After spending a few hours with Miguel, as I did one overcast day in Miami in late November, you may come away with multiple interpretations of his personality. He is either an intentional mystery, conducting himself in a quixotic way that recalls Prince’s public persona, or he’s so thoroughly, securely human that he’s unafraid to casually display his contradictions and multitudes. “There’s no box for me,” he told NPR in 2015 of his dodge-and-burn approach to genre. During his interview for this article, he often evaded hard, definitive answers, and left himself open to interpretation in ostensible service of the imagination of his fans.
And when we revisited an allegation of sexual assault lodged against him earlier this year that flew under the radar of most publications (including this one), he left his account of what really happened that night ambiguous as well.
We met at the Soho Beach House in South Beach. In a beige satin Fear of God bomber and blue Sibling sweatpants with stars printed on them, he looked fresh but relaxed, as if Tyra Banks had advised him in his hotel room, “Rock star… but make it approachable.” His dreads were pulled back loosely, a few stragglers grazing his cheeks.
Once we sat down for breakfast at the Soho’s outdoor restaurant, I noticed Miguel was wearing was a yellowing T-shirt under his bomber. Printed on its left breast was “War & Leisure”—the name of his new project that we were meeting to discuss. His fourth album, released in early December, debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard charts and is a stylistically sprawling set rooted in its abundance of infectious hooks. The title relies on polarity, but the ideas bleed into each other throughout the album, the songs buzzing with ensuing tension.
What emerges from the album is a depiction of romance within a crumbling civilization, love in the time of North Korean missile launches. Or “dancing through destruction,” as Miguel described what he’s doing on the album’s second single, “Told You So”–the desert-set video for which finds him performing frenetic choreography before a backdrop of soaring missiles, intercut with scenes of social unrest. Colin Kaepernick is namechecked on two different tracks by his guest rappers—Rick Ross in one instance and J. Cole in the other. War & Leisure’s final track, “Now,” is as pointedly political as anything Miguel has released, an open letter to Trump (referred to as the “CEO of the free world”) that touches on wall-building and the torn locales of Puerto Rico, Houston, Standing Rock, and Flint, Michigan.
Settling into our breakfast, I wondered aloud what Miguel thought of the chatter that War & Leisure is his woke album, a narrative spurred partially by the non-album Soundcloud loosie “How Many (Black Lives),” which discusses recent police shootings. He laughed.
“I don’t want to be like, ‘It’s woke.’ I’m not,” he assured me from behind the boxy, vintage Gianfranco Ferre sunglasses that he wore for the duration of our meal. “I’m just human. That means I see it just like everyone else. The degree of which I pay attention to it has everything to do with my priorities. As a human, I think we should understand that as we grow older, our priorities change.”
And then, as definitively as anything he said that day, he declared: “It’s not a woke album.”
Then he made it a point to clarify.
“Me saying, ‘It’s not a woke album,’ when it’s printed with no context could come off the wrong way,” he explained. “What I’m trying to say is I’m not trying to make it like, ‘I’m woke.’”
It’s somewhat refreshing that Miguel repeatedly refused virtue-signaling during our conversation, especially since he possibly could benefit from giving the impression of enlightenment at a time in which politics are often prioritized over aesthetics by the social-media-amplified audience of popular art. But he didn’t pretend to be more aware than he is. At 32, Miguel said he pays more attention to what’s going on than ever (Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign galvanized him). He also admitted he should read more. He said he’s only recently started taking up flight attendants on their offer of free newspapers when he boards commercial flights.
But the combination of wokeness-avowing and refusal to take a firm stance can also feel like someone interested in staying above the fray. In late March of this year, Miguel was filmed by a TMZ paparazzo at LAX, asking him about a recent sexual assault allegation a fan had made against him. “I think we’re just in a time where just…people are really looking for attention in the wrong ways,” Miguel told the pap at the time. “In this age, I guess, you just gotta be more aware of how things can be and how things can be spun.” When asked, point blank about the veracity the claim–“One thousand percent, it didn’t happen?”–Miguel declined to deny it outright. “That’s not even it,” he said. “I don’t even feel like that’s a question anyone should ask.”
On March 14 of this year, a University of New Mexico student who goes by Xian Bass posted a video on her Instagram, in which she alleged that she had met Miguel in a club and introduced herself. After they took a selfie, she explained, “He reaches his hand down my shirt and takes my breast out of my top.” In the caption of another post featuring the selfie in question, Bass wrote, “I approached you respectfully and you still decided my body was not sacred enough to be treated as a human being. After we took this photo, you took it upon yourself to grab my breast and remove it from my shirt WITHOUT CONSENT. You then proceeded to look at my naked breast with such a disgusting look on your face… Have you gotten away with this in the past? Well, it stops HERE and NOW. I will not sit in shameful silence and allow sexual assault to be normalized.”
Bass’s story is remarkable for a few reasons. In her initial video post, she boldly revealed that before taking a picture with him, she told Miguel, “I love your song ‘Adorn,’ I’ve made myself orgasm to it many of times.” Including this nuance could have threatened to complicate Bass’s story beyond the comprehension of people who don’t identify as overtly sex positive. Certainly, it opened her up to criticism of victim-blaming criticism suggesting she had been asking for Miguel’s alleged response.
Bass’s story is also notable for its limited reach. Her initial video post was picked up by the popular Instagram account the Shade Room and reposted on a variety of gossip blogs, generally those focused on black pop culture. TMZ was undoubtedly the biggest outlet to cover it. Once Miguel delivered his non-answer, the story evaporated without leaving residue. He finished his album, he released some singles (including the well-received “Sky Walker”), and he played a free show across the street from the Adelanto Detention Center to raise awareness of the terrible conditions in which immigrant prisoners are often kept. Bass’s claim seems to have had no effect on Miguel’s public perception.
So under-the-radar was this story that it was also initially missed by Spin, and remembered by editors after the time that Miguel and I spent together in Miami. Because he answered many of my questions vaguely or not at all, I can only imagine that I wouldn’t have gotten hard answers out of him, but at least attempting a conversation about the facts face-to-face could have been telling. In the two weeks following the release of War & Leisure, Miguel has been prominently placed on the cover of PAPER (Spin’s original intent was to also use this story as our November digital cover), and in feature interviews from The Guardian, New York, and MTV News. Not one of these stories mention the allegation of assault levied against him back in March, what we’d presume to be similar accidental oversight instead of intentional omission.
It’s clear that we need to ask ourselves why Xian Bass’s account was a mere blip on the radar, especially during this particular moment in history. Is it because she made her allegation in March, before the so-called Weinstein effect forced a conversation about normalized rape culture into our nation’s daily discourse? Is it because she unapologetically declared herself a sexual person whose agency could be violated nonetheless? Is it because Bass is black and the media/its audience just tends to care less about the well-being of black women? (Think about the black women who survived R. Kelly, and how his career continued to flourish.) Xian Bass has some theories.
“A lot of it is tied to hypersexualization of the black female body,” Bass, 31, told me via video chat on Thanksgiving. “When you have that imagery being recycled, these situations aren’t taken that seriously because of stereotypes. I do think it would have been responded with a little more awareness because the #MeToo movement has provided a lot more conversation, and hopefully more understanding of sexual assault and rape culture in general.”
Bass took a considerable amount of convincing to be interviewed; she initially expressed wariness over her words being used against her. She told me she received death threats and other hate mail after her initial posts about her allegations.
During our discussion, she filled in some details of the night in question. She said the alleged assault took place in the Tenants of the Trees venue in Silverlake on March 14 in an area of the bar where they found themselves alone—Bass contends there were no witnesses. She said she froze after Miguel allegedly removed her breast from her bustier-type top.
“As a survivor of [previous] sexual violence,” she explained, “my body and my mind react in a way that keep me as safe as possible knowing that there could be even worse encounters or retaliations.”
“He ripped it out of my shirt,” she said, describing this as “an act of power” as opposed to “an act of attraction.” She elaborated: “To just grab it like that is an act of ownership…It had nothing to do with how I looked or what I wore. It had to do with power.”
Bass, who was vacationing in Los Angeles on spring break, said she recorded her video (as well as a follow-up) once back in her Airbnb that night. She said she also filed a police report, stopping in Barstow, California on her way back to Albuquerque. Per the Barstow police department’s normal process for when such a report is filed, Bass was given a card with the name and badge number of the police officer who took her report, as well as her report number. She was not given a copy of her report. Over two months later, she received an investigator contact sheet from the Los Angeles Police Department dated May 26, 2017. The Barstow Police Department confirmed that Bass had filed a claim against Miguel Pimentel on March 14, and an LAPD officer named Charles Morton confirmed to Spin that he investigated a sexual assault or harassment allegation involving Miguel Pimentel and Xian Bass.
As for the status of her case, Bass said, “What the detective said is other women have to come forward,” before any action can be taken against Miguel. Bass told me that while her posts on Miguel yielded DMs from survivors of celebrity assault, she didn’t hear from any women who had been harassed or assaulted by Miguel. She also said she didn’t hear from Miguel or any member of his camp after she went public with her accusation.
When Bass talked about her ambivalence over filing a report, she reminded me of, well, Miguel, who repeatedly expressed multiple views on the same subject during our conversation. (At one point he told me he makes music for himself, to document his life and compensate for his “shitty” memory, and then a few breaths later invoked the words of his collaborator Dave Sitek by saying what he does is “for the kids…the ones that are going to continue creating long after we’re gone.”)
“I didn’t want to [file the report] because black lives matter,” said Bass. “I [didn’t] want to because I do not want to put another brown man in jail. I [didn’t] want to because I [didn’t] want to be re-traumatized by going to law enforcement. However, yes, I did. I didn’t want to, but I do know that for other people who may have been abused or assaulted or whatever, maybe this will help them as well.”
Bass said her motivation for speaking up is healing and truth. “Restorative justice calls in,” she explained. “When you call out your brother, you are also calling him in. You’re saying, ‘Come to this circle of healing.'” A health and human services major, she says wants to be tied to “releasing black people from the chains that bind them, the chains of intersectional racism and sexism between our gender relations.”
Miguel declined Spin’s repeated requests for a follow-up interview regarding Xian Bass’s allegations. He did, though, provide a statement through his publicist:
“I felt I had already addressed how bizarre and twisted this accusation was when I was asked about it in March. Her story of what transpired is not accurate and the accusation is unfair and unwarranted.”
Bass said she can no longer stomach to listen to Miguel—when he comes on the radio, she changes the channel.
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During our three or so hours together, Miguel projected the image of a considerate man, seemingly free of the bullshit of celebrity entitlement. When our waitress brought an omelet yellower than Miguel was expecting to receive after ordering egg whites (he doesn’t eat yolks), he tensed up as he inquired as to whether there’d been a mix-up, looking guilty for bringing attention to it at all. (Our waitress assured him they were, in fact, whites.)
Miguel frequently held the door open for me as we made our way from the Soho to the Pérez Art Museum Miami. There, a few feet away from a Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s “See Through,” a collage that featured Grace Jones, a female fan, seemingly around undergrad age, approached the singer and requested a hug. He acquiesced and then asked her name.
“I like to know people’s names,” he explained. Before bidding her and her museum companion goodbye: “Have a good one.”
A few minutes later, we ran into the fan and her friend again, contemplating Mickalene Thomas’s acrylic-and-sequins depiction of two black women in bed together, “Never Change Lovers In the Middle of The Night.”
“What do you guys think this means?” asked the fan.
I told her I knew what it meant: Sex.
“It looks like they’re scissoring,” noted the fan’s friend.
“I thought they were wrestling,” said Miguel, who then discussed an adjacent work, Deana Lawson’s photograph “Roxie and Raquel, New Orleans, Louisiana,” with the two young women.
We’d see the fan and her friend again from afar, as we sat on steps outside of the Perez, which overlooks the Biscayne Bay and discussed Miguel’s relationship with his fiancé model/actor Nazanin Mandi. Miguel told me the toned-down sex talk on War & Leisure is a result of a newfound appreciation for a woman he’s now been with for twelve years.
“I’ve just learned how important it is to say the things the best way that I can that are just, human…just to connect on that level,” he said.
The fan approached one more time, right as we were about to exit the Perez and were browsing the gift shop. Miguel had decided to buy a magnifying glass with a handle carved to look like bone and a skull fastened to its base for his brother, who likes to light his blunts the way sadistic children kill ants.
“Do I know you?” he asked her.
“In another life,” she said.
She requested they speak alone, and Miguel told me and his publicist to hang back for a second while he walked with her. A few minutes later in the parking lot, he was saying his goodbyes—he told her to send him her music and that everything was going to be okay.
She walked away smiling. If their interaction left any impression on Miguel, he didn’t let me in on it.
But then, he was wary of communicating too freely in general that day. That was one of the few things I could be absolutely certain of. Earlier, during breakfast, I asked him about the pressure of maintaining public acceptance.
“I can only make decisions for me,” he said. “I’m cognizant of the fact that what I do and how I do it, how it comes across, especially in things like this it affects the perception.” When he said “this,” he waved his hand back and forth to signal he was referring to our interview.
It’s clear that the singer feels like a lot is riding on War & Leisure, which was recorded over the past year and a half, mostly in his home base of Los Angeles. This album finds Miguel coming off a commercial disappointment—2015’s ambitious, guitar-driven, at times freaked-out Wildheart failed to go gold like his first two albums did, and neither did it so much as spawn a Top 20 hit on Billboard‘s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, a place where he had previously taken up residency. Miguel told me he never looked up the numbers, but he knew it didn’t hit like his first two albums because he never received a plaque from the RIAA for it.
Miguel admitted he “missed some opportunities to tell the story, to bring people with me,” with Wildheart and suggested he was angling to make up for that with War & Leisure. The album is at its most obsequious in its first single “Sky Walker,” a party record unlike any Miguel has recorded. The melody is less dynamic than his typical work and more in line with en vogue rap-R&B hybridization, though Miguel slips into a falsetto that’s more pristine than any contemporary rapper or singer is capable of. The beat is trappy, the lyrics are about hanging out.
“We gotta play chess, man,” said Miguel when I asked him if he intentionally crafted the song to be a hit. “I’m going to make music for the rest of my life. Whether or not it’s going to be my primary business, I have to figure that out. My goal is to always create quality music that is accessible because I enjoy big songs, through history.” His favorite Prince album is Purple Rain, he’s a proper populist. He said he wants his music to be “global.”
Though we didn’t talk about Xian Bass’s allegations specifically that morning, we did talk about the cultural reckoning underway in a broader sense. I asked what he thought of the #MeToo movement and he sounded, well, woke:
“It is pretty weird right now. It’s an interesting time for women, which is amazing, it’s incredible. We’re seeing women really emerge as the clearly superior leaders that they really are. And we’re going to go through some growing pains with it, trying to find the balance of what that means. Because coupling the social aspect of it in terms of equality with the time we live in with attention, it’s going to go through some stuff. But I think overall, it’s exciting to watch women really emerge and claim their superiority. Women are just so much smarter, and also their ability to be compassionate, we need that in the collective consciousness.”
I wondered out loud if he has many platonic female friends.
“I have very few friends, period,” he told me. “I’m close to my family and I have a handful. I just think real friends are rare.”
Surrounded by art, Miguel seemed looser than he was at breakfast. As we walked through the Perez, Miguel exhibited the enthusiasm of a kid. We talked about the universe, human greed, and the deeper connection of his work.
“Emotion is timeless,” he said. “That’s really what it is about music that’s timeless. If you’re able to capture a feeling, the ripples in time of emotion–you might not remember the person’s name, what they were wearing, how you met them, blah blah blah, but you’ll always remember how they make you feel.”
He may be more right than he knows.