What Does It Mean that Rihanna Has Collaborated with Former Abuser Chris Brown?

It’s impossible to consider without a semblance of heartbreak, and a little bile in your throat: on Monday night, three years after Chris Brown was arrested for violently beating then-girlfriend Rihanna to a pulp, the duo released not one, but two collaborative songs together.

Fans were expecting it. Late last week, rumors of their existence began to surface, and Brown had supposedly showed up at Rihanna’s birthday party. Some refused to believe it. Others were actually ecstatic, their loyalty to both stars finally justified by co-signs from the parties themselves. Because, while feminist groups were launching Brown boycotts on Twitter during his undeserved double-Grammy performance, his fans were defending him. During the Grammys, a young white woman tweeted, “I don’t know why Rihanna complained. Chris Brown could beat me anytime he wanted to.” A short time later, Brown, who’s fond of gloating at his “haters” on Twitter, Tweeted, “HATE ALL U WANT CUZ I GOT A GRAMMY NOW! That’s the ultimate FUCK OFF!”

At the very least, it’s a sign that the Grammys are focused less on implication and consequences and more on revenue. (Later in the night the awards show also made a tribute to Glen Campbell, who abused his own equally famous girlfriend, Tanya Tucker.) Chris Brown’s new single, “Turn Up the Music,” is a dance club anthem and fairly faithful copy of an LMFAO idea, which is fairly innocuous...until his guest star’s vocals cut in on the remix. “Turn up the music 'cause I feel a little turned on,” sings Rihanna, “Turn up the music don’t you try to turn me down. Turn up the music can I feel it just a little more. Turn up the music build me up and take me down.”

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Rihanna is an artist who I adore, but she’s been involved before in projects that glamorize abusive relationships—like the “Love The Way You Lie” video, in which she co-starred with rapper Eminem, who has himself been charged with domestic violence. It’s hard to hear the lyrics “Build me up and take me down” without imagining that Rihanna’s involvement in this is not a good-faith effort to forgive a repentant attacker (anyone who follows Brown’s Twitter knows he has repented in theory only). Instead, Rihanna comes off as a victim caught in a cycle of abuse—behavior she’d be familiar with from watching her father abuse her mother, and which could very well have been normalized for her. This musical collaboration feels like the honeymoon period, just before another explosion.

Even more disturbing: the second musical collaboration is on “Birthday Cake,” a highly sexual track from her latest album Talk That Talk, which features Brown. What was an ostensibly empowering song for Rihanna—she demands sexual primacy, cunnilingus, and says she wants to make her partner “my bitch”—becomes a vehicle for Brown’s demands, and it’s deeply unsettling. His verse: “Girl I wanna fuck you right now/ Been a long time, I’ve been missing your body/ Let me, Let me turn the lights down/ When I wanna go down, it’s a private party.” It is impossible to dissociate the violence Brown perpetrated on her with the animalistic entitlement in his voice. They trade a couple more bars in rap form, but as a pop song it’s a flop. As a cultural document of the normalization of violence against women, though, it couldn’t get any more distilled.

Last week Rihanna Tweeted, “No pain is forever,” presumably addressing the rumors that they would collaborate, and pre-empting the notion that she did anything against her will. But it’s difficult to imagine there were not instigators behind the songs who made it possible: greedy executives, perhaps. Most certainly there have been yes men all along the way, people who have both advised poorly in the interest of earnings and fame, and those who have surrounded Chris Brown and allowed him to act unrepentant, impetuous and incredulous that anyone could possibly see fault in him.

But we’ve seen the police photos of Rihanna’s pulped-up face after he pummelled her with his fists. We’ve seen his tweets, his homophobic rantings toward a former member of boy band B2K, who was allegedly sexually abused. He does not behave like a man with remorse. He does not even behave like a man with a conscience. But make no mistake: the new Rihanna collaboration only helps Chris Brown. Not Rihanna. Just Chris Brown. Helps clear his name in the public. (Fans have already wondered, “Why would she work with him if he was not reformed?”) Helps boost his forthcoming album sales. Helps to justify his subsequent behavior, to further imbue him with the feeling of self-righteousness he has exuded for the past few years.

Meanwhile, last week, even before the songs were released, there were no less than three think-pieces on the Web sites of major music magazines asking whether Rihanna was ruining her career with the collaboration. Each written by white men, they all had a distinctly victim-blaming tone to them, as though Rihanna was at full fault. Of course she deserves some responsibility for the collaborations—and knowing her public persona, it’s not unfathomable that she did it in part to be rebellious, to prove that she does not do what others tell her, which also fits into the quintessential abuse-cycle.

But her recent state of mind feels important for context: in November, she was hospitalized for severe exhaustion. In early December, she was placed on 24-hour health watch, and advised by doctors to cut back on the “partying.” In late December, during a sold-out performance in Lisbon, she raced off stage to throw up, a symptom of her packed tour schedule, which had been going almost nonstop for six months, from June to December. It’s worrisome, to say the least.

Meanwhile, it’s disingenuous for fans to say, as they have on Twitter, that “their business is their business,” and that we should stay out of it. When the incident happened, Rihanna and Brown were the two most popular young stars in music, and after a brief setback for Brown, they remain as such. Most importantly, this collaboration sends a dangerous and terrifying message to fans of Rihanna and Brown, many of whom are very young and impressionable and worship either or both.

At one point, Rihanna recognized this. In a 2009 interview with Diane Sawyer, she acknowledged that to go back to Brown would send the wrong message to her fans, and to herself. Whether she’s had a change of heart is her prerogative, and certainly up for dispute by the public, which is horribly acclimated to the abuse of women. There’s certainly something we can all agree on: this is not likely to end well.


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