Kadeem Johnson


queer love is divine: a conversation with serpentwithfeet

May 7, 2020
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We’re living in a world that is in the midst of being reborn — loudly and violently — yet serpentwithfeet seems to coo more softly than ever. As the world reconfigures to face the unprecedented, our neo-soul deacon maintains his peace of mind. If this is the Rapture, he knows and he isn’t telling us. 

serpent, born Josiah Wise, was raised Pentecostal in a Baltimore, non-denominational church. The gospel roots inform his classically trained, vocal prowess. The Brandy Vocal Bible was definitely read. The final product of these influences is uniquely stunning. A voice with such emotional generosity that it will either haunt you or sedate you into meditative ease. His lyrics are immensely intimate, like murmurs from a secret lover. And all of this is centered in a black queer personhood, one that is distinctly African American, and subversive in its brave tenderness. 

Co-produced and co-written by Grammy-nominated producer Wynne Bennett (Twin Shadow, Janelle Monae), the new EP, Apparition represents an exciting shift in tonality. I shared space with serpentwithfeet to discuss the new project. We talked about love, spirituality, and the unsung spoils of growing up. — Emeka Ochiagha

First of all, how are you? We are living in very interesting times right now. 

I’m doing well, actually. I had a nice quiet moment today, stood outside for a little while, soaked up some sun. So I’m feeling good. 

I know you live in LA. How long have you been there? 

I have been in LA for two years now and I love it. 

How was it, transitioning from Brooklyn to LA?

You know what, it was actually pretty smooth — a lot smoother than I had anticipated. I felt like the folks here really welcomed me with a lot of warmth. And most importantly, I was ready. I was ready for the move, I was ready for the city. I knew what I was getting myself into because it’s a different pace. And I actually really liked that, the slower pace. I’m happy I made the switch. 

What would you say is the biggest difference between Brooklyn niggas and LA niggas? 

Palm trees.  I feel like people are different when they have more space. People are different when they can see the sky. It’s a little more difficult to see the sky in New York. So I feel like people fall in love very differently, here versus there. You really enjoy your daytime dates – that’s a big thing here. New York life and dating life, at least for me, was often about night time, and doing dinners, evening things. Here, it’s about the daytime, and that’s when you’re really going to get your life. 

I noticed that the men here, they come to events exfoliated and moisturized because it’s 2 p.m., you can’t hide anything. You can hide stuff at 8 p.m., people might not be able to see it because it’s dark, the club is dark, but here you can’t hide anything. It’s a different type of softness here. I like the guys here. 

I went to your LA show in 2018 at the El Rey theater. You bring books to your performances, which I love. Who are your literary inspirations that helped construct your lyrical voice? 

That’s a great question. There’s a few people. The first one is probably gonna be somebody that I always mention and that’s Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison is a huge, huge, huge influence on me. I also love Yrsa Daley-Ward — a brilliant, brilliant writer. I think about Tonia Sanchez in my work. And one of my favorites is Nikki Giovanni. I love the way she writes romantic poetry. Her cadence, her phrasing, the rhythm in her work. It’s just really dynamic. So those are just a few people that I really look up to. 

And what about the specific books you bring to your shows. What is their significance, how do they elevate or contextualize your performance?  

I bring books that I’m currently reading. For me, they act as anchors for my show, and I just thought it would be nice to share some of the BTS, the behind the scenes. And bring that to the stage. There is so much that writing has informed the way that I take up space, the way that I write, the way that I have navigated my romantic relationships, and familial relationships. The books have been little anchors for me when I perform.

They help me structure the show a little better — that’s their purpose. 

Would you say that your father owning a bookstore inspired your love of reading?

Yeah, absolutely. And it’s something that I’ve been appraising more recently. Seeing both of my parents be bibliophiles definitely had an effect on me. I don’t think until recently was I aware of how much it affected me and how important books are to my life. The same way that people buy plants because they provide oxygen or have pets because they are great companions, I think books do both for me. They act as both. 

It’s really important for me to understand the way other people live, the way other people think and translate their lives. It’s really exciting and life-giving to me. 

I remember seeing Ty Dolla $ign at that LA show. He is a big supporter of yours. What was it like creating with him? 

I’m always pinching myself because I respect what he does so much. It’s been such a dream, to be honest. It’s a lot of fun. We toy with ideas, bounce them back and forth. I learned a lot about myself in the process. I’ve also learned how kind other musicians can be to each other. I think there is this myth about LA being super competitive or unbearably cold. And it’s just not true. I’ve experienced some really wonderful relationships here, and Ty is one of them. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. You can be successful — Ty is very successful at what he does — but you don’t have to be shady. 

I think that influences the music more than anything. You can hear it in people’s work when they are actually having fun or when they actually wanted to create and it wasn’t out of a place of competition. You can definitely hear it. I think he has helped me avoid being jaded or callous. And I don’t feel like I was but it’s definitely something that can happen when you’re working in any industry, especially a creative one. And working with Ty has definitely kept me feeling very optimistic. 

Was it a similar experience collaborating with Kelela? You did beautiful work on her TAKE ME A_PART, THE REMIXES album

She’s wonderful. I love exchanging with her and working on that remix EP. What’s really exciting is that all of these Black artists are down to share space — music space and lunch space. I can grab food with them and crack up about Living Single or whatever show we’re watching. We can talk about our favorite gospel music. Two things that are very important to me —gospel music and Living Single

I feel really fortunate as a new artist to have great examples of what you can be like in this industry, which is warm and kind and generous — Ty and Kelela are all those things. 

Now with Apparition, it was co-produced/co-written between you and Wynne Bennett? What is the creative process like with her?  

Wynne and I are friends. I have always been aware of her work. She’s worked with Janelle Monáe and Tayla Parx and Twin Shadow. She’s super, super brilliant. A classically trained pianist. She’s also incredible with the production. Super genius behind the computer. An innovator. So it was a no brainer for me. We started working together and it was really easy. We sat down and played some ideas one day. That idea turned into another song which turned into another song and we just kept going. And we realized we had an EP. 

I’m looking at the cover art of the project now, and I would love to get into the thematics of the work. Who is the phantom? Are you the phantom, are you looking at the phantom, are you giving up a ghost?   

All of those, all of the above. The cover art was shot by the brilliant Kadeem Johnson, so shout out to him. 

For this EP thematically, I was thinking about what ghosts do we allow into our homes. Are they unholy ghosts? Are they holy ghosts? Are they skeptical ghosts? Are they pessimistic ghosts? Are they friendly ghosts? What kind of ghosts are we welcoming? I believe for myself that I carry ghosts with me every day and I’d like to think most of them are beneficial. 

At times when we experience unbearable pain or when we experience things that feel so out of the ordinary to us, we have to wonder, where does that come from. And I think as a Black gay man I’m constantly vetting my feelings, and the TV shows I watch, and the movies I go see, and the kind of music I listen. I understand that they can and will impact the way I navigate the world. And I don’t have the privilege to carry extra shit with me. If you listen to a lot of misogynistic music, well fuck, you’re going to regurgitate that somewhere. If you watch a lot of homophobic, transphobic television you’re going to regurgitate that somewhere. So I think it’s really important to understand where these ghosts are coming from and are these ghosts mine. Do I want them in my mind, do I want them in my home? You get to choose. 

That’s the journey of the EP, where I’m trying to figure out what is mine, what do I want to keep, and what ideas serve me. I think it’s really simple. I call it Apparition but it’s a really simple concept of what serves me and what doesn’t. You take your ghosts because I want to keep mine. Take yours and go and I’ll keep mine. I don’t want yours and you don’t get to have mine. 

And I know you think a lot about home and soil and roots. I’m very curious as to what your current spiritual practices are. Are you someone who worships Orishas for example? 

If anything my religion is silence. I think silence is the thing that anchors me most. There is this version of the song “a Quiet Place” that’s just absolutely beautiful and I play it often —I think you might enjoy it. That song completely sums up what my religious stance is, and that’s quiet time. And that was part of the reason I moved to LA because I needed quiet. I’m 31 years old now and when I was younger I could deal with the noise of the world. I’m not interested in living in a bubble, that’s not exciting to me but I do understand now that I do need a significant amount of silence. Sometimes I wake up and play music, then sometimes I wake up and I just want quiet. I don’t want to hear anything but the birds, just the birds. I don’t want to hear neighbors, I don’t wanna hear nobody. In New York, it’s not so possible. But in LA, since I moved here, I wake up and it’s quiet. 

One thing I really appreciate about your work is that the queerness is not the spectacle. The emotional grandeur is the spectacle. Would you agree with that? Is that intentional from your part? 

Well thank you, that’s pretty flattering. I appreciate that. Since the first EP in 2016, my intention was to be as honest as I could be. To be as direct and piercing and ornate as I could be. A lot of my favorite writers do that,- they are very straight forward but it’s also the language, it’s so ornate. I wanted to try that. If the effect is what you just said, emotional grandeur, then that’s pleasing to hear. My intention was just to be honest. It could have been very tempting to make music where I didn’t say the word “he” talking about my lover or I could have been more elusive that I was singing about men. But I didn’t want to be. I guess maybe it was arrogance or maybe it was desperation but I knew I didn’t want to make music as someone who just “happens to be gay.” Me being queer, and more specifically me loving Black men informs the way I walk down the street, informs the joke that I crack, informs the song that I like to sing along to in the house. When you create a very detailed document, that document can become very universal. The more specific you are, the more universal the narrative becomes. 

And that honesty, as universal as it can be, is so scary because it can be ugly. It can be raggedy. It can be desperate if desperate is the truth. How did you find the bravery to give that honesty to the world? 

I had to do it for myself. I just want to make sure I’m giving to myself what I ask from other people. If I’m asking the men I share space with romantically, my friends, the people in my life, to be honest then I owe it to myself. I wanted to be my own hero first before I asked someone else to be my hero. 

You had a very strict, religious upbringing. How were you able to see the God within your romantic relationships? How did you retrain yourself to see Black queer love as divine? 

By just experiencing it. I have met wonderful men. I know I write a lot of heartbreak songs but that’s because sometimes you just gotta do that. But more often than not, I have experienced really, really thoughtful and intuitive and loving Black men. And that’s actually what inspired me to start serpentwithfeet to begin with. I knew when I started making this music, even before I started working on my first EP — when I was thinking about how I wanted to take up space sonically, I knew what the intention was. I wanted my work to really focus on my relationship to Black men — and not just romantically, but with my friends, men I meet on the street. I’ve met so many dynamic Black men. I gave up the religion shit a long time ago anyway. It wasn’t hard to see the divinity in that love because I experienced it, and I didn’t have anything telling me it wasn’t anymore. 

This makes me think of cherubim. When I found out the definition of the word, I was mind-blown. With that song, were you saying that loving someone is equivalent to loving God or was it harmful loving someone that much? 

I think my response would vary depending on the day. I think we choose our Gods, and maybe, more importantly, we design our Gods. That’s the way I feel. If you have a nickel at your house, and you say it’s a special nickel and you charge that nickel, you have it at your altar and you put your intention to it – that nickel is going to be whatever you make it out to be. It’s your lucky nickel, your revenge nickel, your ‘get a job’ nickel. That nickel is going to fulfill a purpose because you charged it that way. So our Gods are whoever we make them out to be. For some people, their God is shopping or their God is money. It depends on what you charge. 

One of my Gods might be relationships, both friendship and romantic, and really wanting to master how I engage with people and how I communicate. 

At that time, I was putting a lot of energy into my romantic relationship and it was really exciting to me. And the danger is it can be a bit fanatical. So it’s a balance thing like anything else. You’ve seen the soccer moms who are a little bit too pressed. Or with Tiger King, people got a little bit too pressed. The same thing can happen in romantic love, there’s a line. I’m always analyzing what my relationship is to that. “cherubim” was an exploration of that line. 

How has serpentwithfeet evolved? How are we going to meet serpentwithfeet in this new EP?

I think I’m a lot less stressed now, to be honest. I have a lot more space to think. I feel a lot more closer to myself — which is obviously a very abstract thing to say because I’ve always been with me but I just feel more connected to myself. The work is going to reflect that. There is a different calm in my life now that didn’t really exist four years ago. And I’m really thankful for it. And I’m thankful for that time – I definitely appreciate the wildness that was my life and the uncertainty that was my life all those years ago. But right now I’m very thankful for the calm and a lot of the new work is an expression of that.