Until I saw a rerun of the Tammi Terrell Unsung episode, I had no idea that she’d had a relationship with James Brown and that the Godfather of Soul once beat her down a flight of stairs because she didn’t watch his performance from beginning to end.
Terrell left the music business immediately after that beating and entered a pre-med program at University of Pennsylvania. But two years later she was back onstage and in another abusive relationship, this time with David Ruffin of the Temptations.
The late singer’s return to show business and intimate partner abuse took place in the mid-1960s, way before 24-hour news coverage, Oprah and the internet. Misdeeds, crimes and instability were private affairs. The lives of entertainers weren’t presented as facsimiles of the everyday. Terell’s abuse was an open secret, but it was never, ever normalized or condoned by defensive fans of the men who brutalized her.
Of course things are different now. In a struggling music business, fans have more power than ever. They can demand that their celebrities look “flawless” at the airport and superhuman on stage but “real” in their (invaded) private lives. To remain successful, they have to project an image of accessibility on Twitter while simultaneously messaging one another in cool kid code so that followers have something to divine.
In a bizarre environment like this, I understand why some fans, fellow entertainers, parents, teachers, activists and media expect 24-year-old Robyn Rihanna Fenty to forever banish her 22-year-old ex-boyfriend Chris Brown. As that script goes, they’ve entered into a social contract with the public. They are young and famous and should be forever mindful of the example they’re setting.
And besides, their fame dragged us into this mess, right? With two or three clicks, we can replay their sad relationship via a detailed police account of the 2009 pre-Grammy beating he gave her, images of her pummeled face, and reports of their stutter-step attempts at healing. For every act of contrition and legal compliance, we have evidence of Brown acting a fool backstage at Good Morning America and on Twitter. (See his tangles with Frank Ocean and, most recently, WWE wrestler CM Punk.)
Now, a little more than a week after Brown’s return to the Grammys, we have Rihanna lending lovey dovey language to the remix of his “Turn Up the Music,” and his slackness-lite contribution to her celebration of sexual dominance, “Birthday Cake.”For me, these remixes have made them ineligible for Cautionary Tale status. Well-meaning adults and critics can no longer use them as an entry point to discuss the everyday realities of domestic violence with “the youth” because Brown, Rihanna and the people who profit from their lives have complicated the script. I believe they’ve done this on purpose but even if they weren’t that calculated it’s past time for us to figure out engaging ways to talk to our children and young adults about the unglamorous, un-Grammied consequences of intimate partner abuse that don’t include these two.
It’s true that Chris Brown and Rihanna display common traits of abuse victims and abusers and their relationship recidivism is textbook behavior. But they’re also a wily pair who can deploy their talent, popularity, consumer products, fans and critics to recreate their personal roles and escape from the realities that most folks can’t. In other words, they’re using us. Now, perhaps the healthiest thing we can do is to deprive them of the attention they so desperately need and move on.
Akiba Solomon is an NABJ-Award winning writer, freelance journalist, editor and essayist from West Philadelphia. She writes about the intersection between gender and race for Colorlines and is the co-editor of Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts .