serpentwithfeet: ‘When you’re honest with yourself first, the world opens up.’
serpentwithfeet, an experimental R&B artist known for his unforgettable voice, moved to California in 2018, where he began work on DEACON, a collaborative, soft-edged project about Black queer love and friendship. During his tenure as a member of the #YouTubeBlack Voices Class of 2021, he spoke about building intentional community, finding companionship in literature and history, and Pride as a year-long practice.
I'm not interested in being isolated. I'm not interested in being the exception. I need people around me who get where I'm coming from without me having to explain.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
One of the words you’ve used when talking about your March 2021 album, DEACON, is gentle. What does that word mean to you, and how did the record and its videos embody or communicate gentleness?
serpentwithfeet: I think of gentleness as an approach that’s not heavy handed. It’s trusting your audience. For me, especially for this project, it has been really important to assume that my audience knows that I'm singing about Black gay love. I went into the project assuming that people knew what time it was and had space for it.
Gentleness is like talking with a family member, the conversation begins with an assumption that there’s already kinship there: You know why I'm here, and I trust that you're already interested. So I'm going to tell the story the way that I know to tell the story. It’s wonderful to be honest about your feelings. It’s pretty simple, I think. When you’re honest with yourself first, the world opens up.
If there are people who don’t get the album or don’t like it, then it’s not for them. And that's no shade, no judgment. My goal is just to talk to my community. I'm not interested in being isolated. I'm not interested in being the exception. I need people around me who get where I'm coming from without me having to explain. No matter how much money or success you may have, as Black people and people who are part of the LGBQT+ community, you need your community.
You’ve just released a video for “Heart Storm” with NAO. How do you cultivate kinship and community with other artists, and your creative collaborators?
serpentwithfeet: I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to build community and be in conversation with several artists over the past few years: Sampha, Lil Silva. I was NAO’s opening act for a show in New York in 2016. I like and want to work with people that I have a deep trust in, because then I’m able to let down my guards. I’ve known my creative director and stylist for at least five years. Before we worked together, there was already a certain joy and laughter that we shared. I think all of that joy, and laughter colored the album cover we created together.
Since you joined the #YouTubeBlack Voices Class of 2021, you’ve seen over 200% growth in views and 50% growth in subscribers on your Official Artist Channel. How did you put the grant funding from that program to work?
serpentwithfeet: Music videos are so important, and have been for many, many years. But music videos are also very expensive. With the grant, I was able to create some of the music videos for this album, which was definitely a great help. We did two music videos for my debut album, Soil, but this time around we were able to get creative with the visuals, and create visualizers. Just had a renewed plan this time around.
I particularly love the video you made for “Same Size Shoe.”
serpentwithfeet: A large team helped put that video together, and everybody’s role was important. We wanted the video to feel like those Black gay brunches that are fabulous. We wanted it to feel like an opportunity to decompress and catch up with your homies. And with COVID, it was an opportune time to do something simple and intimate. So we wanted to do a brunch for two. With DEACON, I wanted to sing about the joys of Black gay love, but also the joys of Black gay like. Like when you just meet somebody and you may not even know their last name yet. That feeling where you're like, I really like this guy, but I don't really know him that well yet, but he sends great emojis. I wanted to document all those feelings you get in the first seven days of getting to know someone; that’s what I’m doing in songs like“Amir” or “Hyacinth.” What does that feeling feel like? I just wanted to put that in a picture frame.
With the “Same Size Shoe'' video, we also wanted to honor the people who laid the foundation for us to experience this freedom that we have. I was thinking of Essex Hempill, Marlon Riggs and Joseph Beam, who were all collaborators in the 80s and 90s, and really paved the way for Black gay writers and filmmakers. We have so much space now as a Black gay man to move throughout the world, in a way that we couldn't 10, 20 years ago. I told the video’s choreographer that I wanted the movement to feel grown but also fun, like how it felt when I was a kid standing outside on my cousins porch, dancing and making up routines, just dancing to whatever song is on the radio.
Black music, Black art, Black ingenuity is always number one for me, all through the year. I am always celebrating Black brilliance.”
It’s June, which has been celebrated as Black Music Month since the 70s. What does celebrating Black music look like to you? Do you think the music industry has learned something about how to support and celebrate Black artists in this past year?
serpentwithfeet: That’s a loaded question and I want to try to answer succinctly. Black music, Black art, Black ingenuity is always number one for me, all through the year. That's the way I was raised. That's the way I will always be. It’s great that as a community that we celebrate Juneteenth, Black Music Month, and Pride month. But for me, it's a 12-months-of-the-year celebration. I think people outside of the Black community... I guess it's something that we'll have to keep just watching. We’ll keep watching and see how people are in 10 years. I am always celebrating Black brilliance. What’s most important to me is that my people stay rooted in our traditions. That’s gonna be my focus.
For you, what does showing up for Pride all year look like? What makes a Pride celebration feel good to you?
serpentwithfeet: Not to be quoting my own songs, but “I’m thankful for the love I share with my friends.” And I think what I love about my friendships is that we take a lot of time to reflect, and have intentional gatherings to pause and process the week, day, months, year. In those moments, we’re able to celebrate our queerness and our Blackness. I think that routine might be amplified during Pride month. It’s not lost on me that things are different than they were in 1995, or 2005, and we have the opportunity to talk more about those shifts. I enjoy processing and having precise language about what I’m feeling, and I have a community that does too. So Pride for me is a time to process and enjoy, with people that are close to me.
In this moment, I’m also excited about finding Black gay creators, in other states or countries, who I didn’t know before, and seeing how much we have in common. That excites me. I actually called my friends about this, because I found some artists recently, and I said, “We aren't alone in this.” We’re not isolated; we aren’t the exception, and it really feels like we have support, globally, and to water those connections. This month, I’m sure I’ll meet or find out about a dozen Black queer and trans people that are pushing the needle, who will completely blow my mind. It’s really exciting for me to nurture those connections. That’s something I’m always giving thanks for.
If you can't afford a plane ticket, pick up a book. I know it sounds really corny, but it's true.”
You’ve mentioned that those connections are a foundation for your work, and that you’re also nurtured by history and tradition. You’re an avid reader. Are there any books you’d recommend?
serpentwithfeet: Books really are a friend. They really got the point across with Reading Rainbow, like: Don't take my word for it. It’s so real! Once you pick up that book, you have a companion.
There's a book called “Conversations with Tony Morrison,” it's a compilation of interviews she did in her life that has been transforming, completely. There’s a book by the poet Jericho Brown called “The New Testament,” that has put a lot of language to things that I felt and didn't know how to articulate, which was wonderful. There’s Danez Smith’s “Don't Call Us Dead,” Donte Collins’ “Autopsy.” While I was working on this project, I read a few things that gave me that wonderful feeling that I was not alone. If you can't afford a plane ticket, pick up a book. I know it sounds really corny, but it's true.