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What Do We Really Want From Chris Brown?

Today, a year and a half after her first solo single debuted, rising R&B star Chloë Bailey’s studio album, In Pieces, has been released. In our review, Rolling Stone contributor Mosi Reeves gives Bailey credit for “trying to turn her growing pains into prickly, sometimes enjoyable art” — but also wonders why she chose to share that art with the “scandal-scarred” Chris Brown. In fact, many questioned or outright condemned Bailey’s move to make music with an “abuser.” When Bailey announced his feature on her second single, “How Does It Feel,” via Instagram last month, she shared a photo of the pair in a tight embrace.

Some critiques were scathing. “Let him come out with his own record — so genius so captivating that it makes us all forget HE BEATS WOMEN,” Kiely Williams, a former teen pop star as a member of 3LW and the Cheetah Girls, wrote on Twitter, noting that many of the singer’s most notable works of late are features and collaborations with other artists. “He can’t so we won’t.” 

Brown responded with taunts about her voice and sexual history. “IF Y’ALL STILL HATE ME FOR A MISTAKE I MADE AS A 17 year old please kiss my whole entire ass,” he also wrote in an Instagram Story. “I’M FUCKING 33!” 

Brown appeared to be alluding to his assault on Rihanna in 2009 — when he was actually 19 years old. Yet, there is a laundry list of horrific accused acts of violence, aggression, and probation violations trailing him that extends from 2009 to as recently as 2021. That’s why the criticism won’t die down, because the allegations haven’t, either.

As of January 7 of this year, People and Rolling Stone outlined around 22 of these accused acts, more than half of which were physical assaults. Most of those reported assaults were allegedly against women. Brown and his representatives have publicly and repeatedly denied his wrongdoing, and a few allegations have reportedly resulted in other closed-door agreements. A few other complaints ended in dropped or unfiled charges — either at the behest of legal authorities or the purported victims themselves. Representatives of Chris Brown did not return requests for comment for this story.

Despite the varied outcomes, the lengthy list of alleged transgressions attached to Chris Brown continues to be concerning. He’s also been accused of actively creating an environment for violence against women. The lawyer Gloria Allred alleged that a woman was raped and sexually assaulted in Brown’s home by two others in 2017. When Brown was sued in a civil action, his lawyer insisted the singer “didn’t do anything” and made the claims against him out to be dubious. In 2020, E! News confirmed that the case had been settled and that the plaintiff filed to have her lawsuit against Brown dismissed. 

Chris Brown himself has been publicly accused of rape twice. When he was accused of aggravated rape in Paris in 2019, he was detained by authorities for roughly two days before being released without charge (he then filed a defamation suit against his accuser; its status is unknown). When he was again accused of committing rape in 2020, the case was dismissed after the accuser’s legal team reviewed texts between her and Brown that complicated her claims. Afterward, he claimed to be “taking legal action on this situation.” He wrote on Instagram, “No more dragging me through the mud.” (Again, there has been no public follow-up.)

One of the most disturbing allegations among the many is that of the sustained abuse that Brown’s former girlfriend, actor Karrueche Tran, claimed she endured. In her successful bid for a five-year restraining order against him in 2017, Tran told the court that on various occasions — up to the week before she filed for the restraining order — Brown threatened to shoot her, kill her, physically attack her, and harass her friends. He followed through on at least some of these threats. She alleged that Brown punched her in her stomach and pushed her down the stairs in the years while he was still on probation for assaulting Rihanna in 2009. In 2017, the Los Angeles county court ordered that Brown stay at least 100 yards away from Tran — as well as her mother and brother, whom she feared for — at all times. The order, as reviewed by Rolling Stone, extended over five years and expired in June 2022.

Still, by many measures, Chris Brown continues to have a successful career.  Since bloodying Rihanna the day before both artists were scheduled to perform at the 2009 Grammy Awards, where he was up for two prizes, Brown has proceeded to be Grammy nominated eleven more times as a lead artist. He won Best R&B Album in 2012. He has gone on at least four international tours, each with more than 20 dates. His most recent world trek, the Under the Influence Tour, concluded on March 26. It completely sold out in Europe — seven additional dates were added.

It’s important to note that Brown’s appeal is not particularly niche. He’s a radio mainstay with multiple Billboard superlatives: in March, he earned his 18th No. 1 on the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, making him the third most decorated artist there, under Drake and Lil Wayne. To get even more general, by 2022, he had more Hot 100 entries than any other male singer — including Elvis. 

R&B singer Chris Brown (C) appears in court for a probation violation hearing in Los Angeles Court on May 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Chris Brown was sentenced to an additional year in jail, serving another 131 days after credit for days already served.

Paul Buck-Pool/Getty Images

After assaulting Rihanna in 2009, Brown pled guilty and, through a plea bargain, was sentenced to five years of felony probation, 180 days of community labor, and the completion of a 52-week domestic violence counseling program. At the time, he reportedly lost sponsorship deals, airtime, and the confidence of his peers. Brown first publicly apologized for his behavior in a two-minute video on his website months after Grammy night and again, later, in a televised interview on CNN that the then-president of the historic National Organization for Women described as unconvincing. By 2011, a year before being implicated in a streak of varied altercations and disputes, Brown said he had done enough. “If I walk around apologizing to everybody, I’m gonna look like a damn fool,” he reportedly told Page Six. 

While the ordeal kicked off years of media scrutiny and Brown’s name still can be radioactive on many platforms, beloved and generally uncontroversial stars like H.E.R., Fireboy D.M.L., and Rema are among the dozens of artists who have featured Brown on their songs over the past fourteen years. Just last November, when Kelly Rowland — who has toured and collaborated with Brown — accepted an American Music Award for favorite male R&B artist on the singer’s behalf, she combated a booing crowd with praise for Brown. “I want to tell Chris, thank you so much for making great music, and I want to tell him thank you for being an incredible performer,” she said. “I’ll take this award and bring it to you, I love you!” In an interview with TMZ following the ceremony, she added, “We all need to be forgiven for anything that we could be doing — we all come up short in some sort of way.”

This is a repeated sentiment in defense of Brown, who is indeed a talented musician, dancer, and visual artist. But the implication that Brown has made a single mistake is wrong. He has gone on to amass accusation after accusation of endangering the safety and wellbeing of others. Yet, he’s been repeatedly rewarded with adulation and wealth in the face of these reported transgressions. That represents a larger threat to those trying to combat interpersonal and misogynistic violence. 

“It’s not the case that somebody like Chris Brown hitting somebody like Rihanna causes further domestic violence,” Dr. Shira Tarrant tells Rolling Stone. Tarrant is a Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach, with expertise at the intersection of sexual politics and culture. “It’s not  ‘A causes B,’ but when somebody in the public eye participates in gendered violence or misogyny or transphobia, whatever it is, it gives a cultural message that this is OK. It doesn’t interrupt the pattern. It contributes.”

After fourteen years of Chris Brown being connected to gross accusations of violence — abuses of people and power — on the global stage, what could interrupt the pattern? How can the singer, his detractors, and his supporters — at every level — serve to push pop culture into healthier territory? And how did it get to its current place, with Brown as both a musical icon and an emblem of persistent social problems?

“I first met him when he was 16 years young with his mother,” says celebrity media coach Dyana Williams, who worked with Brown as his first album was being released. As a longtime communications and artist development specialist, Williams has been a premier educator for stars in key stages of their careers, including Justin Bieber and Teezo Touchdown. “What I experienced was a well-mannered, loving, affectionate individual. I saw a very loving relationship with his mother.” 

Then came Brown’s assault on Rihanna, whom she’d also worked with in the past. Williams says she remembers being horrified. “I was shocked and then I got a call from one of his attorneys asking ‘Will I work with him?’ and I declined,” Williams said, recalling having drawn a line at coaching Brown through an act of domestic violence. “I’m there for mind, body, and soul,” says Williams. But, she says, she is not a psychiatrist, which she says she has found so many of her clients could use. 

“I’m very quick to say, ‘Get help. Get psychiatric help,’ because in some cases, we’re talking about bipolar disorder, we’re talking about schizophrenia, any number of mental illnesses,” says Williams. In 2013, after reportedly throwing a rock through his mother’s car window after a family session at a rehab facility, Brown told authorities he was struggling with attention deficit disorder and had a bout of depression. He was then reportedly diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder by doctors while in rehab for anger management and drug use in 2014.  

Despite his 2014 diagnosis being coupled with praise and hope from his probation officer and providers, he was kicked out of a Malibu treatment facility where he was living by court order after allegedly violating internal rules. He was then arrested and sentenced to 131 days in jail — of which he served three weeks — for allegedly violating probation. His early release mandated that he see a psychiatrist twice a week. While he also admitted to a lean and Xanax habit that made him both aggressive and unproductive in 2014, about two years later, when several of Brown’s former staff members claimed that he abused cocaine and MDMA as well in a Billboard investigation, he brushed off the report. “I am not hurting out here,” he said in a video capturing an array of luxury vehicles behind him.

“I urge them to get help,” Williams said again of her struggling clients before adding, “The label may not do that.” Chris Brown began his career at Jive Records but has had deals with Sony’s RCA records since 2012. In 2019, Brown and RCA entered a new licensing agreement upon the completion of his previous deal. Variety called the deal’s announcement “curiously timed,” as simultaneously, RCA veteran R. Kelly’s sex crimes were being publicly re-examined and protested in light of dream hampton’s explosive docuseries on the survivors left in his wake. Roughly a week later, RCA dropped Kelly amidst fierce pressure. 

“I’m sure you’ve seen the R. Kelly documentary,” Williams offers while positing how vested interest motivates labels. “There was a point where [it] was like, ‘Why didn’t the record company do something?’ Well, looks like the record company was selling a lot of records. Last I checked, that’s the business they’re in, right? So condemnation of behaviors, typically record labels don’t get into that.” Representatives of RCA did not return requests for comment on their practices around alleged artist misconduct at the time of publication.

Dr. Tarrant has considered what public responsibility for cultural figures can be, particularly what men like Chris Brown can do to substantively atone for gendered violence. The two approaches Tarrant embraces in tandem are known as restorative and transformative justice. As former director of a restorative justice program, sujatha baliga, explains in Vox, restorative justice is a practice in the face of harm, such as sexual assault, that begins with supporting survivors in assessing their needs and desires. It also invites the person who caused the harm to help meet them. baliga describes that those needs could be clear acknowledgment and accountability for the harm by the responsible person, either privately or publicly, or that person engaging in a plan to avoid harming again. Transformative justice, as Tarrant explains it, calls transgressors to overhaul the conditions that created an environment for them to do harm in the first place. 

Tarrant names cash as a source of reconciliation and transformation. “It could go to shelters. It could go to supporting victims and survivors of violence and assaults,” she says. “And then, in addition, one of the things that I’m really interested in is not solutions after the fact, but prevention before it happens. I could name, off the top of my head, two organizations. One is Mentors in Violence Prevention, MVP, and the other one is a group called A Call to Men. Both of those groups work with boys and men to interrogate issues of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation, to really support boys and men in rethinking the cultural messages that we get — about ‘boys will be boys’ or violence.”

It would be critical that Brown engage deeply with places like these, says Tarrant, working with these organizations to learn the ways his resources could be meaningfully funneled into their work: “It needs to be in conversation.” There is some record online of Chris Brown’s charitable efforts since assaulting Rihanna in 2009. However, it is more challenging to understand their depth or find evidence of Brown drawing clear lines between these works and the kinds of harm he had or had been accused of enacting over time. “It needs to be in conversation: I did this, I’m sorry, and I have teamed up with these folks who have helped me learn more about masculinity,” she says. “But that requires actual growth as well.” 

In 2009, when Brown announced his first tour after being sentenced to probation for his assault on Rihanna, he also announced plans to donate a portion of ticket sales to both the Jenesse Center for domestic violence intervention and prevention in Los Angeles and Best Buddies International. The following year, he was working with a consultant specifically on his philanthropic activities. “I don’t think it’s an image thing for me,” Brown said when probed about a charity show he was planning in Richmond at that time (he required that no questions about his domestic violence conviction be asked in the interview). “From day one, I was always a role model. So it’s not about rebuilding an image, because me giving back to my community shows it’s cool to be yourself.”

In this handout photo provided by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, rapper Chris Brown is seen in a police booking photo after his arrest on charges felony battery on July 5, 2018 in West Palm Beach, Florida. The charges stem from an outstanding warrant when he allegedly attached a photographer at a nightclub last year in Tampa.

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office/Getty Images

In 2012, Chris Brown invited the entertainment news show Extra to follow him around at the Jenesse Center. The hosts reported that he’d been working with the center for two or three years (their reports are inconsistent). But when a journalist asked Brown what he’d impart to young people on the importance of healthy relationships, he only said, “Everybody’s human and understand that. That’s all I would teach kids and really want them to know. It’s all about the love, man.”

The same year, he launched a foundation called Symphonic Love, with a stated mission of supporting youth art initiatives as well as programs against domestic abuse. The organization no longer has a working website, and its social media pages have not been active since 2016. Up to that point, Symphonic Love’s Facebook page occasionally announced Brown’s celebrity fundraisers for the foundation, plus personal appearances, acts of service, and community toy, shoe, and food drives. The causes are varied, and the Jenesse Center nor other specific anti-violence initiatives are named or specified after 2013. When reviewed at the time of publication, most posts from 2014 to 2016 were just positive memes. Brown’s representatives did not return requests for comment on the status of Symphonic Love at the time of publication.

“I don’t want to discount the true efforts that people make. But at the same time, I think it raises questions for me,” says Tarrant of Brown’s hodgepodge of philanthropy. “I’m thinking, ‘Good start, keep going.’ Let’s move to actual systemic change and actual public awareness.”

This, Tarrant posits, is something Brown can reckon with as he’s continuously accused of harm — whether he denies having done it or not. “There’s still due process. We don’t always know all of the story,” she says. “A modeling — because he is in the public eye — doesn’t mean he has to [say], ‘I did all the things,’ if he didn’t do them.” 

Instead, though, he could demonstrate a clear understanding of the outrage, the dangerous impact the kinds of transgressions pinned to him have when they’re real, and what he knows about how they can happen. His regular aggression and defensiveness — while somewhat understandable — doesn’t exhibit accountability for what he has done. 

There is also justified sensitivity around the accusations Brown has amassed because he is Black in a national context where people of color are disproportionately entangled in and disadvantaged in the criminal justice system, from being stopped by police to rates and terms of incarceration. For example, demonstrably innocent Black people are almost eight times more likely than white people to be falsely convicted of rape and take longer to get exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. (“The persistence [of] racism is easy to spot in some rape exonerations. In others, no doubt, it’s hidden beneath the surface,” they reported). Brown himself suggested that white male artists who have been similarly accused of gendered violence aren’t treated the same way he is. 

While Tarrant says she’s concerned that Brown does face deeper scrutiny as a Black man, his defensiveness may be unproductive. “If he’s saying, ‘Don’t look at me, look at these white guys’ [and] he’s not ever saying, ‘Look at masculinity. Look at gendered violence. We’re all swimming in this,’ That’s the part that’s missing,” she says. “I don’t mean all masculinity. I’m talking about a certain kind of masculinity  — a hyper-masculinity, a dominant, hegemonic masculinity. I hate the [term] ‘toxic masculinity,’ but if you want, use that.”

Ernest Owens, a journalist, and Rolling Stone contributor, often writes commentary about social issues through the lens of pop culture. “When we get on social media, and we see Chris Brown gaslighting victims, I am going to speak up,” says Owens, who published his first book, The Case for Cancel Culture, in February. 

“The fans like what they like, and they don’t want to feel shame around it. We live in a capitalistic society where celebrities are brands,” he adds. ”When the Chris Brown brand gets dragged, the fans think they’re being dragged. They’re not defending Chris Brown just because of his music and him. They can’t separate themselves from the brand.” A separation, Owens posits, could make for a more responsible fandom, one that allows listeners to push the artist they love to own up to and rectify their mistakes rather than divest from that artist completely.

“We can use fancy phrases, and terms and buzzwords, but truly this is about power,” says Owens. “In these situations, oftentimes the men have the dominant power, and they use it to gaslight, manipulate, and further oppress victims — in this case, largely women.” 


Tarrant agrees that the case of Chris Brown necessitates an exploration of power — a wider one. “I don’t want it to be only about Chris Brown because it’s not about singling out this one person,” she says. “Because this really points to broad, systemic issues.” A study based on data from the World Health Organization’s Global Database on Prevalence of Violence Against Women indicates that 26% of girls and women everywhere, 15 years and older, are estimated to have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a male partner, with the United Nations calling violence against gender and women “a global pandemic.” Critically, men are reported to be overwhelmingly more likely to be perpetrators and victims of nearly all types of interpersonal violence — and gender norms have been asserted to be the root cause.

“I would hope as a culture that we have a framework that is broad enough so that we can both hold people accountable and also know that as humans, we are very messy, that we are very flawed. But that’s not to let people off the hook,” says Tarrant. “I feel like we’re not having enough public conversation with that kind of framing. That would give us a new language for not moving on and forgetting but saying, ‘Okay, I see you and what you’re doing, and we’re all in this together.’ I know that sounds very utopian.”

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