1989 experimental documentary film by Marlon Riggs Loose tongues offered a window into the lives of black and gay men in 1980s America. Rhythmic speech is combined with intimate images of clubs and protests to portray a queer experience affected by the AIDS crisis. One of the clearest scenes shows a group of men showing off their snapping skills with playful abandon. Their arms twist and wiggle across the screen in a display of joyful expression.
Riggs’ work continued to inspire long after his death in 1994. Josiah Wise, born in Baltimore in 1988 and now known as the artist serpentwithfeet, studies his output. The optimism of Riggs’ films – the explicitly black, queer freedom of cracking men – finds an echo in the soothing R&B of serpentwithfeet’s second album Deacon.
The opening track “Hyacinth” invites us into the record’s lush soundscape with the mythical story of a man who blossoms from a flower. “I went to bed single now I kiss / A man who was once a hyacinth” sings Wise, his voice flowing over dreamy guitars and synths. It’s an allegory of a sweet and nurturing relationship (“Remote men aren’t as handsome as they used to be,” he continues, “the nicest guys are caring and close”), setting the tone for the album. : Deacon is a candy, powerful collection of love songs that celebrate fulfilling, compassionate relationships rather than idle romance.
Country-influenced “Malik” borrows from the musical traditions of the southern United States, where it is set. Over simple drums and applause, Wise sings about a date in an Atlanta club: “Her outfit kinda nerdy, you know that’s my type / A nerdy man is a healthy man, you know that his spirit is good.” 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 words and its naïve melodies reflecting Malik’s unassuming appeal.
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“Amir” is the softer sister track to “Malik,” a seamless reinterpretation of the raunchy 90s R&B jam as a gay anthem. Wise’s mellow tone, flawless in its delivery, floats above growling basses and sultry strings reminiscent of Darkchild-era Destiny’s Child. Despite the sultry composition, wholesome requests to meet the parents and hear “cheesy jokes” are littered. Wise’s preoccupation with the sugary displays of his lovers acts as a clever rewrite of the seductive R&B track, recasting pure hedonism as dreams of domesticity and commitment.
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The thematic heart of Deacon, however, is the record’s second single, “Same Size Shoe”. It’s Wise’s queer manifesto, a space where candid lyrics and soothing melodies collide as he celebrates his love for black men.: “Boy, you have my trust because I’m like you/me and my darling wears the same shoe size.”
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 hanging scene of Loose tongues plays on their television. Photographs framed by queer light fixtures adorn the walls: Riggs is joined by Essex poet Hemphill and writer Joseph Beam. Books by Toni Morrison, Marlon James and James Baldwin, to name a few, are stacked in the room.
In this space, the video and throughout Deacon, Wise creates his black and queer sanctuary – a place where he feels safe, sexy and unashamed. And while lesser artists may use empty cultural references to gain cachet by association, Wise’s work clearly cements the influence of the figures who elevate it. It’s there in the way he moves, the candor of his lyrics, the rise and fall of his voice on every track. Deacon is a rousing love letter to queer darkness: not a story, but a tableau of scenes showing love in its truest, most tender form.
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