Chris Brown and Whitney Houston: Entertainment Industry Fails Black Women

6 years ago

Chris Brown's "comeback" at the 2012 Grammys -- on the heels of the untimely death of Whitney Houston -- is a sad commentary as to how far society has to go in terms of respecting Black women.

This past Sunday night, singer Chris Brown shucked and jived his way across the stage at the Grammys, probably assuming (and rightly so, as he was featured twice during the TV presentation) that all was forgiven. What was odd is that while he was singing and dancing, the woman whom he was charged with beating was sitting in the audience. I wondered what singer -- and Brown's ex-girlfriend -- Rihanna was thinking. Whether, since she and Brown are both part of the fame game, this was par for the course. Smile for the cameras.

(Chris Brown Image: © Imago/ZUMA Press; Whitney Houston image: © Globe Photos/

The night before, there was a pre-Grammy party raging hard while singer Whitney Houston’s body was going cold in a hotel room, approximately four floors above. The party was hosted by Clive Davis, a man who was Houston's mentor since her childhood. The show must go on.

Call me hyper-sensitive, but I'm a bit raw. After all, during the past couple of years, First Lady Michelle Obama has been vilified ... for being married to one of the most reviled Black men on the planet these days. And one of the highest–grossing Hollywood films of 2011, The Help, featured two of the best Black actors who are working today -- relegated to play maids. But my side-eye to this weekend's events is centered around the lack of respect that were given to Houston and Rihanna, and how as Black female entertainers, their main role was simply that: to entertain. Their lives as human beings off the stage are not as important.

However, this is nothing new. As The View's Sherri Sheppard pointed out in her defense of Chris Brown, all is forgiven as long as one continues to entertain. Could it be that Sheppard thinks that we need to support "the brothas" though thick and thin and despite their indiscretions? Many viewers negatively reacted to Sheppard's belief that Brown had the right to move on with his life. Some bloggers, such as Amy Tennery from The Jane Dough, took issue with Sheppard's calling Brown a role model:

This is the same person who (just last year) threw a chair through a window after a Good Morning America appearance because show co-host Robin Roberts asked him about the status of the restraining order against him (related to his attack on Rihanna). This is also the same person who sent an expletive-laden tiradeout on Twitter about his altercation with Rihanna just a few months ago. That doesn't seem like the behavior of a "role model."

But there is a correlation between the two Grammy incidents: domestic violence. Chris Brown seems to be getting off easy after his 2009 guilty plea to charges of assault against his ex-girlfriend Rihanna. He feels free to throw a public temper tantrum and whine about people not giving him a break after he physically assaulted a woman -- and not just any woman, an equally (if not more) popular singer. Twenty-five young women tweeted inane and horribly offensive tweets, such as one by a now-deleted user:

"I'd let Chris Brown punch me in the face -- if he kissed it after"

Contrast the Chris Brown controversy to Houston's story. In 2003, she was the alleged victim of abuse by then-husband Bobby Brown. Had the public --- including viewers who laughed at her disastrous 2002 "crack is whack" interview and horrid Being Bobby Brown reality show -- already abandoned her by then? Did last week's Grammys pre-party go on because Houston, despite her superstardom during the 80s and 90s, had essentially faded from the limelight in the past decade?

And then compare the two stories this way: Superstar Rihanna's abuser was allowed to preen in front of millions of people. And Chris Brown tweeted this (now deleted):

HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That's the ultimate F**** OFF!

It's as if Brown thinks he is somehow a victim of jealous fans. After all, the organizers must have also felt that after three years and minimal repentance that all would be forgotten. And Clive Davis choosing to continue celebrating after Houston was found dead hours earlier also means that Houston's musical legacy -- the good years, anyway -- hold little relevance. And she will never be able to rebuild that legacy, to sip champagne with the new stock of up-and-comers.

On why Brown was invited to perform on the Grammys stage this year, executive Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich said in part that it was because "we (The Grammys) were the victims of what happened." writer Sasha Pasulka comments on what Erlich's statement might mean to a woman has been abused:

  • By blacklisting Chris Brown from the Grammys for a "few" years (actually, a grand total of TWO Grammy Awards), the Grammys have gone above and beyond expectations for the social exile of an adult man who hit his girlfriend so hard she went to the hospital, and honestly it was really, really hard for them to show even that much support for victims of domestic violence worldwide.
  • It was rather thoughtless of Rihanna to go and get herself hit in the face by her boyfriend, because it's put such a burden on the Grammys. Maybe if she hadn't made such a big fuss out of it, things could have been easier for everyone.
  • The Grammys think that they were the victim of Chris Brown hitting Rihanna in the face.

The Grammys. Think. That they. Were the victim. Of Chris Brown. Hitting. Rihanna. In the face.

When interviewed by Piers Morgan on CNN, singer Chaka Khan was disgusted by Davis' decision not to cancel the party after hearing of Houston's death. When Morgan interrupted her by defending Davis by saying that the party continued as a "tribute" to Houston, Khan, who upon hearing the news was so upset that she didn't attend the party, remarked that a real "tribute" would have been for people to gather, say a prayer for Houston, eat dinner and then go home.

Singer Diamanda Galas accuses Clive Davis of encouraging Houston to get back onstage before she was emotionally ready to embark on reclaiming the fame she had before, noting that he'll now stand to profit from her death by increased record sales:

"Mr. Davis thought nothing of keeping her up onstage while she received humiliating reviews and she represented DOPEFIEND LOSER of THE WAR ON DRUGS. He probably said, "Ignore those jealous fools, dear; the more you sing, the more you'll begin to really sing." Pure entertainment of the folks that know better."

Now, if Rihanna and Houston were white, would the show have gone on? Would Rihanna's abuser be welcomed back with open arms? As a commenter on Racialicious wrote, "Had Chris Brown assaulted Taylor Swift he'd be working at Mickey D's now." In relation to Houston’s drug abuse, when white English singer Amy Winehouse passed away last year, she was revered as a "free spirit" who, because of her loneliness, turned to excessive drink and alcohol. For Houston, no one really could come up with an explanation. After all, she really did have it all: She came from a musical family of superstars; she grew up in the church; she had that God-given talent and physical beauty. Why did she essentially throw that all away? This was HER fault. Winehouse's personal troubles evoked sympathy; I observed that many of the online obits for Houston lament that her beautiful voice -- but not the person -- will be missed.

While it was noted by Gina from What About Our Daughters that the majority of the women who tweeted in support of Chris Brown were not black, she points out that there are communities in which young people are raised who if not fully condoning the ignorance of their children, cultivate it through their actions.

The attitudes of these communities towards the treatment of women and girls nurtured the predatory thinking and denied protection to victims. It is happening right now. Somewhere right now, a group of women in real life is trying to convince a woman or girl that it is perfectly permissible for her "man" to beat the living snot out of her. They are trivializing the abuse and providing arguments for why she should stay.

The correlation between Chris Brown and Whitney Houston is not about overt racism. It goes deeper than that. While the women who tweeted about letting Brown beat them up were not Black, the problem of physical, emotional and verbal abuse within Black communities is a real issue, more often than deemed as an issue in other ethno-cultural communities, as it signifies an emotional disenfranchisement between Black men and women when we so desperately need to come together to strengthen our communities. The issue of abuse toward women of any cultural background is not a laughing matter.

To me, as a Black woman, seeing the smiley faces of so many White women who tweeted blithely about abuse made for a discomforting situation. It further cemented the lack of understanding about serious and real issues concerning abuse within our communities, and was another indication of the disenfranchisement between white and Black women. There have been many people who say that it was Rihanna's fault for her assault, which can be construed as jealousy, or just plain asshattery. Would they still be tweeting that if Rihanna was a white woman, and one whose beauty and talent were not so envied?

There is a social distance and in the Twitter case, an intellectual disconnect. These are examples of the commodification of black women's bodies. We are looking not at their minds or their souls, but at how they entertain us. When we cry for Houston, we cry for a talent that was wasted because that fame and adulation she achieved and craved faded away when we realized she was actually a real person with real problems. We laughed at her when she appeared, wig messed up and skeletal, high as a kite on TV, but we're crying now.

Of course, these are not the first two times that the humanity of a Black woman has been conveniently ignored for a) the concerns over a Black man's career and livelihood; and b) for profit.
When black actress Hattie McDanielwon the Best Supporting Actress award for her role ( as a maid) in Gone With the Wind in 1939, she had to enter the ceremony through the back door. How much have things really changed? Black women entertainers like Rihanna, who has been incredibly successful after her attack, are only there to perform for us, to show us what we "could" be, but not who they are. Perhaps those foolish little girls who tweeted about physical abuse were telling us that. For the Grammys to allow a convicted abuser sing and dance also shows at as long as "we" sing and dance for "them" -- and make them money -- means all is forgiven and all is forgotten.

Contributing Editor Race, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

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