‘I am ready to pierce things with my black-queer cutlery and make my music extra gay and extra black – it really gets me off’
serpentwithfeet is a force of nature. The 27-year old Harlem artist has "HEAVEN" tattooed across his forehead, describes his movement as "PaganGospel" and possesses a soaring, church-bred voice that demands every inch of your attention. When we stumbled across his Soundcloud in one of those late-night discovery wormholes, we knew we had to talk to him.
He’s collaborated with gqom connoisseur Jumping Back Slash, counts his contemporaries as Camp & Street’s Rahel and DonChristian, and describes his sound as in tandem with the place that he lives – "equal parts basic-as-fuck and corrosive".
Here, we talk to serpentwithfeet about all the factors that feed in to make him such an extreme, unique artist and get an exclusive listen to two of his new tracks.
How did you start with music? Was it in church?
serpentwithfeet: My first music experiences were in the home and at church. My mom was a choir director back in the day and didn’t allow me to listen to R&B or any "secular" music in the house. She also constantly played classical music because she hated that I wanted to be Lil Bow Wow. So for a long time all I knew was gospel. The goal was to make me sophisticated. I don’t think it worked.
You live in New York - what’s the scene like there for the sound you’re pushing and who do you see as contemporaries?
serpentwithfeet: Right now I’m in Harlem. And I love it. Oddly enough, I have lived in every borough except Staten Island. For the sound I'm pushing – a sound I’d like to think is equal parts basic-as-fuck and corrosive – I don't think I could be in a better place. My community, the black queer "underground" community, is beyond supportive and they are incredibly honest.
They are constantly asking me to unpack all of myself, which is what I need. I need to be around people who err on the side of tragedy, always ready to destroy themselves and start the fuck over. Everyday my peers in New York are encouraging me to unhinge even more. I don’t know if there is a ceiling in this city or not and I think that’s what keeps me. The scene is so exciting to me. It’s definitely my favorite lover. To name just a few, my contemporaries include RAHEL, DonChristian, Jay Boogie, Dick van Dick. I’ve also been making music with Chino Amobi and N-Prolenta who have very strong ties to the scene here in NYC.
What is PaganGospel? Did you invent that?
serpentwithfeet: PaganGospel is the title of my movement. When I walk down the street it is PaganGospel, when I read tarot cards it is PaganGospel, when I masturbate or produce a song, it is PaganGospel. It is everything I do. I did come up with this title. But black people have always been queens of intersectionality and consolidation. I’m just trying to be resourceful as I can be and PaganGospel seemed like a cute way to integrate all of my passions.
PaganGospel started me pursuing the esoteric. I was so fake asexual years ago. I wasn’t addressing my less savoury desires. But now I’m into being a troll and I think I can push this work forward by finding my place on the ground.
Who is your biggest musical influence?
serpentwithfeet: I’m a Brandy stan! Brandy is mother! She is my favorite. I listen to at least an hour of Brandy everyday – she’s my H20. I was always a fan of hers when I was a kid. But in 2008 my love for her multiplied. I saw and heard what she did for gay black boys, specifically in Harlem. I saw that kids were doing Brandy runs and mimicking her tone. I call them Boy-Brandys. I’m a Boy-Brandy. She fills a cavity many are afraid to explore. She is showing all of us that vulnerability and softness is actually the way.
How much does your identity as a black, queer man feed into your music?
serpentwithfeet: For so long I exercised delusion. I was always finding ways to be the anomaly. I spent years denying my sticky parts. So now at 27 I am so excited about my lens. I am always ready to pierce things with my black-queer cutlery. I am constantly looking for ways to make my music extra gay and extra black. It really gets me off when I do that.
What’s the meaning behind the HEAVEN tattoo on your forehead?
serpentwithfeet: I got it because I wanted some shit that felt badass. I don’t know how naughty this tattoo is but I do think having "HEAVEN" on my head is funny. A place where the most fucked up shit happens is a place I call "HEAVEN". I’m interested in seeing how this tattoo grows with me. I want to get a dead blackbird and a dead rat tattooed on my head later this month, so that will add to the story for sure.
I think as people get to know me, they realise that my depth is illusory. I don’t have a super profound reason for doing anything anymore. I kind of want to get my mother’s name tattooed on my chest, Japanese script on my neck, or maybe a sun around my navel in honor of Sisqo. Getting this tattoo was not me flexing my cleverness at all. I can’t genuinely say that anything has a meaning. We inject meaning in order to feel special. So I just do what I want and cache my feelings afterwards.
The lyrics to "Mercenary In Transit" sound totally heartbroken - where did this song come from?
serpentwithfeet: "Mercenary in Transit" is my new favorite song that I’ve made. Nire is so amazing for producing that. She ate that.
There is something really forlorn about this track. So when I was recording my vocals I just started ranting. Some songs take me forever to write. The songs that I work too hard at quickly lose their lustre.
I just started singing. No pen. No paper. I never thought I could do things like that. But I guess years of bridled speech did this to me. I hope I don’t seem egotistical. I’m just happy to finally make sense of the heartbreak. I’m happy to make sense of this crooked dance I repeat. I self-shamed for a while. Making tunes like "Mercenary in Transit" relieve me from stupid archaic ideas. I am not seeking ease. I am seeking something else. So it brings me great joy to make pain dance.
I really love black men. And I’m always falling in love with a fine ass brother that has nice teeth, especially when lies are stuck between those teeth. In this song I think I am actually making fun of myself. Victims of fleeting love have a peculiar perspective. And I am so interested in finding nuance in that narrative. I love heartbreak now. Not because I want to be a martyr, but because disappointment has shown me that there are many avenues that lead to clarity.
Where do you want to be in five years, musically and spirtually. Can you see that far?
serpentwithfeet: In five years I hope I am thinking less about being anything. Desire is tiring. In five years if I keep walking this walk, I should be more vulnerable.
I’ll be like Pilate from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I’ll be walking through the world without stuttering. Musically, I don’t have any expectations for myself. I’ve also been dedicating a lot of head space to getting this recipe right for turning semen into wine. Maybe I’ll have some good shit in 5 years. Who knows?!