Separating art from the artist: the case of Chris Brown

By Hayley Thompson
December 11, 2018


At just 7 years old, I fell in love with R&B music. I remember picking out my first two CDs around the years of 2005 and 2006. They were Ciara‘s debut album Goodies and the self-titled, multi-platinum debut album Chris Brown.

Chris Brown’s debut self-titled album (2005). Photo by Jive Records, now a part of RCA Records

Not only do I still have these CDs to this day but I still listen to the songs that are on them. I realized that R&B music was timeless to me and the way that it made me feel was almost indescribable. If music could make me feel this good, I told myself that I would never stop listening to it.

Four years later, it’s now 2009 and R&B artist Chris Brown was no longer the innocent 16-year-old powerhouse singer that he was known as before. With two more albums released, that was one of the last things that people were talking about. Brown went from being “the new Michael Jackson” to public enemy number one.

Most of us know what happened just hours before the 2009 Grammys. Chris Brown assaulted his then girlfriend, Rihanna, and pled guilty to a felony assault charge. He received five years of probation, community service and a year of domestic violence counseling. According to CNN, his rehab facility stated that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and drug use.

Around this time I felt very discouraged. I grew up idolizing his music and now he was a criminal going to jail. I was only 11 years old at the time and I was angry. I was too young to understand what could drive anybody to do something like that. I began to view him the same way everyone else viewed him; as a monster.

Even though at that point I did not like who he was as a person, I still found myself listening to his early music. I think it made it easier hearing his young, child-like voice on the tracks. As I understand about myself now, I try my best to see the human in everyone. I knew he was broken and I knew that he needed to get help.

As a child, Chris Brown witnessed years of domestic abuse against his mother by his stepfather. As reported by MTV, the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline Sheryl Cates said that intergenerational abusive behavior is not unusual. “It’s a learned behavior. It can be unlearned.” As Chris Brown had a deep hatred for his stepfather, he began to realize that he had become exactly what he had hated the most.

I believe in rehabilitation. No one, in my mind, is considered bad forever. Everyone has the chance to learn from their mistakes and become a better person. He was certainly open to fixing himself. I decided to continue to listen to Chris Brown’s music not only because it was good but because it was honest and real.

I went to my first Chris Brown concert my junior year of high school. I finally experienced first-hand why he was known as “the new Michael Jackson.” Chris Brown is an incredible performer and really knows how to put on a show. I decided to not only buy tickets for his following tour but I purchased the meet and greet package as well.

My VIP pass for Chris Brown’s One Hell of a Nite Tour. Photo by Hayley Thompson/Staff Writer

It was the summer going into my senior year and I was going through a lot at that time. I wasn’t in the best place because I stopped participating in what my life revolved around, competitive cheerleading, and my grandmother had just passed. I was absolutely feeling very down and lost.

Although there were a few setbacks that night (that have zero significance today), it was one of the best nights of my life. I met the man behind the music. I was face-to-face with someone I idolized since I was seven. I kept thinking to myself, “He’s real.”

It’s unfortunate that we had to put our phones in a box and we were only allowed one photo with him. However, I’ll be forever grateful for that photo. That picture stands for more than a Chris Brown fan meeting Chris Brown. As I felt somewhat stuck in a hole at the time, this was my first glimpse of happiness and hope. That picture reminds me that no matter how down I may be feeling, I can always find light in the darkness.

Fast forward to now, I still cherish that night. On Oct. 25 of this year, I decided to post that photo on my Instagram page. As I was picking the best filters to make me look good next to him, I was getting excited to post it on my page. Looking at that photo brought back memories and feelings from that night. It stood as a reminder to always have hope that things could change for the better. I certainly needed that remembrance.

Shortly after posting the photo, my excitement and positivity quickly diminished and I was back to feeling very down. My picture was bombarded with comments from a survivor of domestic abuse who followed me. She was very angry that I could support a “psychopath” like Chris Brown. As she kept commenting paragraphs on my picture, I simply deleted each comment. I wasn’t silencing her, I just didn’t want huge arguments and negativity on my page. I direct messaged her immediately to have a private conversation about this, like an adult.

The picture of me and Chris Brown. Photo by Hayley Thompson/Staff Writer

She did not like that I deleted her comments and posted plenty of screenshots on her Instagram story for her 30,000 followers to see. “She deleted every comment I’ve made because she just wants the attention of being seen with this man but not the consequences of what it means to support psychopaths who beat and rape our sisters. Don’t be this girl.”

My page was now being flooded with more comments and they were all from her followers. I deleted those as well because I did not want to dwell on it. Each comment was telling me all about how much of a bad person I am because I posed with Chris Brown.

As I was being bashed with hate, the same thought stuck in my head. If those on the other side took the time to listen to my perspective rather than having such a closed mindset, they would have been surprised. They would have learned that we both don’t condone rape and assault and we both advocate for women.

I like Chris Brown’s music but I do not condone his behavior. That is not mutually exclusive. I have come to realize that some people cannot separate the art from the artist. I respect their decision to do so but they should not assume that every person who still listens to that artist’s music supports the crimes that they have committed.

I have a close friend here at Cabrini University who was in an abusive relationship and she still loves Chris Brown’s music. In no way would she ever support abuse because she knows what it feels like. She has gone through it. However, she allows herself to enjoy music that she believes is good regardless of who made it.

I put up a poll on my Instagram story asking who still listens to Chris Brown’s music despite the bad things that he has done. Out of 1,872 views, 231 people voted yes and 155 people voted no. That means 60 percent of the people who voted still listen to his music.

I was expecting the voting to be pretty close. I realized that a lot of the people who said that they don’t listen to his music were from other countries and weren’t fully aware of who Chris Brown even is. Someone even replied saying, “What did he done?” I didn’t want this poll to be taken as “Do you like Chris Brown’s music or not?” I decided to post an open-ended question to get my follower’s real opinions.

I asked if you should boycott an artist due to their personal lives and criminal records. I provided examples of artists like Lil Wayne, Tupac, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. I received mostly no’s and even longer responses like “No, I can’t [boycott them] because I love their music. I don’t care about what they done. Although, some were bad.” One person replied with a simple “Yes” and another said it depends on what it is that they have done.

What I have learned throughout all of this is that everyone draws their own line when it comes to artists with criminal records. There are plenty of rappers and singers today with multiple felonies to their name but society never seems to reflect that onto their music if they think it sounds really good. Perhaps a majority of their listeners aren’t aware that these artists have done such terrible things because it wasn’t widely publicized. Or maybe, along with me, they believe that an artist’s work has value in its own right.

I think that when it comes to situations like this, it is important to respect other’s choices. I choose to listen to Chris Brown’s music because I truly enjoy it and it makes me happy. I know that other people out there cannot do the same because of his past. I respect their decision as they should respect mine.

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Hayley Thompson

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