how serpentwithfeet turned personal desire into dazzling gospel
The experimental R&B artist discusses his transcendent debut album 'Soil' — and the sacred texts of Toni Morrison.
Photography Ash Kingston
Gospel music hasn’t always occupied space within the pop music cannon, but serpentwithfeet is not bothered by that. The artist’s debut album, soil (out now via Secretly Canadian/Tri Angle Records), embraces gospel’s rich textures and weaves it with contemporary R&B to create a collection of sensual, sermon-like pop songs. Having grown up in the black church, serpent (real name Josiah Wise) was surrounded by the sounds and symbols of sainthood that ultimately shaped the person he is today. In conversation he describes having recently realized that he is living “a gospel experience”, a perception he attained by looking inward and assessing the space he occupies, and seeing how it influences his interactions with others.
soil is a gay love story, and sits alongside Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer as one of this year’s best. It’s the sound of a black church boy singing about the men he’s loved, the men he’s lost, and the men he still pines for. It offers sanctity to all of those emotions, particularly the ones that linger. Throughout the album serpent is both eulogizing and analysing where things went wrong, while accepting accountability for some of the missteps that ultimately derailed things. By substituting a higher power for a gay lover, he has repurposed gospel music as a vessel for expressing his own personal desire.
Speaking with serpent, you discover a person energized by their environment, but who is still trying to figure life out. He’s an artist, a philosopher, and a choir boy all in a one, who speaks at length on a topic before circling back and starting over, often with a new perspective that occasionally contradicts itself but more than often adds to it. Over the course of an hour in the courtyard of a black-owned cafe in Bedstuy, serpent spoke about his connection to gospel music and the black church, the significance of using male pronouns in his work, and the importance of having a black audience for black art.
You’ve described your body as your moodboard. What’s on your moodboard right now?
On my actual moodboard and not my body moodboard there are a lot of pictures. I really love the show Greenleaf. It’s about a black mega-church in the South. I’ve been thinking a lot about churches and Southern black life, and the way that I grew up and all of the images that I grew up seeing, and remixing them for myself. I think it’s half conscious, half inevitable. As I’ve been getting older I’ve been taking a lot of things that I’ve seen and repurposing them. Images of preachers, images of drug dealers, which aren’t that different from preachers. My moodboard right now has a lot of stock images or drug dealers, rappers, and preachers. I feel like the preachers and drug dealers that I grew up seeing hold space in a certain way, and I’ve just been entertaining that a lot which has been really exciting for me to think about.
You say you grew up in the church. What does that mean specifically?
It’s more like a lifestyle. People go to church on Sunday and they go home, [but] if you are ‘in the church’, you are in the church. Both my parents were clergy, I was in choir rehearsal, dance practice, theater, the arts ministries, and in the kids’ nursery two Saturday nights out of every month I would work with the babies. My family was there multiple times a week. So I think when we say ‘in the church,’ we mean commitment level.
Gospel music is a huge part of your new record. Is it something you had to come back to, or was it always part of your DNA?
I never left. I was always thinking about gospel music, I just don’t think I was writing or talking about it as pointedly. More recently I started taking a step back and seeing how much gospel music has colored my experience, and [realized] I am having a gospel experience. My life is a gospel experience. Some people think in tweets, or in sonnets or haiku; I think in gospel. There’s a certain lyricism, and I find a lot of times my friends and I will go out and we’re always thinking about every sound, like, what is that musically? And we riff off of that and it will end up being a whole song. I think it’s a whole way of being. bell hooks wrote this article about white fascination with black art and how, for obvious reasons, we turn our noses up when white people want to make R&B, soul, or gospel music. There was something she said about when black art is seen as — I’m going to fuck this up — but when black art is seen as the most important part of black culture, or black artistic expression. But it’s part of a whole experience, it’s the pain and the tears and all that informs that, it’s not just R&B. What I’m getting at is that gospel doesn’t just start when you press play and end when you press stop.
In the 90s it was common for R&B artists to sing to a lover and directly address their desire. Was that something you tried to do on soil ?
“Fragrant,” that is me eulogizing a man who is no longer in my life. Maybe this is pompous to say, but I feel that it’s an honor to say, ‘you’re gone, but I’m not only still thinking about you, I’m [also] wondering how you’ve affected other people.’ Maybe there’s a religious tinge to that – this figure in my life is now gone and I want to see what other followers he has. But it was a genuine concern of mine with different men that I’ve been with. Like, I’m so affected by you and I can still smell you weeks later, months later. I still remember the way your hands were, the way you walked or laughed, all those different things, and I wonder if you amuse other people the way you amused me. And not with envy, but in amazement that you have this much gravity, even when you’re gone. I wanted to make a song about that.
I didn’t actually do what I said, which is to call all his ex-boyfriends, but I was thinking ‘what is the next best thing?’ If I can’t have the person I want, at least I can be around the people that he affected. So I think I was thinking about this ceremony, just like a eulogy. It’s kind of like what happens at a funeral, everybody that loved the person who has died gets together to talk about how amazing they were. Maybe more people should do that with lovers. Like once you break up, maybe there should be a hotline, or an app, where people can get together and talk about how amazing they were.
You mentioned running some songs past friends to gauge their reactions to various themes, ideas, and sounds. Do you have an ideal listener in mind when you’re creating music?
I’m always thinking about black people when I make my work. Obviously anybody can listen, and I’m not here to handpick my listeners, but a lot of cues only black people are going to get. It’s that same thing you were talking about, about going to church versus being in the church, I think the same about white people that like R&B and gospel. It’s OK to like it, but you’re a visitor, you’re thinking about it from an artistic standpoint. When you turn off the tape player, that world is off to you. When you’re not watching VH1 Soul, it’s off. But for us, hip-hop, gospel, R&B, the jazz and the bounce, all that continues because it’s not just a musical form, it’s a way of living. Like I said, I am living a gospel experience, and there will be people that get that. One black woman, a writer I really love but had never met, she came to me and said, ‘You’re sermonizing. This sounds like church.’ And I was like, ‘Thank you!’
I noticed when I was reading some past interviews that black writers seemed to have a more natural understanding of your work. I guess that speaks to what you’re saying about those cues already being there.
I feel very fortunate to know that I have a strong black audience, a strong black queer audience, and not just in America, but also in different countries. That’s been really affirming to me. But I think more than anything, I love pushing the conversation forward, and it’s hard to push the conversation forward if the people that really understand the music aren’t being taken care of. The people that understand my music in the way that no one else will are going to be black people, because even if they don’t like the song, they at least know what’s going on. It’s funny, I did a show opening up for Nao and I was so nervous. When I got onstage someone literally yelled out, ‘I see you’re wearing shea butter!’ They could tell by the way I was glowing, [because] shea butter glows just a little bit more than coconut oil. These are the people that are really going to push my career forward. Maybe that sounds exploitative or capitalist, but it’s going to be black people that are really going to be there. If, in five years, white people decide this sucks, black folks are gonna be those that really understand what I’m going for and what the references are...
Everybody is looking to see what black folks [enjoy]. Hip-hop gets to be hip-hop because it is what black people say is popular. White people can say this is the cool black thing, but if there are no black people on the first tier to say this is the new black music, then white people aren’t gonna be jumping on [it]. So I think for black musicians, you gotta take care of the first tier, then you can go to Taiwan and you can do your shows in Russia or wherever, but you need to take care of your black audience first. That’s something I really want to make sure I’m doing.
Solange’s A Seat at the Table, Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, and now your record, all sound like they were made for black people.
Anybody can purchase the album but yes, you’re right, Janelle Monáe’s album, I won’t speak for her, but it seems like she is making music for black people, black women, black femmes. With Solange, she’s very clear about that, and I think actually this was such a watershed moment for Solange. It’s like the more specific your music is, the more universal it is. Solange made a very specific work. Beyoncé made a very specific work with Lemonade. Kendrick Lamar continues to make very specific work that reaches a lot of people. I love Toni Morrison. I love James Baldwin and these other people because they make very specific work. When I read Giovanni’s Room, I know it’s so gay, but it’s a gay book. And then because it’s so gay, you get to see this really intense and sinuous love story. But I think it is important to be specific, so for me, I think it was important to use pronouns like ‘boy’ and ‘man.’ I don’t want to say ‘my love’ or ‘my darling,’ that’s cute, but I need to be specific.
So it was a deliberate decision to use specific male pronouns?
Yeah, and I love it. A few writers who I have done interviews [with] have brought it up and I’m glad because it was intentional. I did it with the EP, but I needed it to be more clear that I’m not asexual or pansexual, I’m not sexually fluid. All the folks that are, I think that’s beautiful, but I don’t want a question mark over my head. I want to be very clear, I love men, I love black men, and that’s who I’m writing about.
You’re turning 30 in July.
A month and one day after the album comes out.
Are there things you’ve always wanted to achieve before you turn 30?
My goal is to be accountable and grounded in my feelings, to have more sobriety in my everyday. Metaphorical sobriety: to see myself, my family, and my friends with clear eyes. That was a goal for me. And there’s no destination point, I want to constantly be pursuing more clarity and more sobriety, but right now I’m happy. It’s been such a gift to me and I’m so thankful for being able to write – physically taking pen to paper is so important to me. Also reading a lot of adherent writers has been such a big help. I know they say in school that reading is fundamental, but it so is. I’ve been reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry and that’s been really amazing to me, and I’m reading Toni Morrison because I’m always reading a Toni Morrison book. There’s never a time when I’m not reading Toni Morrison. I’ll read something else, like currently I’m also reading Yrsa Daley-Ward, but I’m always reading Toni Morrison. How some people are with the Bible, Toni Morrison’s books are my sacred texts. Literally every big change in my adult life, even as a teenager when I was struggling in school, I came alive reading Toni Morrison. It wasn’t intentional, it just kind of happened. To understand what I’m reading and not get confused is also a gift, and to have all of this by 30, that is enough. Everything else like bank account statements and how many pairs of shoes I have, that’s irrelevant.