At a holiday party this year, I noticed an R. Kelly song playing on my friend’s iPod. I looked at two of my (male) friends who were standing nearby and asked, “You guys are listening to R. Kelly?”
One of them responded, “Yeah, so what?”
“He seduced under-age girls and I’ve seen the video of him peeing on one of them. Remember when he (illegally) married Aaliyah (R&B singer who is now deceased) when she was 15 and he was 30?”
“I separate the music from the person,” the same friend said.
“Oh god–I’m sure you listen to Chris Brown too,” I said with frustration in my voice.
My other friend chimed in and confirmed, defiantly, “Yeah! I do.”
Here is a reminder: in 2009, singer and dancer Chris Brown was charged and convicted for beating, biting, and choking his girlfriend, singer Rihanna, while they were in a car in Los Angeles. With respect to R. Kelly, in 2002 he was indicted on multiple counts of possessing and filming child pornography, and through years of legal maneuvering, was able to have the charges dropped when the then 14 year-old girl refused to testify against him. She, in fact, told people that it was consensual. He was able to avoid jail by making multiple cash settlements, including one to the girl in the video.
Of course, Chris Brown and R. Kelly aren’t the only examples of male artists who abuse women. We need to look no further than Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson as examples of men who still get chances despite their abuse of women.
How many people tagged their tweets with “#winning” during Charlie Sheen’s summer meltdown? How obsessively was his narcissistic tour cheered and celebrated by both men and women? Ignoring the fact that over years and years, Charlie Sheen has been accused and imprisoned for terrorizing the women in his life, I take no great pleasure in saying that his punishments would have been more severe had some of his accusers not been sex workers.
Mel Gibson readily admits, on tape, to beating his girlfriend Oksana and he has yet to be driven out of the film business. Major movie studios, like Warner Brothers, still want to be in business with him.
This idea of separating the artistry from the person is perfectly plausible if the artist, when guilty of making mistakes, is truly repentant. And it’s also plausible when these mistakes do not cause physical harm on other people.
But, I (and all of us), must draw the line at supporting and enriching men who are pedophiles, in Kelly’s case, and virtually unrepentant domestic abusers in the case of Brown, Sheen, and Gibson. There is a difference between an artist who makes mistakes and an artist who abuses women (or men) and lacks any sense of remorse.
Both of my friends at that party are two of the biggest supporters of my writing about women. In fact, they have read almost all of my work and have been helpful to me beyond what a good friendship calls for. They are also both close to their respective mothers–they are really good men, which is why I have shared this experience with you. It would be much easier to dismiss their feelings if they didn’t treat the women in their life with respect, if they weren’t fundamentally good people.
For me, this is ultimately about one question: how can men and women stand by and separate what happened to women like Rihanna, from the women in our own lives? We shouldn’t. In our culture, we tend to compartmentalize the trauma others face as a coping mechanism of sorts. It’s a way to shield ourselves from their pain, and also a way to avoid having to help or being held accountable for not helping.
Separating the artist from the music is a convenient way to avoid looking at Chris Brown’s abuse of Rihanna, but the only way to deal with an injustice is avoid this separation, to absorb and understand the pain. That’s the way in which we have always solved or worked to solve injustices: to understand and acknowledge the inter-connectivity.
For purposes of this column, I’m going to focus this column on Chris Brown, who has come out virtually unscathed from his domestic abuse charges. He is back in action, with a hit album, a tour, and recently as a recipient of three Grammy nominations. His passionate fan base, mostly made up of young girls, is stronger than ever.
I’m a big believer in second, third, fourth chances. I believe most people are fundamentally good and also fundamentally flawed. But I’ll readily admit that when it comes to domestic violence, I find it difficult to forget and move on.
We now know that the 2009 instance in the car wasn’t the first time Chris Brown had assaulted Rihanna. There is rarely a case of a man hitting a woman just once. Ultimately, domestic violence is not just about the physical assault, but the consistent manipulation, emotional abuse, imposition of fear in the victim. It’s about terrorizing their entire life.
Still, despite every privilege and opportunity, Chris Brown, in my mind, has blown his second chance–for those folks who were interested in giving him one.
Chris Brown could have led a revolution in the way in which we see, treat, and handle domestic violence in our country and served as a beacon of hope for the millions of women and girls who worship him and face abuse. More importantly, he could have spoken directly to the millions of men, who like him, were born into an endless cycle of abuse, witnessing their mothers getting abused and then abusing women themselves.
After he beat, choked, and bit Rihanna, in early 2009, he took an entire week to release a proper statement of apology. A couple of weeks after the incident, he reunited with Rihanna in Miami, and flexed his biceps for the paparazzi while riding a wave runner. A disgusting pose given that those same biceps allowed him to bludgeon Rihanna’s face.
He later went on to fulfill his debt to the court system in Los Angeles County, and since, has done nothing of note to deal with or combat domestic violence. In fact, he has done what millions of men and women do every day in our country, he has demanded to have the issue of domestic violence swept under the rug.
That is why he doesn’t deserve our attention or business.
Chris Brown has moved on–on his own terms, on a shockingly narcissistic level. His behavior is that of an unrepentant man.
In 2010, Chris Brown was on Good Morning America to promote his latest album. When questioned by Robin Roberts about the 2009 incident, he answered coldly: “It’s not a big deal to me now, that situation…I’m past that in my life, today is the album day, so everyone go out and get that album.”
That’s nice. I’m so glad that beating the face of the woman whom you claimed to love is not a big deal anymore to YOU.
Brown later went on to trash his dressing room at the show, breaking a window, after Robin Roberts asked him that one question about the Rihanna situation.
One the same day, he posted this tweet (which was later deleted) on his Twitter account: “I’m so over people bring this past s**t up!!..”
He’s sick of people bringing the past up? Instead of using every moment as a teachable one, instead of addressing the past and confronting his demons, he attacked those who questioned him.
Chris Brown has been enriched not just by men like my friends, but by a legion of young women and girls who follow his every move. What kind of message is he sending to them when he continually mishandles the Rihanna incident(s)? What kind of message are we sending to these same young girls when we repeatedly support him? Hit a woman and you can still be a millionaire superstar?
Apparently and problematically, there is: Boston Public Health Commission conducted a survey of 200 teenagers and found that 46 percent saw Rihanna as responsible for what happened; 52 percent said both bore responsibility, despite knowing that Rihanna’s injuries required hospital treatment. Startling numbers.
I don’t want to give the impression that only men should be held accountable for listening to and supporting artists like Chris Brown. As I’ve mentioned, women and young girls are a big part of his fan base and in supporting him, women are inadvertently fueling the success of a man who disrespects them and helping further erase domestic violence from being a major and visible issue.
The overall statistics on domestic violence are astonishing (and keep in mind these are reported numbers only, many girls and women don’t report or discuss the abuse they have sustained): nearly 1 in 5 teenage girls who have been in a relationship said a boyfriend threatened violence or self-harm if presented with a breakup. Worldwide, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused during her lifetime.
Of course we continue to hear Chris Brown’s songs, because radio programmers (which, surprise, surprise, are dominated by men) allow these songs to remain on the radio, thus adding to the collective popularity. But programmers are also just doing what we want–they wouldn’t be airing songs we don’t want to hear.
This idea that we shouldn’t support men who do bad things to women becomes increasingly inconvenient for our entertainment consumption with the increase in exposure of bad behavior thanks to the internet. The days of abuse and related activities remaining behind closed doors are virtually over. There is power in using our collective ability to consume media, music, entertainment as a tool and a weapon. And by voting with our dollars and eyes away from Chris Brown and artists who abuse women, we can shift the dynamics of how we, as a society, deal with domestic abuse.
But I’m not immune to this inconvenience…
Sometimes I find myself running across a Chris Brown or R. Kelly song on the car radio when I’m driving (I can’t say the same of Charlie Sheen or Mel Gibson). For a split second, I want to keep the song on…for some reason, it’s just the perfect beat at the perfect time on my drive.
But, unlike my friends, I can’t separate the music from the men, because the image of Rihanna’s bloody and beaten face comes across my mind and the video I’ve seen of R. Kelly urinating on an underage girl is seared into my brain.
And as good as their music sounds, when I think of those images, I think of the women in my life who have loved me and made me who I am. How would I feel if my women friends and colleagues were hurt by men like R. Kelly and Chris Brown, who weren’t repentant in any real way?
I wouldn’t stand for it.
And neither would my two friends at that holiday party. Like me, they love and respect the women in their life.
Listening to or buying Chris Brown’s music or cheering on Charlie Sheen may seem like an innocuous act. It’s just a song or a TV show, right? But when we support these men in any way, even if it’s just listening to the radio, we are adding to the collective attention heaped on the artist. We are adding strength to the ripple effect that allows artists like Chris Brown to succeed and become even more successful.
I hope something changes, because until good men like my friends, refuse to support bad men who harm women, until they see that the harm done to one woman, is harm done to every woman…
Nothing is gonna change.