“The good that came from it was making me realize I wasn’t invincible. It humbled me” ~Chris Brown, Vibe interview 2009
I’m tired of Chris Brown. Let that man breathe. And I wasn’t going to say anything until I saw Vibe’s latest cover. An all black backdrop with the occasional white and yellow text, Brown commanded the picture with a question of “R U Still Down” on his black turtleneck. In a pose of mercy and humility (maybe even arrested development?), Brown visually succumbs to his convicted felon status. The all-black cover made me wonder what was being mourned: Brown’s career? His innocence? And while I pondered, Tupac Shakur screamed from the seams of Brown’s pleading gaze.
In what may be a brush of brilliance, Vibe pulls from the nostalgic yearning of Tupac’s fans with the reference to Shakur’s first posthumously released album. Another striking detail is the attempted alignment of Tupac’s troubled past and criminal woes with Brown. The visual blending of Shakur and Brown presents a peculiar dichotomy of suffering and masculine expression.
Can Chris Brown join the ranks of Shakur as one of our community’s tragic heroes?
The tragic hero by definition has an immense personality flaw that is agitated by fate and outside forces. Our fascination with celebrities' internal conflicts that manifest themselves in public displays of irrational behavior and actions often blinds us to the reality that they are human as well. Celebrity status, a frenzied and often biased media, and one’s own hubris set up these men of color for the okey doke. Once they fall from grace, they are reintroduced to the marginalized space of our understanding of blackness and masculinity. Chris Brown fell faster than Icarus.
What is most striking about the whole fiasco behind the battery charges, Rihanna, and even the possibility of redemption is that his young black male body bears the brunt of not only his own indiscretions but those of ALL black men. Many critics who protest Brown’s return to the public view force him to embody the actions of what is seemingly all black men who ever thought about or participated in domestic abuse. While I am by no means supporting Brown’s acts of domestic violence, it is problematic that he is the scapegoat for all that is wrong with black manhood. What are the requirements for forgiveness? And who is in charge of those factors?
Let’s return to the idea of paralleling Chris Brown and Tupac Shakur. The narrative of suffering shared by both artists through their music speaks to their lived experience as black men in America. What is most fascinating about Shakur (and probably the key to our fixation with his life) is his enigmatic outlook and borderline schizophrenic perceptions of his manhood and blackness. He was influenced by the mantras of the Black Panther Party and the streets of New York, Baltimore, and Southern California. He can sing the praises of black women (“Dear Mama,” “Keep Ya Head Up”) and cast them aside on the next track. Tupac showed himself as a Thug and a T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. intellectual. We focus on the brilliance and internal conflict that constituted Shakur’s genius. We try to steer away from the rape conviction, incarceration, and negative media blitz surrounding his legacy.
For Chris Brown, we over look his dancing talent and focus on how he Ike Turner’ed Rihanna. Because of spite or a move to avoid bad publicity, Brown is banned from television tributes to Michael Jackson, the man Brown idolized most. What is our angle? Do we both embrace and despise Chris Brown because he reaffirms our embedded understandings of black masculine expression as violent, passionate, and unyielding to reason? Or do we simply see a black male body that is past redemption and can no longer be a functioning member of society?
Why is forgiveness biased? James Brown, Don Cornelius, and, to an extent, even Ike Turner got a second chance. We forgave Tupac. We only forgave Michael Jackson because he passed. Michael Vick is still searching for acceptance.
We can forgive Tupac, why not Chris Brown? I’ll wait.