Chris Brown: are the Grammy Awards ready for Feminism’s most hated?

The R’n’B singer who dates Rihanna is loved and loathed in equal measure. Are the Grammy Awards ready for him?

In anticipation of Sunday evening’s Grammy Awards, the US broadcaster CBS emailed what it described as a “wardrobe advisory” to the recording stars due to appear at the ceremony.

“Please be sure that buttocks and female breasts are adequately covered,” reads the message, which was published online this week by Deadline.com. “Thong-type costumes are problematic. Please avoid exposing bare fleshy under curves of the buttocks and buttock crack. Bare sides or under curvature of the breasts is also problematic…” The list goes on.

CBS plainly believes that certain viewers will be offended by the racy outfits that some pop artists favour. And yet, in drawing up its guest list, the Grammys has chosen to embrace at least one individual whose attendance will be far more controversial than any “thong-type costume”. It was left to 1980s soft-rock balladeer Richard Marx to point out the irony, which he did on Twitter on Thursday: “‘Risque’ clothing banned at Grammys but guys who beat up women? Come ooonnn downnnnn…” The “guy” to whom Mr Marx refers is R&B singer Chris Brown, who is expected to attend tomorrow’s event with his girlfriend, Rihanna. Both are shortlisted for awards.

It was just after midnight on 8 February 2009, that Brown beat and choked Rihanna in the front seat of his rented Lamborghini, before leaving her bloodied and alone on a Los Angeles pavement. Brown was 19, Rihanna 20; both had been due to perform at the Grammys the following evening. Shocking police photographs, later leaked, showed Rihanna’s face badly bruised by the attack, which has defined the perception of both stars ever since. Brown was given a restraining order, then sentenced to five years of probation and six months of community service.

In February 2011, however, the restraining order was downgraded to allow Brown and Rihanna to appear at awards ceremonies together. Last year, to the disgust of many, Brown was invited to perform (twice) at the Grammys, and even took home the award for best R&B album. This year, he is expected to attend alongside Rihanna, who told the March 2013 issue of Rolling Stone that they were once again an item. “He made a mistake, and he’s paid his dues,” she said. “And sometimes people need support and encouragement, instead of ridicule and criticism and bashing.”

Yet despite her protestations, Brown has done little to prove he’s a changed man. In June 2012, he was involved in a brawl with rapper Drake at a New York nightclub, which left eight people injured. On 27 January, he allegedly punched rival R&B star Frank Ocean in a dispute over a parking spot at a West Hollywood recording studio. Ocean claimed afterwards that Brown had used a homophobic slur and threatened to shoot him, though he decided not to press charges.

Now, Los Angeles prosecutors are claiming that Brown never undertook the community service to which he was sentenced. In a motion that Brown’s lawyer describes as “scurrilous, libellous and defamatory”, the LA District Attorney’s office questioned whether police in Virginia, Brown’s home state, had properly overseen the work he supposedly put in at a daycare centre that once employed his mother. They demanded he serve his sentence again, this time in California. As Brown went before a judge in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Rihanna sat in the front row and blew him a kiss.

The singer was also accompanied to court by his mother, Joyce Hawkins, who divorced his father Clinton, a prison officer, when Brown was a boy. Brown, who was born in May 1989 in Tappahannock, Virginia, a riverside town of just over 2,000, taught himself to sing and dance, and has identified Michael Jackson as a major musical influence. Some might say he also shares a martyr complex with the King of Pop: during a tribute to Jackson at a 2010 awards show, Brown fell to his knees and wept during his own cover version of “Man in the Mirror”.

It may come as a surprise to those who know him only for his criminal record that Brown’s music is pure pop, delivered in a temperate tenor: catchy ballads and infectious dance tracks entirely at odds with his thuggish personal reputation. His 2008 single “Forever” became a YouTube hit after it was used as the soundtrack for a wedding dance video that went viral. The clip, which has since been viewed almost 80 million times, now includes a link to a domestic violence charity.

Six months after the assault, Brown released a YouTube video of his own, in which he said sorry to Rihanna and to his fans, claiming he accepted full responsibility. Yet he later tired of apologising for his actions. In 2011, after Robin Roberts, the host of ABC’s Good Morning America, pressed him on the subject of the attack during a live interview, Brown reportedly retreated to his dressing room, where he tore off his shirt, raged at a producer and other staff, and threw at least one heavy object, damaging a window. “I’m so over people bring this past s**t up!!” [sic] he wrote afterwards in a tweet, which was hastily deleted.

It’s not implausible to attribute Brown’s assault on Rihanna, and their subsequent reconciliation, to a cycle of violence. In a 2009 interview with Larry King, Brown discussed the abuse he’d witnessed as a child, when his former stepfather Donnelle Hawkins allegedly beat his mother. Last year, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna suggested her relationship with Brown had been a rerun of her own parents’ abusive relationship. The Barbadian-born singer said she believed her father Ronald was a good person, but that his violence towards her mother arose from the abuse he suffered in his own childhood.

Of her controversial decision to take Brown back, Rihanna told Rolling Stone: “I wasn’t going to let anybody’s opinion get in the way of it. Even if it’s a mistake, it’s my mistake … It’s different now. We don’t have those types of arguments now … We value each other.” In their recently released duet, “Nobodies Business” [sic], the two singers imply that their relationship ought to remain private, yet that hasn’t stopped them seeking the public’s attention: some even expect them to perform the song together tomorrow night.

Brown at times appears to be stoking public anger deliberately, such as with the tattoo he had drawn on his neck in September, which clearly resembles those notorious photographs of Rihanna’s battered face. His publicist claimed the design was a Mexican sugar skull. Nor has Brown refrained from attacking his critics online; in November, for example, he engaged in a sexually graphic Twitter flame-war with the comedian Jenny Johnson. He is backed by a fiercely protective fanbase, which goes by the grossly inaccurate nickname “Team Breezy”, and whose members regularly respond with online death threats to anyone who dares to criticise their hero.

This is troubling stuff indeed. Yet how can one begin to tackle such a phenomenon, when even the Grammys – a music industry institution so conservative that it sends emails to performers asking them to cover their side cleavage – appear to endorse Brown as a role model? Before last year’s awards, Grammy executive producer Ken Erlich made mealy-mouthed excuses for Brown’s inclusion in the line-up. “I think people deserve a second chance, you know,” he said. “If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years.”

Following that 2012 performance, the website Buzzfeed compiled a much-shared compilation of tweets by young women, suggesting they would like to be physically abused by Brown. He may not encourage such unhealthy attention – in fact, he has counselled Team Breezy against issuing death threats, on the basis that it turns “haters into victims” – but his continued public presence perpetuates it.

Then again, what more support does he need than that of the woman he attacked in the first place – and who now defends him more vocally than anyone besides, perhaps, his lawyer? What does Rihanna see in him, exactly? “He’s not the monster everybody thinks,” she says. “He’s a good person. He has a fantastic heart. He’s giving and loving. And he’s fun to be around. That’s what I love about him – he always makes me laugh.”

A Life In Brief

Born: Christopher Maurice Brown, 5 May 1989, Tappahannock, Virginia, US.

Family: Son of Joyce Hawkins, a former daycare centre director, and Clinton Brown, a corrections officer at a local prison. He has an elder sister, Lytrell.

Education: Attended Essex High School in Virginia until he was 16, when he left to pursue a music career.

Career: Discovered when he was 13 by producers searching for new talent. After he auditioned for Def Jam vice president Tina Davis, she became his manager, and he signed with Jive Records in 2004. His debut album came out the following year, debuting at No 2. He has released five albums and been nominated for 12 Grammy awards, winning once. In 2009 Brown pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend, Rihanna.

He says: “I keep my head high and my middle finger higher.”

They say: “I still love him.” Rihanna

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