- The Magazine
Who needs the fleeting cherry blossoms — now already almost gone — when hyacinths stick around longer and offer so much more?
“I suggest, if people can, go out and smell some hyacinths,” says serpentwithfeet. “The hyacinth has a lot of lessons in it, and has a lot of gifts, too. And it’s springtime, so it’s a great time to smell the hyacinths,” the singer-songwriter continues, singing the name of his favorite flower. “They’re such beautiful plants: They’re beautiful, they smell great, and the history behind the name of the hyacinth is pretty hilarious.”
Specifically, serpent is referring to “the gay story about the Hyacinth from Greek mythology.” Myth records Hyacinth or Hyacinthus as a beautiful, bearded Spartan prince who was pursued by multiple Greek gods before becoming one of Apollo’s lovers and devotees. Grief-stricken after Hyacinth’s sudden death from a ricocheting discus, the Greek god of music and dance decided to immortalize his beloved by creating a beautiful, fragrant, spring-blooming flower bearing his name.
“Don’t tell me the universe ain’t listening. I went to bed single, now I’m kissing a man that was once a hyacinth,” serpent sings on the bright opening track of his second full-length album Deacon, released at the end of March. At one point during the breezy and bright “Hyacinth,” serpent contorts his voice to scat what sounds like a muted trumpet, as if ushering in a new day.
Deacon ushers in a new musical chapter for the genre-straddling, experimental R&B artist with the awe-inspiring voice. He packed his previous releases — 2018’s full-length debut soil and 2016 EP blisters — with heavy-hearted, high-drama songs about romantic fanaticism and personal reckonings heightened with a sense of classical grandeur and intense gospel expressiveness. Part of serpent’s motivation for a nearly 180-degree change in tone stems from a self-assessment about his musical output to date. As he put it in a New York Times profile last month, “I didn’t want to go down in history as the sad boy, because I’ve just experienced so much joy.”
Musical expressions of joy, however, can be harder to realize and gain recognition for. “Sometimes it’s easy to believe that work, music specifically, centered around pain has more merit than the stuff that seems more simplistic or more joyous or more optimistic,” he says during a recent Zoom interview. “I wanted to challenge that idea. But also, even outside of that challenge, I was genuinely excited to explore that, because that’s how I felt: really joyous and really effervescent. And I just wanted to express that.
“I don’t think that I was unhappy [back] then, I just think it’s important to express different things. Earlier, I had experienced lots of love between friendships and romantic relationships, but what I needed to express at the time was my dissatisfaction. Now it’s time to express my satisfaction.”
His personal satisfaction has grown stronger in the three years since the Baltimore-raised artist moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, New York. It’s a change in surroundings that has put serpent in greater proximity to nature as well as his support network. “I have a strong community here, my friends are here, so it’s good,” he says succinctly.
Yet age and maturity also played a role. “Maybe it’s the blessing of my 30s. I’m spending less time worrying and more time recounting the love,” the 32-year-old sings on “Fellowship,” a perfectly realized ode to long-term friendships, platonic or otherwise, that ends the album on a casual, playfully sweet and jaunty note with a clear Janet Jackson vibe.
Released in January as the album’s lead single, “Fellowship” pays tribute to “the wonder of friendship” in a manner that’s more club than church, and more soul than gospel — and created with English musicians Sampha and Lil Silva, who join serpent to sing the chorus as if they had been chanting together in just that way since childhood: “My friends, my friends; I’m thankful for the love I share with my friends.”
“I wanted to write something that I considered a soulful house song,” he says, name-checking the group The Sounds of Blackness. “I love and grew up listening to house music, soulful house specifically. I know that Sampha and Lil Silva have an affinity for soulful house music as well, so [it] was easy for them to dream [this] up with me. It was a really fun process, I really enjoyed making it with them.”
Peppered throughout Deacon are songs finding serpent positively, playfully swooning over men he’d like to, well, get friendly with — imagined archetypes, mostly, including a man who becomes his “soul…heel and toe mate,” his shoe boo. Not simply a love song for two men whose feet meet neat, “Same Size Shoe” is a paean to the special kind of brotherly love between two Black men.
Released as the album’s second single in February, actor David Adrian Freeland Jr. reprises the role of serpent’s lover from “Fellowship” for another music video showing the two casually cavorting and carrying on domestically. In the song, serpentwithfeet gets so ecstatic, he calls for his “trumpet” to herald the good news, then ingeniously and charmingly scats the call. Meanwhile, certain familiar and iconic images pop-up on the couple’s TV screen in the video, all of whom are identified in the end credits as “the icons who remind me to be infinite,” a list that includes director Patrik-Ian Polk and the cast of Noah’s Arc and director Marlon Riggs and the cast of Tongues Untied.
“Malik” from Atlanta and “Amir” from D.C. are two other swoon-worthy subjects from Deacon. A slinky ’90s R&B-tipped song nominally about a handsome, kindhearted friend-of-a-friend from D.C., “Amir” indirectly serves as a shout-out to the legion of gay Black men who call the DMV — including Baltimore — home.
“I think Baltimore and D.C. have a beautiful connection,” serpent says. “The music of D.C. and the music of Baltimore are just so rhythmic and so percussive and just so brilliant. I love go-go, I love Baltimore club, and I just wanted to make a song about that. I guess it’s not so much about the Baltimore-D.C. connection, but I am thinking about the Baltimore-D.C. connection when I’m singing it, and I thought about the Baltimore-D.C. connection when I wrote it. I love Black men from D.C., I love Black men that live in D.C., and I just wanted to nod at them and say, ‘I see you.’ I don’t know if anyone will interpret it that way, but that was my intention.”
“Amir” also serves to launch a partnership between the British luxury brand Burberry and the new music platform COLORSXSTUDIOS that aims to shine a light on emerging artists from around the world while also benefiting their preferred charities. In serpent’s case, a Baltimore organization he says played a pivotal role in nurturing his pursuit of the performing arts.
“A lot of people in my community had always talked about Arena Players and how incredible and brilliant their productions were,” he says. “So many kids wanted to be part of Arena Players, and I had so many friends that were in Arena Players. [Finally] in my teenage years, in high school, I joined. It was such a wonderful, wonderful time, and that space was a real balm for me. I always felt so nourished, because I was around a bunch of other Black kids that were excited about dance and theater and writing and music and combining all of that. There was so much attention from the instructors there, and they were so passionate about making sure that us kids got a great education. We came there after school, on the weekends, in the summertime…. They taught me so much at such a young age, and I’m really thankful. Growing up in Baltimore, I got a fantastic education, and Arena Players is part of that.
“I think I was always very talkative growing up, and I always had a lot of ideas,” he adds. “I definitely loved writing. That was always where I think I had the most success in school. I was not very good at math or science subjects, but when it came to language, arts or English, those are the classes where I felt that I had a bit more strength. By the time I decided to make music, I just decided to be as imaginative as I could be, and I guess the years enjoying writing made it fun.”
Back then, of course, the man born Josiah Wise hadn’t yet adopted a name he says simply derived from admiration for the ancient creature revered by some and feared by many — and nothing more. “Have you seen snakes move? They’re just so elegant. I can’t think of too many animals more elegant. They’re absolutely beautiful [and] fascinating creatures. I love the lore around snakes.” He hasn’t felt inspired to contribute to any of that on his own directly, however. “I don’t necessarily feel a need to write about snakes. I just think they are divine creatures.”
Ultimately, serpent didn’t come out as an openly, proudly gay man until after he made the move to Philadelphia to attend college at the University of the Arts and away from Baltimore and the nondenominational Pentacostal Black mega-church of his upbringing. What was life like as a budding queer boy growing up in such a conservative, closeted milieu? How did serpent summon the courage to break free with such abandon and with a seemingly unflinching resolve to become a prominent and proudly gay Black musical artist? The answers to such questions remain, for the most part, a mystery.
“For me, the coming out thing is not so interesting,” serpent says. “I think what’s more interesting is that I’ve had a very colorful life. And I’m thankful that I’ve had a colorful life, I still have a colorful life, and that I have so much space to be a full, expansive person.”
Pressed about whether he struggled to reconcile his faith with his sexuality, or whether he felt in any way scarred by religion, he demures. “Not particularly.” As for how he currently identifies? “I think my religion is honoring my feelings, my religion is doing what makes me happy. But no, I don’t follow any particular religion. I make it up every day.”
For those LGBTQ folks who are struggling with religion, or who haven’t yet found the kind of inner resolve needed to be out and proud, serpent wants “everyone to know that their feelings and their desires and their wants and their needs are valid.”
“It’s important that all queer people place themselves at the center of their own story, because there will always be someone that will tell you that you are the wrong person,” he says. “That’s what I hope people will have the courage to do for themselves. I’m thankful that I have had a strong community that has reminded me to place myself at the center of my own narrative.”
In recent years, serpent has received similar words of encouragement from influential figures in the industry who he can now count as collaborators, everyone from Ty Dolla $ign to Ellie Goulding to, most notably, Björk, the like-minded avant-garde artist serpent cites as one of his greatest influences. “They’ve made me feel like I don’t have to be somebody else [or] follow someone else’s path,” he says. “They remind me to be myself and to follow my intuition.”
Ambre, Lucky Daye, Giveon, and SZA are among a newer crop of R&B artists serpent singles out for praise and as prospective collaborators — or tourmates. “I love touring,” he says, although it’s unclear when he can revive that aspect of his career, now sidelined for over a year during the pandemic.
“I’m just waiting to see like everybody else is,” he says. “I don’t think my situation is unique in that way. We all don’t really know what the health climate will be, so we’ll have to see.” In the meantime, he bides his time with the occasional livestream. “I’ve done a few since the pandemic, and it’s always a funny experience,” he says. “You’re talking to people that you can’t necessarily hear or see, so it’s funny in that way…. It’s definitely new territory. But challenges are good, new ways to get stronger, so I enjoy it.”
In a truly live context, there’s a degree of interaction and engagement between any performer and their audience, but especially so for someone like serpent.
“When I think about it, I’m making music that feels participatory,” he says. “I’m just thinking about being in conversation with the audience. I’m not necessarily expecting the audience to sing along or to be a band member, but I just like everything to feel conversational. My favorite performers and artists, you felt like they were in conversation with you. They didn’t necessarily ask us to sing along, or to perform with them, but it seemed like there was an understanding that they were talking to us. [People like] Eartha Kitt or Nina Simone…it just seemed like they had a relationship with the audience where the entire space, not just the stage, everything felt really animated, and everything felt really alive, that there was a synergy between the audience and the performer.
“I think that’s such a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing,” he continues, “and I’m always in pursuit of achieving that sort of dynamic.”
Deacon is available on all major streaming platforms. For more on serpentwithfeet, visit www.serpentwithfeet.bandcamp.com.
For more about the COLORSXSTUDIOS collaboration with Burberry, visit www.colorsxstudios.com.
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