MusicSex & Gender

miguel and the ‘wild’ places of black masculinity

October 11, 2017
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Miguel is odd. He tries to hide it with charm and some convention, but like most people with something extra bubbling beneath the skin, his oddness pours out of his pores. And we’ve been witnessing it for almost a decade now. We met him as a manicured and sanitized R&B crooner with smooth, soulful jams like “Sure Thing” and “Quickie”. But since that initial introduction, the Los Angeles native Miguel Jontel Pimentel has been exploring where the wild things are, with perhaps the wildest thing being his true self.

I first became aware of Miguel in 2011, via an acoustic performance of his smoldering boudoir-ready cut, “All I Want is You.”  His voice articulated yearning and regret with nothing holding up his melodic pleas, but guitar strings and the echo in the room. He wore a white sweater in a bland space that had a skyline peeking in the background, his hair coiffed, his face clean. At the time, the only sense of wildness to be detected was in his voice. Miguel’s voice is a rare thing in contemporary male vocalists. It is elastic and uninhibited, unafraid of vulnerability or style. He isn’t simply a singer, he is an expressionist. He concluded that performance by saying, “By the way, guys, I found out on Twitter that I’ve been nominated for a Grammy.” The tango between his oddness and his commercial viability had begun.

In 2017, I witnessed Miguel perform again, this time on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. A different man appeared. He had one hand in his pocket, a scruffy beard, and stood underneath a dim light. His voice remained arresting, gold-laced, but an evolution had occurred. The coif had been replaced with a braided and dread-locked hybrid. Scarves adorned his microphones like he was honoring the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. He rapped while a superb band tip-toed around his vocal, moving his hands to allude that he was caressing a woman’s silhouette. His more erotic, unusual qualities seemed to have finally found a place outside his throat, sprouting throughout his artistic performance.

There is responsibility in black artistry. We know ancient African tradition and customs focus on the village and community, and are less individualistic than the ones we’re accustomed to in America. It’s interesting how that also manifests in the celebrity and the artistry. We usually see stars as individual phenomena, and not small parts of a wider constellation. Miguel’s evolution in the mainstream’s gaze is riveting when you consider him part of a legacy of black men that fail traditional forms of masculinity or commercialized blackness, but still find notable success.

In many ways, Miguel’s artistry contains the DNA of an old tradition: the rebellious black man that plays with gender and sexuality, underneath a funk and R&B haze. Usually, this haze is purple. Little Richard, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Rick James, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Michael Jackson, and others have found commercial success in hypermasculine society’s failure. Often, the use of eroticism and the focus on heterosexuality helps keep mainstream audiences captivated by the rebellious nature of the black male artists’ performance, but adequately distanced from identification with queerness, in order to contain their rejection or disgust. Miguel, then, is a star birthed by the many supernovae that have burned out before him.

Miguel is also one space oddity in orbit amongst numerous others in this present music-cultural moment. The current gender conversation may not focus on the cis black man, but the cis black man is still influenced by it. Toxic masculinity is being reimagined by male-gendered bodies, performed with painted nails and dresses on. Rappers like Young Thug and XXXTentacion have aesthetically transgressed more heteronormative ways of moving in the world, while still proving patriarchal domination can not be bleached out of the body like brown can be bleached out of hair.

Other politicized events have shown that more standard black male stereotypes are still being reinforced. It remains easy for the black man to melt into a brute, a coon, and an oversexualized demon, especially when justifying his annihilation. The 2014 description of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson is a reminder of the role black men play in the white imagination: “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Wilson infantilized himself before a teenager ten years younger than him, stripping away Brown’s humanity in order to return to the script of the black man as monster. This trope often shows up in cultural productions, which is why positive responses to it — reimagining the black man, breathing humanity back into the black male body — are powerful, no matter how small.

Still, more substantial transgressions have been made by black male artists in recent years: Frank Ocean revealing his love affair with another man one summer via an open letter, and ILoveMakonnen and Taylor Bennett revealing their queer sexual identities. Even quick moments like Donald Glover’s 2015 acoustic performance of Tamia’s “So Into You” while not changing the pronouns to fit a heterosexual romantic dynamic, are indications of a type of expansion in what it means to be black, male and public. And the transgression no longer guarantees rejection. Glover went on to release a hit album (Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!) and an award-winning television show (Atlanta).

Miguel’s last full-length album was 2015’s Wildheart (he has a new album scheduled for the end of the year), and included references to eroticism (“I’m your pimp, I’m your pope, I’m your pastor baby / confess your sins to me while you masturbate”), to politics (it begins with a clips from a local breaking-news broadcast), and to spiritual truths (“accept the new, don’t mingle on the past/ Believe yourself, trust your intuition / You’re here for a reason”). The music is unafraid to be noisy and funky. Like Prince. Like George Clinton. Like Marvin Gaye. Like Jimi Hendrix. It is a far cry from the sanitized R&B we heard in 2011. Miguel is a more fully formed man, breaking with norms by following legends who transcended masculinity because masculinity was not enough. The wildness has engulfed his whole being.

This is a moment of many opposing forces and it’s fascinating to observe Miguel’s creative decisions, powerful to watch him negotiate his cultural inheritance, while still crafting a musical identity. The commercial success of an artist — especially a black artist — should not always inform how transgressive they are or aren’t. This is especially true when we know that to be black and seen, a level of transgression is already transpiring. Miguel is pushing and expanding, alongside a universe of other stars. His is a narrative that might make the next generation a little freer, a little safer, a little more interesting. With every little choice Miguel makes in public, he is doing his part in diversifying how black manhood can arrive and what it can produce.