and inviting. 

The musician’s childhood was centred around the church, theatre, dance, music classes and creative writing camps, “I was always very active, there wasn’t a lot of idle time for me.” But being a gifted child had its drawbacks, and serpent’s mother was occasionally strict: “She was very serious about me having a strong mind”. So, when his friends were heading to the movies or going swimming during summer vacation, serpent would be at home studying or reading a book. He didn’t understand this treatment as a child, but now, he’s thankful for his mother’s tough love as it taught him an invaluable lesson that “doing things I didn’t love or enjoy at the time taught me how to be okay with being on my own path, and I’m grateful to her for that.”

“It dawned on me that if I want a career, I’m going to have to create it for myself and stay on my own path”

This lesson proved paramount for serpentwithfeet when embarking on his professional music career. As he got older and developed his voice, serpent started training to be an opera singer, “I wanted to be a classical musician, but that’s just not what the universe had in store for me.” After facing rejection from all the graduate vocal programmes he applied for, serpent remembered the lesson learnt from his mother whilst spending those summers at home, “I got rerouted quite a few times. And it dawned on me that if I want a career, I’m going to have to create it for myself and stay on my own path.”

So, that’s just what he did. Blending the classical musical knowledge gained from formal training with his church upbringing and love for R&B, serpentwithfeet has created his own eclectic sonic universe. Acting as an immersive experience, serpent’s sound ironically transports its listeners to the world that previously excluded him. The avant-garde and orchestral renditions in tracks like ‘four ethers feel like sitting in the front row of an opera. Supported by gothic strings and an overwhelming production, serpent’s voice is incomparable – he doesn’t sound like any of his musical contemporaries or forebearers, he sounds like serpentwithfeet. As his mother reminded him when he was little Josiah from Baltimore, he is on his own unique path. He says, “If I wasn’t pushed away [from opera], I don’t know if I would have started writing my own music, so I’m glad that it went this way.”

His sophomore album Deacon continues to mesh sounds from classical and R&B music to expand his sonic universe, but the project’s themes dig deeper than his previous work. For me, Deacon feels like a collection of home videos I’ve been given access to. The abrupt tracklisting reflects the crackly nature of an old camera, and the lyricism perfectly describes the feelings, moods and emotions of serpent in the way only a camera can perfectly capture a smile. With music videos like ‘Fellowship’ acting as an extension of this home-video feel, serpentwithfeet’s second album is personal; it feels like home. The album has been acclaimed by fans and critics for being a groundbreaking celebration of black love, joy and spirituality.

“You know, I think gay people have been hearing straight stories forever. So now it’s time for you to hear ours”

One personal aspect of serpentwithfeet’s life drawn on is his Christian upbringing, with the title of Deacon acting as a nod to the love and warmth he received from his church community in Baltimore. “When I wasn’t in school or at some theatre program or some choir rehearsal, I was in the church,” he says, “That was my family… that was my world.” He was always fascinated with the deacons in his church, explaining, “[They] are composed, self-possessed and often very still, supporting the members of the church. I wanted to explore this spirit of the deacon sonically”. Tracks such as ‘Malik’ are an ode to the gospel choir, with the layered choral vocals adding a spiritual element to the central themes of the project.

Not only is Deacon about serpent’s church community, but this offering also acts as a celebration of black love in all of its forms. The third single from the album, ‘Same Size Shoe’, is an exploration of the simplicity and joy that underpins black gay love – something as basic as sharing a shoe size with a partner (“Me and my boo wear the same size shoe”) can make a beautiful relationship feel even more perfect. Finding joy in the mundane continues in the interlude ‘Derrick’s Beard(“Come over here, missing your beard”).

In this album, black gay love is not only discussed but is given space to thrive, to be celebrated. His experiences as a black man are stated matter-of-factly throughout the project, which serpent tells me was done intentionally. “You know, I think gay people have been hearing straight stories forever. So now it’s time for you to hear ours.” Treating queer stories as the norm is the first step in decentring heteronormativity in R&B, a genre serpent finds inspiration from, and reduces the spectacle underlying any discussion of queer identities in black music. Serpent explains that he simply just loves black men – there isn’t more to it, “I love black men, it’s just my preference. Black men are beautiful everywhere.”

“When you love yourself first, it’s easy to be in love all the time. So, I don’t see it as if I’ve been in love before. I don’t think I’m ever out of love”

Along with this celebration of black gay love is also an awareness of the state of black masculinity. The stigma surrounding being vulnerable plagues men across all racial groups, but the stereotypes that perceive black people as strong create an added pressure for black men to stifle their emotions. In Deacon, serpent wants listeners to witness black masculinity in various formations, hoping that it’ll encourage his community to open up: “We all grow as humans when we learn about other people,” he says. He hopes that black men free themselves from the shame that lies within expressing one’s emotions, “In a world that doesn’t always foster that sort of engagement, how can we be gentler with each other? How can we develop that for one another?” Listening to how one black man discusses his feelings is the first step.

As I was talking to serpent, he reminded me that my conceptualisation of black love was incomplete. One thing that Deacon shows, which I failed to realise, is that love isn’t just external – it isn’t only an emotion we give and receive. After asking him about whether he has been in love before, serpent took a long pause, and I could tell that he was pondering on how to respond. The answer he gave astounded me, “I think it’s important to be in love with yourself. When you love yourself first, it’s easy to be in love all the time. So, I don’t see it as if I’ve been in love before. I don’t think I’m ever out of love.” Self-love is an intrinsic part of black love – can you really call yourself a champion of black love if you, as a black person, don’t unashamedly love yourself?

The words his mother told him have rung true for serpentwithfeet, and not only has he made money from his stunning voice, but he has inspired his fanbase to embrace love. Listening to serpentwithfeet is a reminder we shouldn’t be afraid to receive love or to love others. We shouldn’t be afraid to love ourselves.