It was hard for me to watch Chris Brown perform at the Grammys on Sunday night, for reasons that, by now, should be obvious: He’s an execrable human being.
Since he brutally assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, he’s shown little remorse for his unconscionably ugly behavior; instead, he’s taken every opportunity to blast industry professionals and audiences who can’t seem to move past the fact that he’s a homophobic, misogynistic woman-beater, and an all-around despicable pig. (If you aren’t familiar with the saga, an excellent piece by Sasha Pasulka for Hello Giggles posted last week is a great primer for the ongoing conflict.)
So when news broke late Thursday that Rihanna was going to be reuniting with Chris Brown for a remix of her upcoming single, “Birthday Cake,” an innuendo-heavy (is it still innuendo if it’s obviously all about sex? Probably not) sliver of grimy pop that’s being retooled for the upcoming Rih-release of Talk That Talk, I felt kinda sick. Not figuratively. I actually got a stomachache.
There’s no solid info yet -- Billboard broke the story that the two would be teaming up for the track, which was then refuted on Twitter by the producers of “Birthday Cake,” but a few minutes later, the tweet denying it was deleted, which to me, indicates that this probably is happening -- and this news is joined by reports that the two were hanging out during Rihanna’s birthday on Monday night.
All of which, again, makes me sick. (It also makes me wonder how oblivious and ill-advised Rihanna’s team must be, to speak nothing of Rihanna herself, to think that the public backlash for this wouldn’t be enormous.)
As a music writer and pop junkie, I do my damnedest to separate the music from who’s making it: A good song is a good song, period. Luckily for me, Chris Brown doesn’t really make good music; Rihanna, on the other hand, has a pretty fine track record for making radio-friendly pop and R&B that I’m liable to keep on heavy rotation.
But I think that if the two are indeed reuniting in both personal and professional contexts, there’s a lot that needs to be said about the implications for both of their respective careers, and the message that such a move sends to the public about domestic violence. That message, for me, is powerful enough to tarnish Rihanna’s seemingly unstoppable push forward as one of the game’s strongest acts.
Part of being a feminist means believing that it’s not my job to police what a woman chooses to do with her body, her relationship, and her life; it’s none of my business. There’s a part of me that believes that Rihanna, as with any woman, has a right to be with whoever she chooses; saying that she can’t, or shouldn’t be, with a partner who she believes is reformed, takes me down an ethical slippery slope that feels far too treacherous to tread.
But at the same time, it feels patently anti-feminist to be OK with any woman returning to a man who savagely, violently assaulted her. For me, Brown’s actions were unforgivable, and I could never in good conscience buy one of his albums or even happily listen to one of his singles on the radio. And yet, it’s not my call to say.
This tension is compounded by the reality that this isn’t just any woman and any man; these are high-profile figures, who have millions of fans (well, Rihanna does; Brown’s fanbase seems to be comprised entirely of desperate, ignorant young women who think domestic violence is funny; incredibly, one of them even attacked me on Twitter the other day for saying something nasty about Brown). And even if Rihanna is an unlikely candidate to be called a “role model,” her actions still have a greater impact than just the immediately personal; by choosing a career that puts her in the public eye, she’s accountable for what her behavior says to a legion of young men and women who might come to believe, implicitly, that domestic violence is okay, if it’s followed by a cursory apology and a few years of distance. That you can beat your girlfriend to a bloody pulp, but she’ll still take you back.
Which is the scariest, saddest and maybe even the truest message of all. The cycle of abuse -- in which survivors frequently return to their abusers -- is wrenchingly tragic whenever it occurs, but allowing it to play out on a public stage feels morally reprehensible.
Chris Brown’s fans (the ones articulate enough to put together a sentence) keep lobbying for “forgiveness,” as though that’s some snakeoil cure for the pain he inflicted, but forgiveness is an intrapersonal action, not an interpersonal one; I forgave the man who once hurt me for my own serenity, not so he could sleep better at night.
All I can say is that if “Birthday Cake” (which, ugh, was one of my favorite tunes from Talk That Talk) does indeed feature Brown as a featured guest, I’ll be boycotting Rihanna, an artist who I once loved and admired. She does indeed have a right to run her own life and make her own decisions. But so do we, by choosing not to support her for doing something that could have a catastrophic impact on how domestic violence is perceived to the broader public.