In Chris Brown's Big Year, Tough Questions On Abuse

Dec 30, 2011
Originally published on January 2, 2012 9:53 pm

R&B singer Chris Brown is back only a few years after what could have been a career-ending incident.

In 2009, just before that year's Grammy Awards show, Brown violently beat his superstar girlfriend Rihanna. He was 19. Brown later pleaded guilty to felony assault and was sentenced to five years of labor-intensive probation and a year of domestic violence prevention classes.

Then he virtually disappeared from Top 40 radio, after being a staple there since his 2005 breakout hit, "Run It." After what many simply refer to as "the incident," Brown struggled to regain his footing. He released an album that didn't sell, record stores stopped promoting his material, and pop radio, at least for a while, wanted nothing to do with him.

But fast-forward to 2011, when he may have just had his best year ever, at least musically. Keith Caulfield, a chart expert at Billboard, says Brown has had a banner year.

"Chris Brown got his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart this year," Caulfied says.

He notes that Brown has been a force on both the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, as well the R&B hip-hop singles chart, where he's had five top 10s in the past year.

In spite of this success, a cloud still hovers over Brown's career. While it has had quite the turnaround, views on an issue that he brought to the forefront two years ago haven't changed much.

'They Were Blaming Her'

Just after he beat Rihanna in 2009, the Boston Public Health Commission's Start Strong Initiative polled teens in Boston to see how they felt about the incident.

"Close to 50 percent of the young people we surveyed thought that Rihanna was actually responsible for the incident," says Casey Corcoran, the former director of Start Strong who led the poll. "They were blaming her."

And more than two years later, they still are.

Outside of a Chris Brown concert in Baltimore this past fall, almost a dozen teens interviewed still held some troubling views about "the incident."

"Obviously she played a part in getting beat, or whatever," said 19-year-old Kristina Coleman. "However you want to put it."

And she wasn't alone in her opinion. Several other teenagers in the crowd outside 1st Mariner Arena made similar remarks, forgiving Brown and blaming Rihanna, but they were too young to be named or quoted in this story.

Two things make these young women's views surprising. First, Brown has apologized for the incident, denouncing his behavior on national television and in a widely viewed YouTube video.

"What I did was unacceptable, 100 percent," Brown said in that video. "I can only ask and pray that you forgive me, please. I hope that others learn from my mistake. I intend to live my life so that I am truly worthy of the term 'role model.' "

High Risk Of Domestic Abuse

Secondly, many of these young women are at a high risk of experiencing domestic abuse themselves.

"We know that nationally, close to 1 in 5 teens experience some form of dating violence before they exit their teen years," said Corcoran. That number's even higher if you count things like emotional abuse and cyberstalking, Corcoran says.

Information provided by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, which has since changed its name to Futures Without Violence, says the violence starts young. One online survey cited by the group found that 1 in 5 "tweens" (children between the ages of 11 and 14) say their friends are victims of dating violence.

But outside of that Chris Brown concert, these things weren't on fans' minds. Alicia Robinson, 17, was among the fans who go beyond just forgiving Brown and blaming Rihanna.

"He's kind of what we would like our boyfriends to model after, in a way," Robinson said.

Corcoran says some of Brown's current songs aren't exactly role-model material.

"While he hasn't been involved in any dating violence incidents since this one with Rihanna, he's put out a number of songs that have really challenging lyrics," Corcoran says. "He may have addressed his behaviors, but we have to question whether he's really addressed his thoughts and beliefs that underlie those behaviors."

The teens Corcoran works with make a list each year of the 10 songs that most promote unhealthy young relationships. Brown made that list in 2010 with his comeback single, "Deuces." He may make it again with his biggest 2011 hit, "Look at Me Now," which features several graphic and sexually explicit lyrics. Many other songs on his album touch on the same themes.

Confronting A Vulnerability

Gina McCauley, who writes the blog What About Our Daughters, says Brown may be benefiting from a certain mindset that's prevalent in the black community. She thinks black men can get away with almost anything; but black women?

"We always blame black women when something goes wrong," McCauley says. "And we hold them to a completely different standard than we hold black men and boys to. And so while Chris Brown isn't responsible for any actions, at his own hands, the girl — in this case, Rihanna — is always held responsible. And it doesn't matter if she's a poor black girl in the middle of the hood, or one of the most famous and probably commercially successful artists on the planet. She's still a black girl, and she's still responsible for every single thing that may happen to her in life."

And so, she says, young black women tell themselves they're invincible, in spite of the data on domestic abuse. It's a bit of a contradiction — or, to McCauley, a coping mechanism. If they admit that a young black woman like Rihanna at the top of her game can be abused, they have to admit it can happen to them.

"To not blame Rihanna is to acknowledge that they, as young girls, are vulnerable too," she says.

McCauley says admitting they're at risk would shatter the myth of the strong black woman that so many of these girls have come to internalize. But, McCauley says, it's not all their fault.

"We don't have conversations with girls about violence," she says. "We don't say, 'How do you navigate interpersonal relationships with boys?' I think the only message that young girls get consistently about relationships is don't get pregnant, don't get pregnant, don't get pregnant."

For her part, Rihanna, in a recent Esquire interview, said she's a Chris Brown fan and has put the incident behind her. And Brown, as well as his team, no longer speak about the incident. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

McCauley says she isn't surprised that neither Brown nor Rihanna have made more of an effort to change the dialogue about domestic abuse among teens and tweens.

"I don't expect celebrities to be anything but what they are, which is famous," she says.

Brown's recent success proves he's having no problem doing just that. And for his young fans, that seems to be enough for now.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. 2011 was a good year for some of us. For R&B singer Chris Brown, it was a great year. You might recall that not long ago, Brown was convicted of assault in a highly publicized domestic violence incident. It could have ended his career.

Then he capped last year with a top selling album and three Grammy nominations. NPR's Sam Sanders reports that Brown's career has been revived in part because many of his fans don't think he did anything wrong.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Two years ago, Chris Brown was at a career low. He had just beaten his superstar girlfriend, Rihanna, right before the Grammys. He was only 19.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: And we begin at 10:00 with breaking news. A Grammy Award nominee has just posted bail on criminal threat charges. Chris Brown is accused of assault and battery.

SANDERS: After the incident, Brown pled guilty to felony assault and was sentenced to five years of labor intensive probation. He virtually disappeared from top 40 radio, but fast forward and Chris Brown may have had his best year ever in 2011, at least musically.

Here's Keith Caulfield, a chart expert at Billboard.

KEITH CAULFIELD: It just makes sense that he would be one of the top artists of the year. Chris Brown got his first number one album on the Billboard 200 chart and Chris has been a force, both on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, as well as our R&B hip-hop singles chart, where he's had, just in the past year, five top tens.

SANDERS: In spite of the success, a cloud still hovers over Brown's career. Just after he beat Rihanna in 2009, the Boston Public Health Commission's Start Strong Initiative polled teens in that city to see how they felt about the incident. Casey Corcoran, former director of Start Strong, led the poll.

CASEY CORCORAN: Close to 50 percent of the young people we surveyed thought that Rihanna was actually responsible for the incident. They were blaming her.

SANDERS: They still are.

KRISTINA COLEMAN: Obviously, she played a part in, you know, getting beat or whatever, however you want to put it.

SANDERS: Nineteen year old Kristina Coleman waits outside of a Chris Brown concert in Baltimore and she wasn't alone in her opinion. Seventeen-year-old Frances Stephenson recalls her reaction to what's come to be called the incident.

FRANCES STEPHENSON: I was like, show me some pictures. I don't believe it.

SANDERS: Pictures of Rihanna's battered face leaked soon after the beating, but two more things make these young women's views surprising. First, Brown has apologized for the incident, denouncing his behavior on national television and in a YouTube video.

CHRIS BROWN: What I did was unacceptable, 100 percent. I can only ask and pray that you forgive me, please.

SANDERS: And, secondly, many of these young women are at a high risk of experiencing domestic abuse themselves.

CORCORAN: We know that, nationally, close to one in five teens experience some form of dating violence before they exit their teen years.

SANDERS: Casey Corcoran says that number is even higher if you count things like emotional abuse and cyber-stalking, but outside of that Chris Brown concert, 17-year-old Alicia Robinson is among the fans who go beyond just forgiving Brown and blaming Rihanna.

ALICIA ROBINSON: He's kind of like what we would like our boyfriends to model after in a way - in a way.

SANDERS: Casey Corcoran says some of Brown's current songs aren't exactly role model material.

CORCORAN: While he hasn't been involved in any dating violence incidents since this one with Rihanna, he's put out a number of songs that have really challenging lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WET THE BED")

CORCORAN: You know, he may have addressed his behaviors, but we have to question whether he's really addressed his thoughts and beliefs that underlie those behaviors.

SANDERS: The teams Corcoran works with make a list each year of the 10 songs that most promote unhealthy young relationships. Chris Brown made that list in 2010 and may make it again with his latest hit, "Look at Me Now."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK AT ME NOW")

SANDERS: Chris Brown declined to be interviewed for this story. Gina McCauley, who writes the blog, "What About Our Daughters," says Brown may be benefiting from a certain mindset that's prevalent in the black community. She thinks black men can get away with almost anything, but black women...

GINA MCCAULEY: It doesn't matter if she's a poor black girl in the middle of the 'hood or one of the most famous and probably commercially successful artists on the planet. She's still a black girl and she's still responsible for every single thing that may happen to her in life.

SANDERS: And so, she says, young black women tell themselves they're invincible, in spite of the data on domestic abuse. It's a bit of a contradiction or, to McCauley, a coping mechanism. If they admit that a young black woman like Rihanna, at the top of her game, can be abused, they have to admit it can happen to them.

MCCAULEY: To not blame Rihanna is to acknowledge that they, as young girls, are vulnerable, too.

SANDERS: McCauley says admitting they're at risk would shatter the myth of the strong black woman so many of these girls have come to internalize. But she says it's not all their fault.

MCCAULEY: We don't have conversations with girls about violence. We don't say, how do you navigate interpersonal relationships with boys?

SANDERS: For her part, Rihanna, in a recent Esquire interview, said she's a Chris Brown fan and has put the incident behind her. Gina McCauley says she isn't surprised that neither star has made more of an effort to advance the dialog about domestic abuse.

MCCAULEY: I don't expect celebrities to be anything other than what they are, which is famous.

SANDERS: Chris Brown is having no problem doing just that. And, for his young fans, that seems to be enough. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.