Chris Brown’s smashing post-assault comeback

The media who are glossing over his past abuse send the message that assaulting women is little more than an inconvenience to your career.

"Don't f—k with my old bitch, it's like a bad fur/ Every industry n—— done had her/ Shook the tree like a pumpkin just to smash her/ B*tch is breaking codes, but I'm the password."

It might not be classy to trash-talk your ex, but trash-talking your ex after one of your main claims to fame is that you violently beat her up is apparently the formula for music chart success. The "smash her" line is the coup de grace here – an onomatopoeic punch to both warn other guys that his ex has had (too much) sex, and a trigger back to the fact Brown once, well, smashed Rihanna’s face in.

Chris Brown’s fifth album Fortune hit the UK chart number one spot this Sunday, marking the full rehabilitation of Brown’s career after his assault of then-girlfriend Rihanna on the evening of the 2009 Grammys. In the excitement, Brown’s fans took to Twitter en masse as #TeamBreezy to celebrate Brown’s return: amongst their assertions that "Chris Brown can hit me any time" and "I don’t know why Rihanna complained" were the more worrying – for seeming to be more legitimate – arguments that Brown is "sorry" (a claim invalidated largely by his continued classic-abuser positioning of himself as a victim of "smears") or that Brown was very young in 2009, and grew up in a tough environment (that may be so but I think “he had a bad childhood” grows old quickly when a grown man’s strangling you until you start losing consciousness).

Rihanna’s evolving response to what happened in 2009 was evoked to further brush Brown’s abuse under the carpet, particularly the fact she collaborated with Brown on a single earlier this year. And as Brown reaches number one, Rihanna is actually used to distract from what Brown did. This goes beyond Chris Brown’s attempts, in his recent music, to slut-shame Rihanna for having a sex life – because when you can no longer control a woman with violence, you at least have recourse to the good old-fashioned tactic of branding her a ‘slut’. It extends to the opprobrium Rihanna receives for the work she’s produced since the 2009 Grammys: while her "Love The Way You Lie" video, exploring the emotions of a toxic relationship, was accused of ‘soft porn-ifying’ abuse, her video for 2011’s "Man Down" was criticised for ‘glorifying’ female violence because it shows a woman’s response to rape. It’s Rihanna, not Brown, who faces the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ of public scrutiny.

This focus on Rihanna (particularly the "if she can forgive him why can’t you?" line familiar to anyone who’s dealt with domestic violence) and foregrounding of her ambiguous response distracts from the focus on the unambiguous brutality of Brown’s actions in 2009. After all, can you think of a less subtle act than smashing a woman’s face against a car window? How Rihanna deals with what happened is her prerogative, but that it should eclipse the bare facts of what Brown did seems convenient for abuse-apologist #TeamBreezy.

The debate about whether Rihanna’s musical collaboration with Brown ‘rehabilitates’ his public persona may seem like a dilemma unique to Universe Celebrity, but it is based on a mundane truth: domestic violence is both complicated and simple. It’s about unique intimate dynamics and it’s also about crime, clear lines unacceptably crossed. How the media handle the public and the private in this is crucial to what messages society receives about domestic violence. A decade ago, football fans made excuses for Paul Gasgoine’s violence against his partner on the grounds that they supported him as a footballer, not what he did off-pitch. A similar line is being evoked by #TeamBreezy, while Brown breaks the ‘privacy’ by continually publicly justifying himself. And this is perhaps the most frustrating thing about Chris Brown’s public rehabilitation: it utilises the patriarchal ‘private sphere’ switch-and-bait to both minimise and legitimise violence against women.

When you’re rapping about your ex in the vein of “don’t fuck with my old bitch, it’s like a bad fur”, the already-flimsy Gazza-argument that the work for which you’re renowned is removed from your ‘private’ violence seems unconvincing; yet in the media spotlight it’s Rihanna whose every move is fair game for criticism. The sham act of policing sexual propriety that manifests in the media’s mock-concern for Rihanna’s ‘dignity’ when she expresses herself sexually is not only part of a reactionary positioning female sexuality as dangerous (making yourself seem "available" will get you beaten up) but also plays into the machismo that legitimises Brown’s violence (after all, it doesn’t matter what you do to a whore, does it?).

As Rihanna is chastised for expressing her sexuality, Brown’s violence – and his lyrics relating to violence – are positioned variously as the preserve of the ‘private sphere’ and ‘artistic licence’. It’s a double-standard of privacy in favour of male violence "behind closed doors" that’s so embarrassingly obvious it puts Henri-Levy’s bizarre 2011 defence of Strauss-Kahn as a "friend of women" to shame.

Because that’s another thing about domestic violence: it’s behind closed doors. The recent domestic violence awareness campaign by make-up artist Lauren Luke was so powerful because it bound an everyday, intimate act – Luke putting on her make-up, which her fans are used to watching – with the fact that every day women use make-up to cover their bruises. Women’s abuse is largely hidden; saying its irrelevant when a public figure commits it contributes to this silencing.

Chris Brown’s comeback, and the media who are glossing over his past abuse, send the message that assaulting women is little more than an inconvenience to your career – you can turn it into bravado, along the lines of “bitch be breaking codes but I’m the password”, or, à la Strauss-Kahn, you can cite the "private sphere" defence: win win. Either way, it’s the right of women to live lives in which they can express themselves, safe from violence, that is lost.

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter as @heathermcrobie

Chris Brown onstage during the 2012 BET Awards in Los Angeles. Photograph: Getty Images
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage