serpentwithfeet Crafts His Own Language For Queer Life

Jun 18, 2018
Originally published on June 18, 2018 11:41 am

Josiah Wise has face tattoos and a prominent septum piercing that almost touches his lips. Some days he wears bright blue makeup, or colors his facial hair neon pink. He has a collection of dolls and often carries one with him.

Equally eclectic is his musical background. He grew up singing in church choir, attended college for classical music, and now is finding his sound at a cross-section of gospel, R&B and avant-garde pop, performing under the name serpentwithfeet.

On his full-length debut album, soil (released June 8), he looks back to the sounds of his religious upbringing while crafting language to express living as a queer black person in the present. Wise was closeted growing up — partially to avoid conflict, he says, but mainly because he didn't have the language to express himself.

"Me being inconspicuous growing up, or people around me maybe not being comfortable, was because I didn't know what was going on," he says. "I didn't know how to talk about how I was feeling."

Wise says he wanted to be able to have a full conversation about the way he felt, not just about sex or attraction: "It just needed to be a full conversation, because my day is a queer day. I eat breakfast queer. I walk queer. I think that takes time for a young person."

As he's found his voice, others have taken notice. Bjork featured him on a remix of her song "Blissing Me" last year, and he toured as an opener for Grizzly Bear. With a sonic semblance to peers like Childish Gambino, Thundercat and Moses Sumney, Wise is positioning himself within the ranks of neo-soul staples.

Wise spoke about the musical and emotional road to the creation of soil with NPR's Rachel Martin. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

Web intern Emily Abshire contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Josiah Wise has a pentagram on his forehead, tattoos all over his face and a pierced septum with a huge half-hoop that looks like a bull ring. And he'll tell you right away he prefers his stage name.

Hey, Josiah. Do I call you Josiah, or do I call you serpent?

JOSIAH WISE: You can go by serpent. Thank you.

MARTIN: The full name is serpentwithfeet. Don't let the name or his image intimidate you, though. It doesn't take long to realize serpent is really just this sweet guy with an amazing voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "​BLESS UR HEART")

WISE: (Singing) Or will my psalms seek the company of lonely breaths? Will they inspire subtle lovers to kiss with mouths they don't have yet?

MARTIN: Serpent's new album is called "Soil." And it's an exploration of queer love. His background is in classical music. He studied it in college and even tried to get into a bunch of conservatories, but they rejected him.

WISE: I'm glad that I didn't get in. I think no is really important. I think no is where the nutrients are. I mean, I love yes, but I think no encourages us to find new resources. And most of the time we have to go internally for those resources.

MARTIN: Serpent started amassing those resources as a young kid singing in church in Baltimore.

WISE: I mean, I heard different things growing up. Some would say it was Pentecostal. Some would say it's non-denominational. As a kid, I just didn't really get involved. For me it was exciting. We sang loudly. We always wore nice clothes. You know, so that was what was most exciting for me.

MARTIN: Then there was his mom, who was a choir director herself.

WISE: My mom can sing. And she was always very critical in a good way of my singing.

MARTIN: What kind of feedback did she give you?

WISE: I remember being - maybe I was around 7 or 8. And I had to do this Kirk Franklin song in youth choir.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAN ON ME")

KIRK FRANKLIN AND THE FAMILY: (Singing) I am here. You don't have to worry.

WISE: And she used to always tell me to sing from my belly. And she would make me stand and sit in odd positions so that I could just get used to singing freely I guess in any position. Like, lay on my belly on the chair or lay on the floor and sing. It was just really - I remember being in our basement and just be like, this is terrible. I hate this so much. But...

MARTIN: Was she teaching you how to breathe, how to, like project your voice?

WISE: I think so. I mean, I don't know exactly what it was.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WISE: I think it was, like, just black mom, get it together time. And I think that's the main thing in church, is that there was such a good pressure on being able to be supple and agile enough to perform at any condition. And so that's something that I've definitely taken with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHISPER")

WISE: (Singing) I love you from the space beneath my feet and beneath that and beneath that. My love for you runs so deep.

MARTIN: You've talked publicly about what it was like to be a closeted gay kid in a family that maybe wasn't ready for that. And I read one interview where you described it as figuring out how to be inconspicuous. What did that mean?

WISE: Well, I don't think it's so much that my family wasn't ready. I think I love talking about having language. Me being inconspicuous growing up or people around me maybe not being comfortable was because I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know how to talk about what I was feeling. And so I think a lot of my silent years, yeah, it was for safety. Part of it was I didn't want to have to combat anyone.

But it's mainly because I didn't have language yet. And for me, I want to talk about more than just who I like sleeping with or who I find attractive. It just needed to be a full conversation because my day is a queer day. I eat breakfast queer. I walk queer. So I think that takes time for a young person.

MARTIN: I'd love to play a track called "Cherubim."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHERUBIM")

WISE: (Singing) Boy, every time I worship you my mouth is filled with honey. Boy, as I build your throne I feel myself growing. Sewing love...

MARTIN: I mean, that is a sensuous song. And it is - that is a sexy song.

WISE: (Laughter) Thank you.

MARTIN: It's also so notable because you hear the background, the language that you learned in church. And it's like you've turned that into something that's your own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHERUBIM")

WISE: (Singing) I get to devote my life to him. I get to sing like the cherubim.

It's funny because I had always heard about the cherubim and the seraphim and the choirs of angels growing up, but I didn't really know much about it. It wasn't until I started trying to understand my romantic style, my love language, my attachment style as an adult that I realized that I am really good at being devoted (laughter) to the men that I'm with. And I'm so fascinated by dating black men because it is the sense of fraternity. And what does it mean for you to feel like my brother, but also you're my lover?

I think "Cherubim" - it just came at a time where I was experiencing a very particular kind of comfort in dating where not only do I get to devote my life to you or be committed to you, but I trust you enough to do that. So I was thinking about my family being so devoted to the church and just there being an incentive to be a loyal person.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHERUBIM")

WISE: (Singing) Boy, I need, I need, I need, I need your happiness. Sewing love into you is my job. Making love to you is my job.

The entire process of being with someone is the joy. Like, you know, me saying in this song, like, I need your heaviness and just sort of thinking about, I don't just want you in lighthearted days. I want you on your difficult days. I want you on your days where I don't get you. I want you on your days when you're quiet and you aren't maybe articulate. I want you on those days, too.

MARTIN: What does your mom think of your music?

WISE: She's happy that I'm doing what I want to do. And she's happy that I'm being extra (laughter). She likes me more when I'm extra. So...

MARTIN: What does extra mean?

WISE: Just that she never wanted me to be plain or boring. I mean, even when I send her pictures sometimes she's like, oh, you don't want to look a little crazier? I'm like, mom, I look crazy enough.

MARTIN: Wow.

WISE: Yeah. And it took her some time to get used to it. But now it's - she comes up to New York, like, to go see her friends, and she's like, they really loved how you looked. Like, she just gets a kick out of it. So she's very happy.

MARTIN: She's a performer, too, at heart, isn't she?

WISE: Yeah, she is. She is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVOICE")

WISE: (Singing) But I owe so much to you.

MARTIN: Well, Josiah Wise, also known as serpent - he performs as serpentwithfeet. It was so fun to talk with you. Thank you so much.

WISE: Thank you.

MARTIN: His new album is called "Soil."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVOICE")

WISE: (Singing) Whatever makes you cold freezes me. Even when we grow old... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.