Many of the songs on ‘soil’ have been fermenting for years. The lush lead single, ‘bless ur heart’, started to form in 2009 when White was a senior at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. It took him nine years of personal and musical growth to reach the version that concludes his personal album. In some ways, however, the process of fermentation goes back even further. White’s extraordinary sound has been developing since his childhood in Baltimore, where he was immersed in the music of the Christian church, when he began to formally hone his voice at age eleven.
White wasn’t initially interested in classical vocal training. When his mother asked him if he wanted to try out for the Maryland State Boys Choir, he responded with a firm no. But that didn’t matter to his mother, who had already signed him up for an audition anyway. “As an 11-year-old, I was like, ‘I can’t believe you!’ But she was like, ‘Boy, you are the child and I am the mother.’ So I went, I auditioned, and I ended up loving it.”
This was serpent’s first serious introduction to classical vocal performance. Even as a preteen, however, he began to encounter to the problematic aspects of the choir’s culture that would influence his relationship with the genre for years to come. White was troubled by the lack of diversity in the choir and the class undertones of “lofty classical songs.” “There wasn’t much room for the black voice,” he explains.
Fortunately, he was able to find a better home for his gifts when he entered high school, Baltimore City College, a public magnet school for gifted and talented students. In addition to a strong academic program, Baltimore City College was home to an internationally competitive choir. By the time he was 14, White was traveling with the group to Europe to compete and coming home with trophies. More importantly to him, though, was the makeup of the group. “It was all black kids, but our repertoire was predominantly classical. And that blew my mind.”
He committed to developing himself as a world-class vocal performer. Every day, he spent three to five hours singing after finishing class. That still wasn’t enough. After learning about an exceptional vocal teacher at Morgan State University, he called her almost every day for a year. One day she finally answered, White remembers, “and she said, ‘Boy, come.’” The lessons set him down a path to becoming a classically trained opera singer. By the time he graduated from University in the Arts, he’d mastered his instrument and developed a working knowledge of French, Italian, and German. He casually recalls taking Russian diction classes so he could perform ‘Lensky’s Aria’ by Eugene Onegin. “I wanted to perform in the opera houses, I wanted to perform at the Met. I really wanted that life,” he reflects.
But when White was ready to take the next step in his career, a roadblock sprung up in his path – he didn’t get into the graduate vocal programs to which he’d applied. The traditional trajectory he had followed so closely for so many years suddenly fell out from underneath him. Shut out of the classical world, he had to find a new way forward, and fast.
The years that followed were difficult, but formative. White travelled, moved to New York, worked whatever jobs he could find. He explored and embraced his sexuality; he loved and lost. He got the tattoos on his head. When he could, he recorded music, experimenting outside of the classical domain and throwing the results up on Soundcloud. Reorienting his stance on the classical world was an important part of this process. “So much of my self-esteem relied on that, but I couldn’t see it for a long time,” he remembers. “I wanted this world to give me the green light, but it proved to me that there wasn’t a space for me there.”
But if the classical world seemed to reject him, he didn’t reject classical music wholesale – his music makes that obvious. He retains an obvious passion for the genre; indeed, that passion seems to have only grown as his interest in other genres has developed, and he remains a wellspring of knowledge on the subject. At one point he digresses to explain the genius and influence of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, casually offering a rundown of his work, complete with composition dates. Dvorak’s 9th symphony From the New World, which was called “the greatest symphonic work ever composed in [the United States]” when it was first performed in 1893, was profoundly influenced by African-American music.
“He sat with older black folks and indigenous folks of America and had them sing their traditional songs to him. He was heavily inspired by black American spirituals,” serpent explains. “Dvorak basically said that if America can get over this racist shit, African American spirituals can be the new frontier for classical music.”
While Dvorak was in the United States writing From the New World, he taught the violinist turned composer Will Marion Cook, a composer of particular importance for serpentwithfeet. Marion Cook wrote the first black musical performed on Broadway, Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk. Serpentwithfeet stumbled on his biography and was blown away by the breadth of his influence. He was equally stunned by how little he had ever heard about Marion Cook’s story. “I read this book from cover to cover,” he remembers. “Before him, there was no syncopation, or many of the characteristics we think about with Broadway. He brought that.” And yet no one had ever taught this to him. “I’m just like, I should have known that.”
The expulsion of African-American innovation from canonical narrative is just one more unfortunate example of a culture of exclusion that continues today. Serpent reflects, “For me, knowing how much of our music shapes not only white classical music, but shapes pop music… Think about all the whimsy you hear in trap music, and how that influences pop music. All this stuff is stuff that black kids are doing in the middle of nowhere, that are anonymous.”