Marlon Riggs’s experimental 1989 documentary film Tongues Untied offered a window into the life of black, gay men in 1980s America. Rhythmic spoken word is combined with intimate footage from clubs and protests to depict a queer experience affected by the Aids crisis. One of the lighter scenes shows a group of men exhibiting their snapping skills with playful abandon. Their arms twist and flail across the screen in a display of joyous self-expression.
Riggs’s work has continued to inspire long past his death in 1994. Josiah Wise, born in Baltimore in 1988 and now known as the artist serpentwithfeet, is a student of his output. The optimism of Riggs’s films – the explicitly black and queer freedom of the snapping men – is echoed in the soothing R&B of serpentwithfeet’s second album Deacon.
The opening track “Hyacinth” invites us into the record’s lush soundscape with a mythic story of a man who blooms from a flower. “I went to bed single now I’m kissing/A man that was once a hyacinth” Wise sings, his voice liquid over dreamy guitars and synths. It’s an allegory for a gentle, nurturing kind of relationship (“Distant men ain’t as fine as they used to be,” he continues, “the handsomest guys are caring and nearby”), setting the tone for the album: Deacon is a sweet, powerful collection of love songs that celebrate fulfilling, compassionate relationships over idle romance.
Country-inflected “Malik” borrows from the musical traditions of the American South, where it is set. Over simple drums and clapping, Wise sings of a rendezvous in an Atlanta club: “His outfit kinda corny you know that’s my type/A corny man’s a healthy man you know his mind right.” Here, Wise revels in his attraction to Malik: “Blessed is the man who wears socks with his sandals,” he preaches, “blessed is the man with those loving love handles,” his prosaic lyrics and naïve melodies mirroring Malik’s unpretentious appeal.
“Amir” is the smoother sister track to “Malik”, a seamless reinterpretation of the steamy, Nineties R&B jam as gay anthem. Wise’s smooth tone, faultless in delivery, floats above rumbling bass and sultry strings that recall Darkchild-era Destiny’s Child. Despite the sensual composition, wholesome requests to meet the parents and to hear “corny jokes” are littered throughout. Wise’s preoccupation with the mawkish displays of his lovers acts as a clever rewrite of the seductive R&B track, recasting pure hedonism as dreams of domesticity and commitment.
The thematic heart of Deacon, however, is the record’s second single, “Same Size Shoe”. It’s Wise’s queer manifesto, a space where frank lyrics and soothing melodies collide as he celebrates his love for black men: “Boy you got my trust cause I’m like you/me and my boo wear the same size shoe.”
In the song’s accompanying music video, we’re invited to spend a day at home with Wise and his partner. They cook breakfast together, read together, dance in unison. The snapping scene from Tongues Untied plays on their television. Framed photographs of queer luminaries adorn the walls: Riggs is joined by the poet Essex Hemphill and writer Joseph Beam. Books by Toni Morrison, Marlon James and James Baldwin, to name a few, are dotted in piles around the room.
Within this space, the video and throughout Deacon, Wise creates his queer, black sanctuary – a place in which he feels safe, sexy and unashamed. And although lesser artists may employ empty cultural references to earn cachet by association, Wise’s work clearly consolidates the influence of the figures who uplift him. It’s there in the way he moves, the candour of his lyrics, the rise and fall of his voice on every track. Deacon is a rousing love letter to queer blackness: not a story, but a tableau of scenes showing love in its truest and tenderest form.