American singer Chris Brown’s reputation is as well known as his music. In 2009, he was sentenced to five years’ probation for assaulting his then girlfriend, fellow singer Rihanna, and he has been involved in other controversies over the years involving violence, misogyny and alleged sexual assault.
The UK leg of his arena tour, Under the Influence, starts back up on March 9. These are his first British shows since being denied entry in 2010 due to his criminal record. The tour sold out in minutes, and a recent Evening Standard review described Brown as “arguably cancel culture’s greatest fail to date”.
So how has he managed to weather the rigours of public scrutiny?
Nicknamed “the king of R&B”, Brown was marketed to teens in the early noughties as a triple threat: a heartthrob singer, dancer and actor. The appetite for his tour in 2023 is perhaps also linked to a more general enthusiasm for noughties genre revivals.
Brown’s dancing has also become a source of inspiration in K-Pop, sustaining his global brand visibility. Artists have continued collaborating with him too – see the success of 2020’s No Guidance, a team-up with Drake that spent 23 weeks at the top of US Billboard charts.
And though the Rihanna case was hugely publicised at the time, it occurred before the age of the social media call-out, giving newer fans a sense of separation.
In the court of social media, fans play a huge role in the viability of a transgressive artist’s career. My ongoing PhD research explores the ways fandoms deal with the potential discomfort of supporting artists who have behaved in less-than-admirable ways. Brown was one of my case studies, and I spoke to many fans and ex-fans about how (or if) they had changed their listening habits considering his controversies.
Brown has a particularly vocal fanbase. Known as “Team Breezy”, they are fiercely loyal, often going to lengths to defend their idol. Many insisted that their continued enjoyment comes from being able to separate the art from the artist while still not condoning his actions.
For some listeners, social justice movements such as #MeToo had shone new light on Brown’s treatment of women, making being a fan more uncomfortable. But others found ways to justify or lessen his behaviour in a process I call “severity hedging”. Though these fans broadly acknowledged that Brown was wrong to assault Rihanna, they felt he might have been “cancelled” more harshly than some of his transgressive contemporaries.
Often, these fans would invoke Brown’s youth at the time of the altercation (19) and his race. Following social justice movements which have shone light on the over-criminalisation of black American men, some felt that the refusal to put Brown’s misdemeanours in the past is shaped by racist desires to “keep the black man down”, using this as motivation to stick by his side.
These arguments have been stoked by Brown himself. In an Instagram story on 17 February 2023, he responded to criticism of his tour:
If yall still hate me for a mistake I made as a 17 year old [Brown was actually 19] please kiss my whole entire ass!… Where are the cancel culture with these white artists that date underage women, beat the fuck out their wives, giving bitches AIDS.
In 2019, he revived the design with “The Paris Edition”, when he was detained after a woman claimed he sexually assaulted her in a Paris hotel room. He was not charged and filed a defamation suit, claiming he was an easy target for false accusations.
Research shows that black men are indeed more vulnerable to false allegations than white men, especially when the accuser is a white woman. Black artists draw extra scrutiny in matters of criminal prosecution and are more societally susceptible to labels of deviant sexual behaviour.
Recognising this, fans of black artists often feel they do not wish to add to societal condemnation. As has been seen with R. Kelly and Bill Cosby, the desire from some of the black community to protect their cultural figures means that not only are black victims less likely to speak out, they are also less likely to be believed or offered timely forms of justice.
While some fans may decide that Brown’s behaviours are far enough in the past that they deserve forgiveness, he hasn’t shown evidence of growth. In 2017, Brown’s then-girlfriend, Karrueche Tran, was granted a restraining order after alleging that he had threatened to kill her.
Research shows that fans tend to take allegations more seriously when made by an equally popular fellow celebrity, such as Rihanna. This might explain why Brown’s other accusers have not always been taken as seriously.
It is also possible that some fans simply do not want to know. For audiences who were young at the time of Brown’s initial court case – or who consume music through the relatively casual attachments of streaming – it might be easier to abdicate the responsibility of knowing about an artist’s personal life.
Rihanna has spoken about her desire to move on, while musicians Kelly Rowland and Jordin Sparks have publicly shown compassion for Brown. As his tour continues, thousands of fans appear willing to put things in the past.
Black men may indeed be judged more harshly. But as music journalist Natty Kasambala puts it, advocating for “equal opportunities abuse” is not productive.
Fans of all genres need to think about the role they play in maintaining the platforms of problematic artists of all races, and how this normalises abuse and misogyny. Until then, those sold-out arenas may remain an uncomfortable seat.
Featured image: Wikipedia