At the beginning of All About Love, bell hooks quotes a passage from the gospel’s Song of Solomon: “I found him whom my soul loves. I held him and would not let him go.” From these two powerful lines she writes an ode to knowing when “we can face one another as we really are, stripped of artifice and pretence, naked and not ashamed.”
Formerly known as Josiah Wise, 29-year-old Serpent, who records under the name Serpentwithfeet, joined his family church’s choir in Baltimore at the age of six. “The biggest thank you that I can give to gospel music, even though I’m not a Christian, is by responding to those heavily devotional lyrics that I grew up on – on top on the fact that music was always big and tempestuous,” he explains.
Watch the video for the Serpentwithfeet song ‘cherubim’ here:
On the Biblical poetry of Song of Solomon, professor of Hebrew literature Robert Alter wrote these were “the voices of two lovers, praising each other, yearning for each other, proffering invitations to enjoy.” These notions of open sexuality, devotion, authenticity, and knowing when the love is right are integral to Serpent’s work.
Asked if his approach to romantic love has changed over the years, he says, “Oh yeah, everyday really. Because I want to become less of a terrible person.” He laughs. Serpent’s voice has a kindness to it – he’s softly spoken, but speaks freely and with confidence, his tones marked by an empathic intelligence. He wants to be more trusting and less worrisome, “and that requires personal work,” he explains.
After high school, Serpent went on to study classical vocal techniques at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and soon moved to Brooklyn, where he was met with unemployment and unstable living.
He says Get Out is one of his favourite films, because of the way it captures the unpredictable dynamics of life – an idea he wants to continue exploring in his music. “[It’s a good example of] dealing with this historical trauma of people not feeling safe in a white world, but then also there is a bit of comedy; there is a bit of irony. There are all these things happening at once. I think that’s actually the way life is – life is never all trauma.”
While his 2016 debut EP blisters was “much more cerebral and much more concerned with matters of the mind,” his new record soil focuses in on the physical response to music, and was produced during a time in which Serpent spent his nights clubbing with strangers in Brooklyn.
On the gospel and Baltimore club music that raised him, he says, “Before you even know what you’re listening to, you feel it. It knocks on your door and before you can answer it’s already in your bed,” he laughs. “And that sounds creepy but … it’s true.”
Talking to the dead was never a thing that was frowned upon in my house.
Serpent was raised by a Christian family who taught him about ritual baths, candle work, mediation, and spoke openly about witchcraft from a young age. “Talking to the dead was never a thing that was frowned upon in my house – the idea of communicating with those in transition was always respected and ancestral worship,” he says.
He’s spoken before about death cult symbolism being a part of the black community. “It was never like, I want to do magic to be magical,” he says. Now, he has an inverted pentagon tattooed above his right eye, as well as a small blade, and the words ‘heaven’ and ‘suicide’.
“Everybody in my life fucked with [my pentagon tattoo] at the time. I lost friends because of it and I’m glad I lost those friends because what might be healing for me might be deathly for somebody else. And I don’t think it makes either one of us wrong or right … but it makes me feel good as hell,” he explains.
It wasn’t until Serpent turned 24 that he noticed a pattern. “I’d never gotten into arguments with friends, I was really non-confrontational,” he says. And he was dating insecure men while feeling insecure himself. “I just thought that if I was different, things would be better for me,” he says. It wasn’t until Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon fell from his shelf “like a lightning jolt” that Serpent begun opening up to his needs.
Watch the video for the Serpentwithfeet song ‘bless ur heart’ here:
“I picked it up and in the first five pages, I was in tears,” he says. “The main character is a young black boy and it’s about his relationship to women, the way that he relies on women and uses them as emotional cushions and never has to do that work himself. She just read that boy. Like wow, she wrote this book about me, you know?
“Reading that book was the first time that I realised what I was experiencing had less to do with me being gay, but it was about gender policing … I was incredibly overwhelmed for most of my young adult life. [I felt] my expression of maleness was not enough. You know, we don’t like when men are vulnerable or expressive or soft or sinuous.”
In the album’s final track ‘bless ur heart’ Serpent sings of the importance of keeping himself tender. “A tender heart means you have to be able to say ‘there are certain things that don’t work for me’,” he explains.
An example of this self-awareness is Serpent’s refusal to commit to lovers who have an overtly sarcastic sense of humour. “I’m not going to deal with people who practice meanness as a sport … that’s something that I do so that I can kind of keep myself supple.”
Perhaps that’s what soil gives. It provides the language to ask the questions, ‘what do you need from yourself?’ and ‘what do you need from your lovers?’ – as well, importantly, as the encouragement to honour the answers to those questions when you find them.
The new Serpentwithfeet record soil is available now.