It’s been a particularly frightful October for rapists and abusers, as powerful men have been called to publicly reckon with their demons.
Entertainers, businessmen, politicians, editors, talking heads, and everyone in between have spent the past month trying and failing to push their skeletons back into the closet. This collective outing has been loud and messy—empowering for some, terrifying for others—and a reminder of the ubiquity of sexual violence and harassment in every single industry. At this point, any time a household name is trending, there’s a 50 percent chance it’s because of a new allegation against him or an old story resurfacing on social media. Remarkably, this was not the case for Chris Brown, who made waves on Halloween morning when he dropped a 45-track album. But this story of a known abuser who somehow still manages to make “much anticipated” music with high profile collaborators gets even spookier: As of Tuesday, Heartbreak on a Full Moon was the No. 1 album on iTunes.
Despite his alleged propensity toward violence, threats, and physical and verbal harassment, Chris Brown has had the sort of blessed career that most victimless R&B singers can only dream of. After more than a decade in the music industry, Brown has managed to almost entirely eclipse his personal life, thanks to his prolific output and diehard fans (#TeamBreezy).
In what will forever now be known as a Kevin Spacey, the singer has willed the world to see him as he wants to be seen, with headlines about Brown’s history of domestic violence and harassment slowly but surely transforming into updates about his tours and new music, articles that entirely fail to mention the singer’s problematic past (which, by the way, is hardly ancient history). For a man whose ex successfully filed a five-year restraining order against him just this year, Brown’s current news cycle is confusingly uncomplicated. So far, the main case being made against Brown’s new album is that it’s really freaking long—or as Billboard reported, “Heartbreak on a Full Moon is so stuffed with songs, it’ll take you nearly 2 hours 40 minutes to listen from start to finish.” Fans are apparently left to wrestle with the moral implications of three hours of Chris Brown on their own; the music site doesn’t even do the bare minimum of deeming Brown “controversial.”
When it comes to violent and abusive artists, the question of media and fan complicity has been looming increasingly larger, since social media has given anyone with a conscience a platform with which to berate the entertainment industry for routinely profiting off the creative output of bad dudes. Take the case of XXXTentacion, a popular rapper who stands accused of violently beating and imprisoning his pregnant ex. Instead of fleeing from these allegations or at the very least feigning personal growth, XXX makes music and public statements that relish in his lack of repentance, insulting his ex and threatening his haters. XXX is a parody of an artist who should not be tolerated; a man accused of the sorts of crimes that should make landing a positive Pitchfork review—let alone a label offer—impossible. And yet, in an industry that routinely brushes off basic morality in the relentless pursuit of profit, the rapper’s visibility is only increasing.
Like XXXTentacion, Chris Brown’s most egregious alleged crimes are against women—specifically ex-partners. In court papers from Karrueche Tran’s restraining order, Tran alleged that Brown physically abused her over the course of their on-again, off-again relationship. Tran, who began dating Brown in 2011, claimed that Brown punched her in the stomach and pushed her down the stairs. “He said if no one else can have me, then he’s gonna ‘take me out,’” she further stated in the documents. “I have text messages from December 2016 to January 2017, where he’s made several threats, including beating me up and making my life hell.” At the time of these alleged assaults, Brown would have still been on probation for physically abusing his ex-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009.
Everyone remembers the pictures of Rihanna’s bruised face, which were widely posted on every corner of the internet. But that was only the most notable entry in Brown’s long history of alleged abuse against women. In 2016, a woman even claimed that Brown threatened her at gunpoint. Brown has consistently used misogynistic language. He mocked Kehlani after her attempted suicide, allegedly beat his longtime manager to the point that he required medical attention, and has fought with Frank Ocean and Drake’s entourage (Brown or a member of his crew allegedly called Ocean a homophobic slur mid-brawl). In the category of inappropriate behavior that’s just plain stupid, Brown (allegedly) threw a chair at a window while on the Good Morning America set and also dressed up as a terrorist for Halloween.
Whether he’s taking his anger out on a woman, Frank Ocean, or an inanimate object, Brown can always be counted on for a violent outburst. Meanwhile, his career has been as consistent as his unbridled aggression. As The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon wrote in 2016, “Brown has had six Top 20 singles, released five new albums that have sold nearly 2.5 million copies in the U.S. alone, led world tours, been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards—winning one—and been nominated for 27 BET Awards, winning 11. This is all, by the way, after assaulting Rihanna.”
During a cultural moment where watching bad men get ousted from their powerful positions has become something of a national pastime, Brown’s continued success might feel inexplicable. But to many, the career viability of men who predominately abuse and harass black women comes as no surprise.
In an article titled “R. Kelly Targets Women No One Cares to Defend,” The Cut’s Brittany Packnett argued that the race of R. Kelly’s victims has everything to do with the singer’s seeming ability to surmount even the most vile accusations. Responding to a highly disturbing article that detailed R. Kelly’s alleged “sex cult” of young black women, Packnett wrote, “A predator must carefully select his prey, and young black women are perpetually among the most in need, the most abused, and the least likely to tell. They’re an all-too-perfect victim for a calculating, sadistic mind.” She continued, “Every time we choose to Step in the Name of Love, and every time we buy a record or a concert ticket, we prove Kelly’s calculations right. We become complicit in perpetuating not just rape culture, but a culture that demeans and devalues black women.”
While common sense would dictate that R. Kelly be shunned by consumers and by the music industry at large, even the most heinous crime is no match for the systemic biases and racist narratives that kick in when an accusation (or series of accusations) goes public. Unfortunately, it often takes a perfect (white) victim for an allegation to stick. In many cases, it takes more than one. At the same time, it feels like no amount of testimony from R. Kelly’s black female victims will ever stop the artist from touring and making music.
So, while we’re celebrating the current slew of outings and ousting’s, it’s important we pay attention to the men who have been allowed to flourish in spite of their alleged crimes—and to interrogate exactly when and why a man’s talent is privileged over a woman’s story. Or as Jane Fonda noted in the immediate wake of the Weinstein scandal, “It feels like something has shifted… It’s too bad that it’s probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them. This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of color and it doesn’t get out quite the same.”