Chris Brown has told the world who he is with Rihanna. We did not listen.
Singer Chris Brown can’t seem to keep his hands to himself. Earlier this week, the artist was accused of violently assaulting another woman in his sprawling San Fernando Valley home in Los Angeles. NBC News reported that the Los Angeles Police Department is investigating the incident as a possible battery. (Brown’s attorney did not immediately respond to NBC’s request for comment on Tuesday.)
Not many people would have been surprised by the headlines, but many of us wonder how someone with such long history of violence against women continue to escape serious repercussions from both the legal system, the music industry and its fan base.
In the years since that lenient initial sentence, Brown has been linked with a long list of alleged assaults and violent incidents.
Brown rose to fame as a teenager with the release of his eponymous debut album in 2005, which became double platinum. It turned to infamy a few years later, in 2009, when photographs surfaced following a violent altercation with his then girlfriend, Rihanna. He was charged with domestic violence for a felony, eventually plead guilty to one count of assault in a plea deal that avoided jail time in exchange for community service, counseling, an injunction and probation. (Brown was later charged with violate his injunction and fake part of his community service and ordered to serve overtime.)
In the years since this lenient initial sentence, Brown has been linked to a long list of alleged assaults and violent incidents. In addition to the multiple alleged attacks against Fans, Staff, and other musicians including Franck Ocean in 2017, his ex-girlfriend Karrueche Tran got a restraining order against him, citing physical abuse during their relationship and threatening behavior after their separation, including threatening to kill her. (Brown called the claims b ——.)
Two years later, he and members of his entourage are detained in Paris after being accused aggravated rape and drug possession. Brown denied the allegations and was released, but subsequently skipped a meeting with French investigators. (His attorney said the date was “awkward” for Brown but that he wanted to “find a new date.”) How a person who has suffered multiple alleged violent assaults against intimate partners and strangers, including rap, continues it to be widely celebrated by fans and other artists? His latest album, “Indigo” included collaborations with Lil Wayne, Tyga and HER and became his No. 1 third album on the Billboard 200 chart.
On the one hand, like other wealthy and powerful people, Brown benefits from expensive legal representation, a crisis management team, and influential allies. But a celebrity is a special type of wealthy and powerful person. And while there is a thirst to see the rich and the famous punished for their crimes, not all celebrities are treated the same.
This seems especially true for the music industry, who has undoubtedly fallen behind Hollywood and other entertainment industries in terms of #MeToo responsibility. This may be due to powerful economic incentives protecting the status quo, coupled with competing interests between record labels, streaming services, show promoters, merchandisers, artists and fans. Change is coming, but so far Chris Brown’s career hasn’t suffered much.
And in this era of alleged cancellation culture hysteria, Brown has remained relatively unscathed. Despite some the setbacks of visa security to perform internationally and a few cancellations in the immediate wake of his attack on Rihanna, he was not removed from his label; he was nominated for several Grammy’s (win one in 2012); he collaborated with great female artists like Nicki Minaj, Brandy and even Rihanna after the attack; he also went to the theater, including a passage on “Black-ish” alongside Tracee Ellis Ross. Some say he actually took advantage of his bad boy image by presenting it as another product to sell.
This seems especially true for the music industry, which arguably lags behind Hollywood and other entertainment industries in terms of #MeToo accountability.
There is a gendered element to this branding. Being a talented male celebrity who speaks loudly with armies of female fans makes the difference. We might wonder why women in particular would continue to support a serial abuser – not just rocking his music, but standing up for him like family. Roxane Gay wrote in 2012 that the young women who still love Brown are products of a society that normalizes violence against women; they may think that being bullied is a fair trade-off for being close to someone they find physically and financially attractive. And it is true that “the patriarchy has no gender”, as the bell hooks indicated to explain how women invest in systems that oppress them.
When it comes to music, it’s not a new conversation. In 2004, during his comedy special “Never Scared” on HBO, Chris Rock joked on women loving the most misogynistic rap that he himself had difficulty defending. It’s easy to get into a debate about the substance and style of the lyrics, but I’m more interested in our attachment to the artists themselves, or who we think they are.
Some fans get so invested in their screenings that they do more than fanaticize. Hardcore Chris Brown fans are calling themselves Breezy team. In addition to admiring his music, they follow him and follow each other on social networks, defend him tirelessly and threaten his detractors. That kind of mega fandom, or stan culture, thrives on social media, where fans feel like they have better access and possibly intimacy with their favorite celebrities. Internet scrambles real friends, virtual friends and fake friends. This, in turn, can undermine efforts to hold some celebrities accountable for abusive behavior.
And too many celebrities are still circling the wagons for their peers they’ve worked with or hope to work with in the future.
And too many celebrities are still circling the wagons for their peers they’ve worked with or hope to work with in the future. In 2018, when Spotify announced it would be removing music from R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, artists like Kendrick Lamar threatened to withdraw their music unless the streaming service is reconsidered. (Lamar said the rule unfairly targets artists of color.) Although it has been praised by women’s groups like Ultraviolent – who urged that Chris Brown be added to the banned list as well – Spotify has reversed its policy. While the initial guidelines, that Apple and Pandora were also encouraged to adopt, has raised difficult questions about what constitutes “Hateful content” and if black artists were singled out, the backlash illustrates the difficulty of holding musicians accountable.
We also cannot ignore the unease many of us feel about chasing a black man – rich or not – and asking for his arrest, incarceration or even quash. Black men already face stiffer sentences and are overrepresented in prison, and many white musicians like Marilyn Manson are said to have been as reckless and predatory as Chris Brown.
These are legitimate concerns, but we shouldn’t use legitimate concerns on the excessive incarceration of black men to excuse the real abusers among us. And bringing up other celebrities who also need to be called off (or arrested) doesn’t detract from Brown’s misdeeds. The #MeToo movement is not a zero-sum game.
“I was recently the victim of an act of violence by a man. After a party I received two bullets as I walked away from him, ”wrote rapper Megan Thee Stallion In 2020, detailing how difficult it can be to legitimize black women’s stories and issues. Canadian rapper Tory Lanez has been indicted with Megan Thee Stallion shooting the artist last summer, and she’s the one who faced regularly ridiculous, suspicion, and trivialization. Her fame does not protect her from the expectation that the women are silent on their psychological and physical violence.
In 2017, singer Chrisette Michele’s career has taken a nosedive after playing during the inauguration of former President Donald Trump. Her choice to perform was apparently seen as more shocking, more a betrayal than raping and attacking women. Until we are faced with this (inevitably gendered) discrepancy over what is considered unacceptable behavior on the part of men and women, the punishment will never be meted out equally.