We Must Hold Chris Brown—and All Our Music Idols—Accountable for Abusing Women
Brown is just the latest in a long line of women-beaters, from John Lennon and Miles Davis to Ozzy Osbourne and James Brown, who have not been properly judged for their heinous actions.
“The point is, stop defending these assholes and always blaming the woman. It’s sad & sick, & is why women don’t speak out. Women literally get murdered by men who act like this and y’all thing it’s cute or she just wants attention gtfoh.”
Those are the words of singer-songwriter Kay Cola, tweeting about the criticism Karrueche Tran faced online after it was revealed that the model had been granted a restraining order against her former boyfriend, Grammy-winning R&B star Chris Brown.
In official documents obtained by Entertainment Tonight, Tran accused Brown of physically abusing her while they were dating. He has been ordered to stay 100 yards away from her and her family. According to Tran, Brown recently told “a few people” that he was going to kill her. “He said if no one else can have me, then he’s gonna ‘take me out,’” she claims. “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.”
Tran also says Brown punched her in her stomach twice “years ago” and pushed her down stairs. Just weeks prior to Tran’s restraining order, Brown himself shared an Instagram video where he bragged about stalking exes.
“Ladies, y’all be complaining about niggas being, like, stalkers and in love with y’all, kinda crazy and shit, and you getting’ tired of it,” he said in the clip. “Well, guess what? I’m one of them niggas!”
“If I love you, bitch, ain’t nobody gonna have you. I’m gonna make you miserable,” Brown added. “I’m going to chase that [new] nigga out and I’m gonna chase yo ass around, and it’s done.”
Brown’s disturbing history is well-documented and well-known. The former teen heartthrob became one of the most reviled stars in music after his arrest for abusing then-girlfriend Rihanna during the 2009 Grammy weekend in Los Angeles. Rihanna’s famous face was on every news site, bloodied and bruised. It was shocking to fans of the previously squeaky-clean young star and, at the time, and it seemed as though Brown’s career wouldn’t recover from such a heinous moment of violence.
But Brown unexpectedly rebounded. He won the Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2012, and has been nominated 10 times since 2009. He’s also been arrested several times and been at the center of numerous other altercations and outbursts. In 2011, he exploded in a Good Morning America dressing room after an uncomfortable Robin Roberts interview; he was involved in a brawl with rapper Drake at a New York City nightclub that injured eight people; in 2013, he and his entourage jumped Frank Ocean in a parking lot; Brown was arrested for felony assault later that year after he and his bodyguard got involved in a fight outside a hotel in Washington D.C.; he was kicked out of two rehab facilities in 2013 and 2014; and in 2015, Brown was named in a misdemeanor battery case before the complaint decided not to press charges. If that weren’t enough, in early 2016, Brown was accused of assaulting a woman and taking her cellphone but no charges were filed, and later that year, a woman claimed Brown held her at gunpoint in his home.
Despite all of that history, Karrueche’s restraining order was met with skepticism from many Chris Brown fans. The devotion of fans to their idols is always fascinating: there is always an element of pop worship when our favorite singers are involved, but in the case of abusive men, there’s a sense of dismissal and denial that prevents us from facing how truly damaged and destructive many of our favorite stars have always been. If domestic abuse is even acknowledged at all, it’s treated as an unfortunate side note to a stellar career. In the case of icons like John Lennon and Miles Davis, it was treated as an almost non-factor by previous generations in their lionization of these men.
“I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”
John Lennon said that during his infamous September 1980 Playboy interview. Interviewed by David Sheff as he was preparing for the release of his comeback album with Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy, Lennon gave an uncharacteristically frank look back at his life and career. And he talked about his abusiveness—which he’d first publicly referenced in the 1967 Beatles song “Getting Better.” The upbeat tune was mostly a Paul McCartney composition, but Lennon contributed some of his trademark dark shades via a shockingly blunt verse: “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from things that she loved.”
“I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically—any woman,” Lennon said in 1980. “I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace.”
We romanticize male artists and their flaws, but in the case of domestic abuse and other heinous acts against women, the general public either turns a blind eye entirely or treats it as par for the course—the price of being with a tortured genius.
I only recently saw the Don Cheadle-directed Miles Davis film Miles Ahead. I’d been excited for the film in the months leading up to its release last year, but having seen the film, the soft treatment of Davis and his history of abuse disappointed. His first wife, former Broadway dancer Frances Davis, told The New York Times in 2006, “I actually left running for my life—more than once.”
“There’s got to be full treatment of his genius, as well as his shortcomings,” she said. In his 1989 autobiography Miles, the jazz legend Davis spoke at length about his abuse of Frances (“I hit her once when she came home and told me some shit about Quincy Jones being handsome.”) Davis was also abusive of legendary actress Cicely Tyson during their troubled marriage.
“One time we argued about one friend in particular, and I just slapped the shit out of her,” Davis recalled in the book. “She called the cops and went down into the basement and was hiding there. When the police came they asked me where she was. I said, ‘She’s around here somewhere. Look down in the basement.’ The cop looked in the basement and came back and said, ‘Miles, nobody’s down there but a woman, and she won’t talk to me. She won’t say nothing.’”
“You have two people who are so enriched, blessed by incredible talents. I thought he was. He thought I was. And what it takes to live from day to day with that. There are so many facets to a dual life that is completely alien to most people. There have been some of the most incredible moments afforded me through him…Every moment to me is a learning experience. Once I have experienced [the negative] and lived through it and reached another level of understanding of human beings, especially, particularly talented ones who don’t know themselves how rich they are, then I am the better for that experience.” – Cicely Tyson to CNN’s Don Lemon in 2013
Ms. Tyson lived that experience and has the right to feel however she chooses about Miles and their marriage. But there is no shortage of examples of famous men tormenting the women who love them—whether the relationship dissolves or if there are no bitter feelings, it doesn’t negate the abuse. Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne’s marital bond is one of the more famous in popular music. The Prince of Darkness and his steadfast manager/wife have endured numerous ups and downs—but none more harrowing than the night Ozzy tried to kill Sharon.
In 2005, Sharon recounted the 1989 incident wherein a drug-ravaged Ozzy attacked her: “There was a really bad atmosphere in the house, very hostile. I knew that something was going to happen. He went to bed. I was reading downstairs. He came down in his underpants, sat on the sofa right opposite me and said, ‘We’ve come to a decision.’ I was like, ‘Yeah’—sort of sarcastic—‘What’s the decision?’ and he said, ‘We’re very sorry but you’re going to have to die. There’s no other option.’”
Sharon initially tried to shrug it off. “I said, ‘Yeah, shut up, fuck off,’ and he jumped on me and his whole body weight was on top of me,” she continued. “He had his hands around my neck, he landed on top of me, I just kept thinking, ‘The kids, the kids, you cannot do this, I’m not ready.’”
“I used to black out a lot,” Osbourne told the London Evening Standard. “And my biggest fear was waking up in a police cell and having an old lady say to a police officer, ‘Yes, that’s the guy who ran my husband down,’ or ‘That’s the guy who hit my son over the head with an axe. It used to terrify me. And then it happened—that day when I woke up in this little single cell with human shit up the walls—and I thought, ‘What the fuck have I done now? Has one of my practical jokes backfired?’”
“I asked a police officer. I said: ‘What am I here for?’ I hadn’t got a fucking clue. It’s the most horrific feeling. He read me a piece of paper, and said, ‘You’re charged with attempting to murder Mrs. Sharon Osbourne.’ I can’t tell you how I felt. I just went numb.”
The Osbourne incident led to a court-mandated separation and rehab for Ozzy. The couple would soldier forward and spoke openly about what had happened. By the time their reality show debuted in 2002, the couple became the quirky, foul-mouthed first family of reality TV—the darker moments of their history peripheral to the more cuddly presentation. The same sort of cultural sanitizing happened for Lennon after his marriage to Yoko Ono, and especially after his 1980 murder. The bond between he and Ono became the emphasis; his abuse of women was often presented as the result of an “angry young man” phase that he grew out of with Ono’s influence. But abusers don’t just flip a switch and change who they’ve been their entire lives. Lennon was involved in incidents with his one-time girlfriend May Pang and a 51-year-old photographer who said he hit her in the face when she tried to take his picture as he was being ejected from the Troubadour in Los Angeles. He denied the latter allegation, but both incidents happened after his supposed “awakening” in the late 1960s.
Whether it’s a movie buffing out an abusive legend’s roughest edges, the sterilizing of a supposed martyr, or the continued coddling of a once-precocious superstar, it’s all a product of our need to believe that the supremely talented and creative men who dominate playlists and multiplexes are helpless against their demons—or that the women in their lives are meant to bear the brunt of their anger and pain. These men all have the same thing in common: they were/are toxic personalities that attempted to destroy women who were close to them for no other reason than the woman was there. Regret isn’t always redemption and self-awareness is only one step towards facing what you’ve done to those who dared love you. But as yet another incident unfolds involving Brown and a woman who says he’s hurt her, we’d all do better by him and her to listen to what she says without cynicism and to hold him 100 percent accountable for the man he’s become.