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

Dec 30, 2011

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 plead guilty to felony assault and was sentenced to 5 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 number album on the Billboard 200 chart this year. It just makes sense that he would be one of the top artists this year," Caulfied says.

He notes that Chris 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 tens just in the past year. "He's had hits on the dance chart, and rhythmic and hip-hop charts," Caufield says. "He's had a lot of success 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 Rihanna was actually responsible for the incident," says Casey Corcoran, 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 wanna put it."

And she wasn't alone in her opinion. Francies Stephenson, 17, recalls her reaction to the incident.

"I was like show me some pictures, I don't believe it," she said.

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, one hundred 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 one in five teens experience some form of dating violence before they exit their teen years," said Casey Corcoran. That number's even higher if you count things like emotional abuse and cyberstalking, she 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 one in five "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 incidences since this one with Rihanna, he's put out a number of songs that have really challenging lyrics," she 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. Chris 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 Chris Brown may be benefitting 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 it'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 McCauly, 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 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, well 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.

Gina McCauly 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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