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serpentwithfeet on the radical act of existing

Josiah Wise’s sublime songs of pain, loss and longing sound like lonely SOS calls from a distant planet, but on his new material, the NY musician is far more interested in everyday mythmaking

Taken from the spring 2016 issue of Dazed:

When I first meet Josiah Wise, he gifts me a single red rose. It’s an unexpected gesture of gratitude, which is telling: the artist known as serpentwithfeet wants to defy expectations. Today, the 27-year-old is dressed in a belted, shaggy top and back-to-front cap, with long, black-and-gold nails and a septum ring. He has two tattoos on his forehead: one that reads ‘SUICIDE’, and another that reads ‘HEAVEN’. Tattoos seem like an apt medium for an artist whose aesthetic is so closely entwined with his intellect. It’s as if he’s so full of ideas they refuse to be contained within his songs, breaking out on his skin seemingly of their own volition.

“I’m really interested in cultural trauma, cultural mourning, African American mourning,” he explains. “I felt like getting those tattoos was a great way to begin this leg of work.” Wise’s words are carefully crafted and thoughtful, not unlike the lyrics that make up his otherworldly, spacious ballads. He’s naturally inquisitive about the world around him on a big-picture scale; he asks almost as many questions as he answers. But his most urgent goals exist on a more basic level: to invite listeners in and make them question themselves.

Over the years, he’s released music under different names and projects – including a string of songs as serpentwithfeet. What he’s working on right now, though, is very much a debut – when he shows me some of the recent demos, they are appropriately huge, cinematic and upward-looking. His gospel-tinged vocals permeate through intense swatches of ominous production (he’s currently at work with The Haxan Cloak, who teamed up with Björk last year) and sometimes just spare keys. And centre-stage are his piercing words of pain, loss and betrayal. “Being lonely is not a win... being a slave to hatred is not a win,” he sings on “Curiosity of Other Men”, released on Soundcloud in 2014. “I want you / I want to be possessed by you.” That resonant vulnerability is present in his new work, too.

Such feelings are universally relatable, a sort of accessibility that Wise is more concerned with than ever. Since the launch of serpentwithfeet in 2013, he has frequently been tagged as a prime exponent of ‘pagan gospel’, an esoteric art movement laced with death, sex and darkness whose shows at times entailed elaborate costumes and tarot readings. “I don’t use that term so much now,” he says. “I think that pagan gospel was great pedagogy. But right now I’m much more interested in the very basic, pedestrian, plain and secular. That’s where I find a lot of joy. I feel totally galvanised. For me, it’s porous – you move through it, the same way I moved out of Christianity or being closeted.”

Growing up in Baltimore, a hometown he speaks fondly of, Wise was involved in the church choir, dance and theatre groups, a wide-ranging artistic foundation that’s reflected now in his performative, multi-disciplinary work. “On paper it may have seemed unfortunate, because we were poor. But everyone I knew was poor. At some point you put that aside and decide that you are going to transcend poverty. That’s what my parents were all about. I think the restrictions helped me be very imaginative.”

“(In college) I had a lot of ideas about what a man should do, what a black man should do, and what a not-closeted but not-out, fake-asexual boy should do” — serpentwithfeet

After high school, Wise headed out to Philadelphia, where he studied at the University of the Arts with professors who were brilliant, but mostly misunderstood his desire to meld classical and experimental worlds. “I had a lot of chains and fetters when I went to college,” he says. “I had a lot of ideas about what a man should do, what a black man should do, and what a not-closeted but not-out, fake-asexual boy should do… I wasn’t in my body, I was in my head.”

All he knew was that he wanted to be an artist, but struggled to articulate his vision. He graduated, was rejected from multiple grad schools, and spent some less-than-idyllic time broke in Paris before ultimately landing in NYC. “My whole post-grad experience was terrible,” he says. “Everything fell from under me. But it was beautiful, because everything I thought my life should have been eroded. And then I decided that I wanted to do my own music, for real.”

New York was a transformative place for Wise to do just that. He crashed with friends on arriving in the city in 2010, taking odd jobs in tutoring, retail and nude modelling (which he still does now) for various fine art schools. He took in music and art wherever he could: if someone posted an event on Facebook, he was there. Inspired by everything from literature to the queer rap scene, the serpentwithfeet persona slowly began to emerge. This year, Wise began working with Robin Carolan of Tri Angle Records.

Thematically, Wise says serpentwithfeet is inspired by the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, a “brooding, gaunt-faced, wiry, neurotic man who lives alone in a chamber”. He also draws on “the physicality and piercing sadness” of Kazuo Ohno, one of the founders of butoh. “It’s a Japanese art form that takes pedestrian movement and hyperbolises it, intensifies it,” he explains. “I always think about taking these plain spaces – me in bed or in my living room, writing these sad love letters, but to myself, or to this lover that doesn’t exist. Figuring out the movement, the lighting. But always staying in my house, in this restricting space.”

He’s also a big fan of the author Toni Morrison. “I read her Song of Solomon in 2012 and within the first few pages, I just wept,” says Wise. “It was like she was reading my sequestered writings. It was a novel where she explored black masculinity and the frailty of black maleness, the lie of black maleness, but also the truth. She was reading black men’s relationship with their moms, and how we deal with intra-family love, when it’s incest. You don’t leave feeling accosted, you leave feeling enriched and rejuvenated.”

“I couldn’t brush all these questions about gender and my body and my blackness under the rug any longer. I couldn’t just ignore it any more. Everything was ripped from under me” — serpentwithfeet

After reading the book, Wise decided to host a discussion group in his house on the subject, taking down copious notes, all of which he says was a foundational experience in shaping what serpentwithfeet would become. “Around that time, artists like Mykki Blanco and Le1f were getting bigger. I couldn’t brush all these questions about gender and my body and my blackness under the rug any longer. I couldn’t just ignore it any more. Everything was ripped from under me. I had this book inspiring me to understand myself, I had these rappers helping me to understand myself. That was summer 2012. By 2013, I had the basis of what I wanted to do. I constantly wanted to be vulnerable. Before, I wanted to make music that was exciting. Whereas with this, I wanted to look at myself all the time, and just poke and poke and poke.”

As you’d expect, Wise is thoughtful about identity and sexuality, and the ways they do and don’t work their way into his art. “I used to say my music was about being gay, about being queer or being black. But I am those things,” he says, weighing the difference between making music about identity and simply making music while existing in the world as himself. “When I think about all the crimes against black bodies, black male bodies, black women’s bodies, trans bodies, brown bodies, anything that isn’t dominant, I want to make stuff that’s explicit. But that is just not how I write. I often feel bad about it, but my activism is much more subtle. And that’s something I’m learning to embrace.”

Could it be more radical simply to exist, to give yourself licence to just be? “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Am I being lazy? Am I being complacent?’ But just existing in the world, especially at a time when a lot of bodies are told that they shouldn’t... I think it’s revolutionary to just stand and exist and take selfies. Just taking a picture of my brown face. It is revolutionary, but sometimes it’s hard to see it that way.”

To be a serpent with feet is to be elusive and fluid, while still wanting to charge through life, says Wise. “As a gay black man, that’s something I’m constantly thinking about, being well-versed and being intellectually agile. Being socially agile, being sexually agile. Serpentwithfeet reminds me those are goals. There should be no place that is not my territory.”

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