BEST OF ISSUE ONE: The confessions of a choirboy turned macabre and tender soon-to-be star
He is a man, reserved at first, despite the tattoos and the piercings and the futuristic style. As you speak to him, you remember his look from his performance at Afropunk Brooklyn. He was once goth-ish — bald with stark eyeliner and septum ring — but now, as a bright, chilly sunlight slow-sweeps across the cosy photography studio in downtown Manhattan, he is much less so. The tats are half-concealed by growing hair and an unruly beard. His face is softer, although the garb he tries on for today’s Nataal shoot is still from the outer reaches of forward. Despite the angry face ink and overly dramatic ensembles, serpentwithfeet has the eyes and demeanour of a choirboy, and you can sense he is familiar with that longing-for-Jesus, that speaking-in-tongues, that sweaty eye-rolling and frantic praise dancing that happens on Sunday mornings in places named Little Mount Zion or New Shiloh or Calvary Baptist.
The shell is not the man, the skin is not the serpent. Josiah Wise is — beneath the layers of crafty subterfuge — a thoughtful, intellectual choirboy, whose music sits somewhere between the post-post-soul deconstructions of Frank Ocean and the introspection of Sampha. Less lush, more industrial. But the sensitive fire revealed on his 2016 blisters EP and on the new debut album soil is evident in the man.
“I wanted this album to feel as close to the ground as possible,” he says, explaining lines like, ‘I love you from under my feet’. Yes, there is a grounding that goes on when it is played. A kind of mount and submission. His sound is secular gospel, a substantive departure from the church music he grew up on, but still drenched in the organ rhythms and religiosity of prayer and devotional and testimony. A potent admixture, evocative enough to draw Björk and her producers to work with him on her track ‘Blissing Me’.
You prompt him to recall his upbringing. It was a household that took their church-going very seriously and held their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the highest regard. Baltimore was his Bethlehem. “I grew up in a row house. It wasn’t like The Wire, but I think every city has their Wire area,” he says. “I just remember being very active in the choir. My mother said I was born in church.” Life was a tight orbit around the church and its rituals: choir practice, church trips, time in his father’s Christian bookstore. “I loved singing. I grew up on singers like Kirk Franklin and Richard Smalls.”
As he got older, he started to realise he was not going to have the life prescribed by the church. “I remember being in high school thinking about the day I would have a wife or girlfriend, but I didn’t know how.” No, in the end, he was a boy attracted to boys and no, he was no longer interested in spending his Sundays in church. Once he started attending University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he broke the news to his mother that no, he was not searching for a “home-church” in Philly. For a year and some more she insisted but eventually accepted his life choices.
He studied classical music and opera and tried, with his mother’s encouragement, to further his education in Paris. He moved there but was turned down by all the music schools he applied to, and so decided he had to do his own thing. He moved to New York, surfed couches in Brooklyn and Queens, and began recording.
“A lot of my music is over the top as a joke, like no one could be that heartsick or upset or sad””
In the all-white of the studio, you watch as he tries on his second outfit. He is clutching one of the many dolls he brought with him now, singing along to a song by Nigerian songstress Tiwa Savage. He confesses to you a deep love for Nigerian sound, so-called afrobeat. “I would love to go to Nigeria,” he says, the flashbulbs flashing.
He left the church, you conclude, but church didn’t leave him. At least musically. Soil dances in the twilight between Saturday night and Sunday morning. His lyricism is in the tradition of a long line of our greatest soul singers — taking the pomp and exaltation of gospel to secular, that is to say sexual, levels. But serpentwithfeet swings less Aretha Franklin/James Brown with their forthright ecstatic cries, and more Terence Trent D’Arby or Prince and the ambiguity of songs like ‘I Would Die 4 U’ — minus the pop structures. The Jesus you might project into his music is less a sacrificed God on the cross and more an aloof boyfriend not comprehending his worshipper’s love. “My songs are me trying to figure out my dating life,” he explains matter-of-factly.
He recalls how so many of the songs he sang in choir were already rooted in man-love. “It must be interesting for straight men because in church you are always talking about Him and you wanting Him to be inside you,” he says. “It’s kinda weird for a straight man to sing, ‘I want Him to fill me up’. Even though we know we are talking about a higher power, intellectually, it still must be kinda weird.”
Even his moniker evokes the Book of Genesis and the time before the Fall of Adam and Eve. The serpent did not crawl on his belly at first, but could walk on legs and persuaded Eve that a little knowledge was a good thing. This leads you to believe serpentwithfeet is a Biblical reference. “I don’t know any scripture,” he corrects you. “I learned all my Bible from the songs.” No, he shakes his head. The inspiration for the name was not the Good Book but the devil’s playground — social media.
“The name is about movement,” he says, miming the supine back and forth of a snake. “At the time, I was really active on Twitter. I was thinking about what it means to be serpentine. To be balanced.” Twitter, he explains, opened up new worlds for him. “Social media was something very different for me. It became very poetic. I wasn’t having a certain kind of conversation with black men I knew. I kinda haloed black women and I thought, “Black men ain’t shit.”
“And then I discovered all these black men on Twitter who were so open and talking about their feelings,” he continues. “It kinda blew my mind. So I began to log the tweets that I was moved by and I was thinking about how I wanted to move in the world as a balanced person. And it allowed me to love myself.”
There is a buzz now. After some lean years of struggle, he feels he can play. Achieving that balance between past and future, sacred and profane, top and bottom, comes from his moodboard and his playfulness. He makes melodramatic choices, consciously crafting lyrics that are too much. “A lot of my music is over the top as a joke — no one could be that heartsick or upset or sad,” he explains. “Like, the thing I love about Janet Jackson is that she always seems to be laughing inside. Missy was like that too. I want people to say I made kinetic and playful music. I want to make a pageant of my pain!”
He is back in front of the camera now. Playing, he calls it. “You know who really inspires me? Scott Joplin.” The serpentwithfeet tries on more skins: now its reconstructed shirts and found-object jewellery, wild sandals and an adventurous jacket. “He wrote Treemonisha,” he says, clutching a doll. Treemonisha, he points out, was an opera about a black woman written in 1911, a time when a black musician audacious enough to write an opera “faced all kinds of resistance that today’s musician cannot imagine”. What tickles serpentwithfeet most about Joplin’s creation? “Even with all of its ambition and sophistication, Joplin still made an opera about an Isha. I mean that is just so... perfect.”
This feature was originally published in issue one of Nataal magazine. To discover more, and buy a copy, click here