“What is this?”
That was my only thought when I first listened to “Curiosity of Other Men.” It featured vocals over a Tchaikovsky sample and lyrics like, “I wanna be possessed by you.” This was not like other things. This was something else.
A little digging quickly reveals what JOSIAHWISE IS THE SERPENTWITHFEET is all about: death, paganism, sexual imagery (specifically naked black men), and some pictures that combine all of these things. Just check out his website.
I didn’t know anything about Josiah Wise, the human being, but I was intrigued by his music and what he was choosing to present to the world. I invited him in to the office for an interview. I told him that if he’s interested, we could do a photo shoot. He responded, via email: “I’D LOVE TO DO PHOTOS! I’LL MAKE SURE TO COME IN FULL GARB.”
As promised, Josiah showed up in full garb, which included black make-up, a pouch full of crystals, and a long, coarse wig that fell past his waist. He sat down and removed something rectangular from his bag. It was wrapped in all black. Layer after layer, he unwound the piece of black cloth covering the object. I imagined what it could be. I thought maybe it was a photograph of a dead lamb or a box of bones. I was excited by the prospects.
It was his laptop.
Once we started talking, it was clear that while Josiah may be attracted to death and darkness, he was also a kind, soft-spoken, intelligent human being, and a fascinating artist.
First of all, the name. Where did you get the name and what does it mean?
JOSIAHWISE IS THE SERPENTWITHFEET. Josiah Wise is my birth name. Serpent With Feet actually was a name I gave my best friend like eight years ago that never used it and it just sort of became a thing I would call her every now and then. Neither one of us ever used it again. I was working on this project that was inspired by Instagram and Twitter and like meeting all these black men that were like really fluent and really nuanced and much more dynamic in a way that I wasn’t used to. There was something very serpentile about it.
I started hash tagging Serpent with Feet. And then Okayplayer did an interview with me and the title was just “Josiah Wise Is The Serpent With Feet.” I want people to know what I’m about when they see my name cause I know how I work when I listen to music, and I need to know what you’re about within the first 20 seconds. So I was like, “I don’t want it to be just Josiah Wise but I don’t want it to be just Serpent With Feet so what do I do? Oh, Josiah Wise is the Serpent With Feet. We’ll see how people take to the whole thing. I love it.
Is this just the name you’re using for this project that you’re working on now? Or is this your artist name?
This is my artist name. I love When Saints Go Machine or Joan As Police Woman or The Artist formerly known as Prince or TV on the Radio. I like these long phrases, because it’s excessive and because it’s kinda ridiculous and obnoxious and I felt my music is sort of obnoxious, sort of a bit of a stretch sometimes. And so if you’re turned off by the name then maybe you shouldn’t listen to the music.
How important to you is the visual aspect? When I discovered you, immediately I see the little picture next to the song and then I see your website and it’s very visually striking.
It’s the first thing I think about, even before the music. Like, it usually starts with the picture first, or the image first and then the title. I’m really into themes and concepts and once I have that, it’s easier than the other way around. So, it’s incredibly visual for me and I’m even really thankful for Tumlbr for helping me carve out my niche even more clearly and intentionally, because I think before I was a little more spread out. And now I’m like, “My stuff is niche. I’m not eclectic. There is a specific thing that I’m trying to say and Tumblr and Instagram have been great to help me collage. I don’t know what I was on before, actually [laughs].
Are you worried that you’re going to scare people away? That people are gonna be turned off?
I hope they are.
Why do you hope so?
Because I’m 26 now and four years ago, I was concerned with people liking me. And I was concerned with being likable, and now its sort of the inverse. It’s like, the more I can get you to like the parts of yourself that you don’t like—that’s what it’s about. It’s not even about liking or not liking me, it’s about facing the parts of yourself that you hate. I you can’t see me, you can’t see yourself. I’m only showing you the darker parts of you. That’s my take on it.
Can you talk a little bit about what you were like as a kid? When did you start getting into the stuff that you like now, the darker stuff and the death?
Well my family is really interesting. I think that black families are really nuanced. And I guess, what is that saying, man I don’t want to fuck it up. But that saying about Haitians like, “Haiti is 70% Catholic, 20% Protestant, and 100% Voodoo,” or something like that. I think it’s the same way with a lot of black families, but they just sort of try to deny it.
I think death cult is huge within the black community. Tupac, Aaliyah… We revere these people and we haven’t really let them rest in peace.
I think death cult is huge within the black community. Tupac, Aaliyah… We revere these people and we haven’t really let them rest in peace. I grew up in church, but my parents were into spiritual work and spiritual practices that didn’t necessarily involve Christianity. And their parents were into black magic and white magic. They were from the South. I grew up in Baltimore, but my grandparents were all from North Carolina and South Carolina. So all that stuff my mom practiced, my family practiced in their own ways.
I was going to church, but also going on retreats with my mother with spiritual baths and candles. That sort of thing. I was always really into my dark space, and I didn’t really understand how deep it went or how dynamic it was until I got older and I found myself like, “Oh, I remember myself saying that when I was six or when I was seven.” I remember being a child and being really really excited about horror films, but now I’m like, “Okay I understand the connection now.” I guess it’s always been there.
Were you also social and friendly as a kid? Even just in meeting you for the first time—I expected you to be very introverted—you seem like you’re also open and friendly.
Yeah, they’re aspects of me. Nobody’s one thing. I think I focus on one thing because I’m selling something. Even though I’m not getting much money for it yet, but I am selling something. But it is very important. This is a part of me that I’m focusing on. I’m not focusing on the yellow and lime green aspects in public, you know?
So is this part of the act?
It’s not an act…
Of course it’s part of your personality, but you’re playing up this one part of it.
Yeah, I’m playing up this one part. And also, with any good performer, you start to become your work. I don’t see my work as separate from me. My room is probably just like how you expect it. It’s a lot of stuff going on. That’s where I sleep, eat, and breathe. I’m not different behind closed doors, I’m just a hyperbolic version of myself in front of people.
Some of the music that I was listening to is more upbeat. Like the song you did with Spoek Mathambo. Do you enjoy making that kind of music?
I do, especially with Spoek because he was on my list of people. I still have a bucket list of people that I want to work with, obviously. But he was at the top of my list of people I wanted to work with. I really loved what he was doing. I caught wind of his wave when he put out “Lose Control,” which was like 2011, 2012, I think. I was like, “I gotta work with him,” but I didn’t have any bait. So when I had music I sent it and I was like, “What do you think?” He was gracious enough to say, “Yeah let’s work.”
But I love all of that. I love all the Afro, all the Nigerian music. I love it. That’s not necessarily what my music is, but slowly but surely I think people will start to see where it all comes together.
Sometimes you sound a little bit like Sampha.
I love Sampha too.
Do you want to appeal to the masses?
Well yeah, I’m trying to find a way to make this work digestible. I want to make what I’m saying digestible, but also make it challenging, you know? Some people are going to feel accosted by it, some people are going to feel offended, and some are going to feel like I’m digging too deep.That’s okay, because I also have a knowing that the music will resonate with who it needs to resonate with at the right time.
I’m just getting into D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and that has cleared up so much for me because I’ve been mining my brain and mining my computer and mining my journals like, “What am I trying to say?” And then reading Questlove’s appraisal of that process, D’Angelo’s appraisal of that process, and everyone’s appraisal of that whole thing. It was revisioning black music. And that’s all I wanna do is sort of look at my past. I have a strong choral background, I have a classical background, I have a jazz background. And I enjoy hip-hop and R&B, so how do I make this all make sense so it’s not all eclectic and quirky and all over the place? How do I centralize this? It is difficult, but I think people will like it because maybe it’s something that they wouldn’t make themselves. It’s not for everybody, but I think it’s something that people can be like, “I get it.” Two years ago I was like, “I respect Voodoo, but I don’t understand it.” And now I’m like, “Oh, I get it now.” I wasn’t here. It took me 14 years, and now I finally get it.
Where did you get all that jazz and chorus experience?
I grew up in church. My mom didn’t want me to be a basic bitch, basically. So she played a lot of classical music in the home. And then she signed me up for the Maryland State Boychoir, and I did that for two years and I was surrounded by a lot of people who didn’t look like me and a lot of music that didn’t sound like anything I ever listened to. They were against using vibrato, they were against me doing riffs, they were against all of it. It was so strict and so sterile, which I hated. But it was good for me to develop a strong, technical foundation. Then after that I went to high school and I was classically focused. Then college, classical and jazz. Then everything else was just listening to the radio.
Are you planning live performances?
I’m hoping to do something kind of big next month. I’m not sure if it’s going to happen. I’m working with CHLLNGR, the producer in Denmark. Hopefully something will happen next month. Other then that, I want to curate more shows for new music that I’m putting out later.
I was wondering what people could expect from a live performance.
My best friend Trae Harris and I started this thing called Witches Brew Pagan Gospel. Her wave is Witches Brew. I call mine Pagan Gospel. Last year, we decided to put our two things together because we’d known each other 13 years, so let’s make this tangible, and not just take pictures or be friends. We did a show, and it was a performance ritual, basically. We had people bring offerings and bring incense or money or food or candles or prayers or whatever they wanted to bring. If they wanted to bring their Orishas they could. And people took it seriously. I was so happy cause it was like a music video release, and we set the mood, had costumes, did a whole thing. Had ushers, yeah it was really amazing
Was that in New York?
It was in New York, in Brooklyn. Ojay Morgan hosted it, some people know him as Zebra Catz, so that was really great. And he brought his flair to it, and it was this really dark evening. It was like a service, a dark service. So we’re going to continue that, that’s going to happen again this year. Just trying to line it with the music.
So what’s next for you, musically? Can you talk about what any of the stuff that you have planned now?
The biggest thing I have now is the work with CHLLNGR. I wrote five songs on his 11-song album and I sang backup on two others. We recorded at Red Bull last year, and they were super gracious and sweet. So that’s really amazing.
And I’m working to continue my Black Magic Mondays series. I want to do a full length project, but I’m enjoying doing these one-offs right now. I’m still very unknown, small. I’m big to myself, but a lot of people don’t know who I am yet. So it was interesting to see my Soundcloud songs reaching their download limit. I need to continue this series, and then when I feel like I have heat, I want to release a full-length project. I know exactly what I want to do for that. I just need to wait until the time is right.
Would you want to sign to a label, or do you want to do this independently?
If they gave me creative control, I would. There’s no compromising on my end. I think it’s important for me to build up my wave really strong so that I can have my way because anything less wouldn’t even feel right.
Can you talk a little bit about “Curiosity of Other Men.” That was the song I first heard and it fucking blew my mind.
Oh, thanks man. “Curiosity of Other Men.” I’m surprised that people like it.
I’ve just never heard anything like that.
I really appreciate that, because I was going like, “Does this work? What do people think?” At first no one was biting, but when you posted it, it caught on. It’s a sample from the opera Eugene Onegin by the poet Alexander Pushkin, and Tchaikovsky composed the opera. The character is Lensky. It’s a really dark opera. The character Lensky gets killed in this duel, long story short.
That song was part of my repertoire in college. And that particular song, I had to sing for my recital, it’s a really difficult aria. It’s in Russian. Russian, to me, is more difficult than German, more difficult than French. I was not very good at it. But I decided to sample the song because I had such an emotional connection to it. The song is about not denying what you want. Again, growing up in church or growing up in strict backgrounds, people are really… they pretend they’re weird about queerness. I really don’t think that people have homophobia. I think people have an issue with intimacy and being honest. I think homophobia is a sect of that, but is a part of something much larger.
I like seeing the wave that’s going on right now of black artists being a bit darker because I feel like we’re reclaiming our darkness in a very intentional way.
I like seeing the wave that’s going on right now of black artists being a bit darker because I feel like we’re reclaiming our darkness in a very intentional way. This song was, for me, not denying that I want this guy. And being very honest that I see other guys checking him out. I see his light, or I see his wave, or I see what he has going. This guy is like this demon, this beautiful lover, but he’s also a demon. I think I got inspired by Bjork’s “Pagan Poetry,” where she describes the perfect, ideal partner which is like this monster with crooked fingers and moist coated palms and other shit. It’s about me not denying this dark but immaculate man. And me being like, “It’s fucked up, and it’s crazy, and you’re intense, but I’m not going to deny what I want from you. I’m not going to deny my affinity towards you.”
Are you worried that people are going to put you in a box?
No, people are always going to talk. I think now, the way that everything is run with social media, somebody could say that I’m a woman or whatever, and I’m like, “Okay, great.” You come to my social media and see what the truth is.
It seems like—even in hip-hop—things are kind of changing. Even male rappers are accepting a more feminine side. You see people like Young Thug wearing pink tight shirts and rocking a skirt.
Honestly, I think that black men specifically are experiencing a whole new sensation that maybe they are very aware of what’s going on, very conscious. I don’t know how cognitive it is for everybody, but I’ve been seeing this for like—even with all the dick pics that leaked. That’s not just a sexual thing. I think black men want to be vulnerable in a way they haven’t been.
Anything else you want people to know about you?
Black Magic Monday Series. Yeah, that’s it.