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02.09.09

Their Awful Night

A potential domestic-abuse saga is entangling pop sensation Rihanna and her R&B-singer boyfriend Chris Brown, after both singers unexpectedly cancelled their performances at the Grammys last night. The Daily Beast’s Touré on the disturbing story of young pop royalty.

A potential domestic-abuse saga is entangling pop sensation Rihanna and her R&B singer boyfriend Chris Brown, after both singers unexpectedly cancelled their performances at the Grammys last night. The Daily Beast’s Touré on the disturbing story of young pop royalty.

First, the facts: R&B singer Chris Brown, 19, is out on $50,000 bail after turning himself in to the LAPD on suspicion of making a criminal threat against an unnamed victim early Sunday morning. Police said domestic-violence charges could be added later if the district attorney decides to pursue them.

The Los Angeles Times and New York Daily News both cite sources identifying singer Rihanna as the victim of the attack. The incident allegedly took place after a Grammy’s pre-party hosted by Clive Davis that both Brown and Rihanna attended.

The papers report that the couple got into an argument in a car after the party, and say Rihanna was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and has been released. A police report said the victim of the attack suffered visible injuries, and now reports of a “deadly weapon” as part of the assault have been leaked. A publicist for Rihanna said Sunday night, "Rihanna is well. Thank you for concern and support."

Wanna love a bad boy? Chase a rapper. Want a boy you can take home to mom? 'Til Sunday, that was Chris Brown.

It may be one of those say-it-ain’t-so moments, when a pristine image is irretrievably shattered. I mean, it seems like parody to say Chris Brown, the cherubic dancer-singer, reportedly attacked his gorgeous 20-year-old pop princess? C’mon. Say it ain’t so.

Before they started dating, they were two of the cutest young stars in the world. Chris could dance with the flair, style, and athleticism of a much older man, but his angelic smile and his backpacks never let you forget he’s a kid. Chris roared into stardom with his first single “Run It,” while the Barbados-born Rihanna developed a little more slowly. Her first single “Pon De Replay” introduced her as a pop-dancehall artist, but under Jay-Z’s tutelage, she obfuscated the obvious island tropes and became a pop artist: slick, audacious, and sexy, blossoming into superstardom with the song of the summer of ‘07, “Umbrella.” Like Chris, she lacked a certain grit and sophistication that older artists have, but that was part of their charm. They both went platinum as teenagers, but still always seemed like baby artists—not only because they sell largely to teens, but also because they clearly seemed to still be growing.

When they started dating in 2008, it struck me as a classic record-biz publicity stunt. The two biggest, most-attractive, black teen stars together? I didn’t buy it till I saw pictures of them on the black celeb gossip blogs, walking out of an airport in Barbados, presumably on their way to meet Rihanna’s family. Chris had on his day-glo backpack and a sheepish smile. Rihanna barely smiled as if to avoid cracking the work of art that is her face. As I finally allowed myself to accept that they were real I added it up—very young, very rich, talented, famous, good-looking—how blessed could one couple be? They were too cute to bear.

Until Sunday, when the world was told that Brown was charged with threatening a woman who sustained visible injuries, according to a police report. A number of sources have reported the victim was Rihanna. A security guard at Cedars-Sinai told the New York Daily News he saw her admitted and photographers spotted her Escalade outside the hospital. 

After the fight, the LAPD received a 911 call from a woman who accused Brown of hurting her—but by the time officers arrived in tony Hancock Park where the call was placed, Brown was gone. For hours, the police searched for him—Chris Brown on the lam?—until he turned himself in around 6:30 p.m., accompanied by Mark Geragos (the lawyer of Scott Peterson, Gary Condit, Michael Jackson, and Barry Bonds’ enabler Gary Anderson). He was arrested and posted $50,000 bail.

He has yet to be convicted, but Brown has now entered—in popular imagination, anyway— a virtual prison of the ex-abuser. Modern R&B is a happy, romantic space, with no room for domestic violence or messy, out of control, rock 'n' roll behavior. R&B singers don’t trash the hotel. They’re fantasy boyfriends who’ll show up on time in well-pressed suits, who’ll call when they say they will, and who’ll promise to never break your heart. Wanna love a bad boy? Chase a rapper. Want a boy you can take home to mom? ‘Til Sunday, that was Chris Brown.

And it matters that the woman he allegedly threatened is someone many of his fans love. Stars are exposed to their fans so much through so many media that the overexposure makes them feel like friends. So not only did Brown let down his friends with disappointing behavior, he also attacked his fans’ homegirl.

Pop princesses are supposed to be strong and sexy, titillating but not whorish, and to love their man faithfully whether he’s rich or broke. Getting beat up isn’t in the script, but I imagine Rihanna walks away from this with her fans loving her a little more. She did the right thing. She didn’t silently endure his abuse, as other R&B queens have. She identified Brown as her assailant. Violence often creeps into combustible teenage relationships, and now she’s a role model for what to do if the perfect boy goes Ike Turner on you. And she now has a lot of power to determine the future of his career: If she shuns him, even if he escapes his legal troubles, the stain will last for years. If she takes him back, all this could be forgotten as soon as their lovey-dovey hit duet drops.

If convicted, Brown’s career may not be over, but it will be severely damaged. The sweet, innocent-boy-in-high-school image suddenly doesn’t fit Brown so well anymore. How can he be the devilishly cute but still harmless lover you can feel safe with, when he’s thought to have pummeled Rihanna?

The saddest part of the story is that this isn’t Brown’s first brush with domestic violence. In 2007, he told GIANT magazine that as a child he was scarred by his stepfather's repeated beatings  of his mother. From age seven to 13, he knew his mom was suffering and it made him, he says, timid, scared, and a bed-wetter. He said he thought of killing his stepfather: “I remember one night he made her nose bleed,” he recalled. “I was crying and thinking, 'I'm just gonna go crazy on him one day...' I hate him to this day.”

“It affected me,” he said. “Especially towards women. I treat them differently. I don't want to put a woman through the same thing that person put my mom through.” But based on the charges that have been filed, as they say, those who witness domestic violence in the home are likely to continue the cycle.

Touré is the host of BET’s The Black Carpet and the host of Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once. He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid , Soul City , and The Portable Promised Land.