Singer Chris Brown can’t seem to keep his hands to himself. Last week, the artist was accused of violently attacking another woman at 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 respond to NBC's request for comment Tuesday.)
Few could have been surprised by the headlines, but many of us are wondering how does someone with such a long history of violence toward women continue to evade serious repercussions from both the legal system, the music industry and his fanbase.
In the years since this lenient initial sentence, Brown has been tied to a long list of alleged assaults and violent incidents.
Brown shot to fame as a teenager with the release of his self-titled debut album in 2005, which went double platinum. He shot to infamy a few years later, in 2009, when photographs surfaced of the aftermath of a violent altercation with his then-girlfriend Rihanna. He was charged with felony domestic assault, ultimately pleading guilty to one count of felony assault in a plea deal that avoided jail time in exchange for community service, counseling, a restraining order and probation. (Brown was later accused of violating his restraining order and faking some of his community service and ordered to serve additional hours.)
Want more articles like this? Follow THINK on Instagram to get updates on the week's most important cultural analysis
In the years since this lenient initial sentence, Brown has been tied to a long list of alleged assaults and violent incidents. In addition to multiple alleged attacks on fans, staff and other musicians including Frank Ocean in 2017, his ex-girlfriend Karrueche Tran was granted a restraining order against him citing physical violence during their relationship and menacing behavior after their split, including threatening to kill her. (Brown called the claims b------.)
Two years later, he and members of his entourage were detained in Paris after being accused of aggravated rape and drug possession. Brown denied the allegations and was released, but subsequently skipped a meeting with French investigators. (His lawyer said the date was “inconvenient” for Brown but that he wished to “find a new date.”) How does someone with multiple alleged violent assaults against intimate partners and strangers alike, including rap, continue to be widely celebrated by fans and other artists? His last album, “Indigo” included collaborations with Lil Wayne, Tyga and H.E.R. and became his third No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart.
On the one hand, like other rich and powerful people, Brown benefits from expensive legal representation, a crisis management team and influential allies. But a celebrity is a particular type of rich and powerful person. And while there is a thirst to see the rich and famous punished for their crimes, not all celebrities are treated equally.
This seems especially true for the music business, which has arguably lagged behind Hollywood and other entertainment industries in terms of #MeToo accountability. This may because of powerful economic incentives protecting the status quo, coupled with conflicting interests across record labels, streaming services, show promoters, merchandisers, artists and fans. Change is coming, but thus far Chris Brown’s career hasn’t suffered much.
And in this era of alleged cancel culture hysteria, Brown has gone relatively unscathed. Despite some setbacks securing visas to perform internationally and some cancellations in the immediate wake of his attack on Rihanna, he wasn’t dropped from his label; he’s been nominated for multiple Grammys (winning one in 2012); he’s collaborated with major female artists like Nicki Minaj, Brandy and even Rihanna after the attack; he’s also moved into acting, including a stint on “Black-ish” alongside Tracee Ellis Ross. Some say he’s actually benefitted from his bad-boy image by branding it as another product for sale.
This seems especially true for the music business, which has arguably lagged behind Hollywood and other entertainment industries in terms of #MeToo accountability.
There’s a gendered element to this branding. Being a tough-talking, talented male celebrity with armies of female fans makes a difference. We might ask ourselves why would women in particular continue to support a serial abuser — not just vibing his music, but defending 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 being roughed up is a fair exchange for proximity to someone they find physically and financially attractive. And it’s true that “patriarchy has no gender,” as bell hooks stated to explain how women invest in systems that oppress them.
When it comes to music this isn’t a new conversation. In 2004, during his “Never Scared” comedy special on HBO, Chris Rock joked about women loving the most misogynistic rap that he himself had trouble defending. It’s easy to fall into a debate about the substance and style of 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 projections that they do more than fanaticize. Brown’s hardcore followers call themselves Team Breezy. In addition to fawning over his music, they track him and one another across social media, defend him tirelessly and threaten his critics. This sort of mega fandom, or stan culture, thrives on social media, where fans feel as though they have greater access to, and eventually intimacy with, their favorite celebrities. The internet blurs real friends virtual friends, and fake friends. This, in turn, can undermine efforts to hold certain celebrities accountable for abusive behavior.
And too many celebrities still circle the wagons for their peers that they’ve worked with or hope to work with in the future.
And too many celebrities still circle the wagons for their peers that they’ve worked with or hope to work with in the future. In 2018, when Spotify announced it wouldremove music from R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, artists like Kendrick Lamar threatened to pull their music unless the streaming service reconsidered. (Lamar said the rule unfairly targeted artists of color.) Despite being praised by women’s advocacy groups like UltraViolent — which urged that Chris Brown also be added to the banned list — Spotify did reverse its policy. While the initial guidelines, which Apple and Pandora were also encouraged to adopt, raised difficult questions about what constitutes “hate content” and whether Black artists were being singled out, the backlash illustrates the difficulty of holding musicians accountable.
We also can’t discount the discomfort many of us feel going after a Black man — rich or not — and calling for his arrest, incarceration or even cancellation. Black men already face harsher sentences and are overrepresented in prison, and plenty of white musicians like Marilyn Manson have been as allegedly reckless and predatory as Chris Brown.
These are fair concerns, but we ought not use legitimate concerns about the over-incarceration of Black men to excuse the real abusers in our midst. And bringing up other celebrities that also need canceling (or arrest) do not 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 was shot twice as I walked away from him,” wrote rapper Megan Thee Stallion in 2020, detailing how hard it can be for Black women's stories and problems to be legitimized. Canadian rapper Tory Lanez was charged in the shooting last summer, but it is Stallion who has faced regular ridicule, suspicion and trivialization. Her celebrity does not shield her from the expectation that women be silent about their emotional and physical abuse.
In 2017, singer Chrisette Michele's career nosedived after she performed at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Her choice to perform was apparently considered more shocking, more of a betrayal than allegedly raping and attacking women. Until we face this (inescapably gendered) discrepancy about what is considered unacceptable behavior from men and women, punishment will never be meted out equally.