Open Letter to Chris Brown
by Kevin Powell
March 23rd, 2011
I really did not want to write this open letter, and would have preferred to speak to you in person, in private. Indeed, ever since the domestic violence incident with Rihanna two years ago there have been attempts, by some of the women currently or formerly in your circle, women who love and care deeply about you, to bring you and I together, as they felt my own life story, my own life experiences, might be of some help in your journey. For whatever reasons, that never happened. By pure coincidence, I wound up in a Harlem recording studio with you about three months ago, as I was meeting up with R&B singer Olivia and her manager. You were hosting a listening session for your album-in-progress and the room was filled with gushing supporters, with a very large security guard outside the studio door. I was allowed in, as I assume you knew my name, and my long relationship to the music industry. I greeted you and said I would love to have a talk with you, but I am not even sure you heard a single word I said above the loud music. I gave your security person my card when I left, asked him to ask you to phone me, but you never did, for whatever reasons. And that is fine.
But I have thought of you long and hard as I’ve watched you, from a distance, as you dealt with the charges of physical violence against your then-girlfriend Rihanna, as you were being pummeled by the media and abandoned by many fans, admirers, and endorsers, and ridiculed on the social networks. You were 19 when the altercation with Rihanna occurred, and you are only 21 now. Yes, you’ve achieved both international fame and success in a way most people your age, or any age, could never imagine. But you also are at a very serious crossroads because of the dishonor of your persona derived from your beating Rihanna. There is no way to get around this, Chris. You must deal with it, as a man, now and forever. For our past can both be a prison we are locked in permanently or it can be the key to our freedom if we glean the lessons from it, and deal with it directly. All the external pressures and forces will be there, Chris, but no one can free us but ourselves. And it must start in our minds and in our souls.
That is why I was very saddened to hear about your recent appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” to promote your new cd “F.A.M.E.” The interview was embarrassing, to say the least, you slouched through the entire episode, and you were so clearly defensive as Robin Roberts, the interviewer, threw you what I thought were very easy questions about the Rihanna saga. I get that you want to move past it. But that is not going to happen, Chris, until people see real humility, real redemption, and real changes in how you conduct yourself both publicly and privately. Whether the interview and what happened at ABC studios were a publicity stunt to push your album sales is not the point (as has been suggested in some online blogs). It has been spread across the internet, and throughout the world, that you ripped off your shirt following that interview, got in the face of one of the show’s producers in a threatening manner, and that somehow the window in your dressing room was smashed with a chair. And then there are the photos of you, shirtless, walking outside the ABC studios looking, well, pissed off, immediately after. Finally, you tweeted, somewhere in the midst of that morning, Chris, “I’m so over people bring this past s**t up!! Yet we praise Charlie Sheen and other celebs for [their] bullsh**t.”
Yes, that tweet was taken down very quickly, but not before it was spread near and far also, Chris. And it was a tweet written with raw honesty and, for sure, raw emotion. Very clear to me, as it is to so many of us watching your life unfold in public, that you are deeply wounded, that you are hurt by what you have experienced the past two years. That you’ve never actually healed from what you witnessed as a child, either, of your mother being beaten savagely by your stepfather, and how that must’ve made you feel, in your bones. You’ve said in interviews, long before the Rihanna incident happened, that it made you scared, timid, and that you wet the bed because of the wild, untamed emotions that swirled in your being. I am certain you felt powerless, just as powerless as I felt as a boy when my mother, who I love dearly and have forgiven these many years later, viciously beat me, physically and emotionally, in an effort to discipline me, to prepare me, a Black man-child, for what she, a rural South Carolina-born and bred working-class woman, perceived to be a crude and racist world.
But the fact is, Chris, we cannot afford to teach children, directly or indirectly, that violence and anger in any form are the solutions for our frustrations, disagreements, or pain, and not expect that violence and anger to penetrate the psyche of that child. To be with that child as he, you, me, and countless other American males in our nation, grow from boy to teenager to early adulthood. Ultimately it will come out in some channel, either inwardly on themselves in the manner of serious self-repression, self-loathing, and fear. Or outwardly in the shape of blind rage and violence, against themselves, against others, including women and girls.
You see, Chris, I know much about you because I was you in previous chapters of my life. I am presently in my 40s, a practitioner of yoga, and someone who has spent much of the past 20 years in therapy and counseling sessions. I shudder to think who I would be today had I not made a commitment to constant self-reflection and healing. Yes, like most human beings I do get angry at times, but it is in a very different kind of way, I think long and hard about my words and actions, and if I do make a mistake and offend someone in some way verbally or emotionally, I apologize as quickly as I can. And I am proud to say I have not been involved in a violent incident in many years, that I am about love, peace, and nonviolence now, and this is my path for the rest of my life. I am not willing to go backwards, nor am I going to permit anyone or any scenario to take me backwards, either.
But, Chris, it was not always like this for me. The hurt and pain I felt as a child led to arguments and fights in my grade and high schools: arguments with teachers and principals and physical fights with my classmates. This in spite of the fact I possessed, very early on, the same kind of talents you had coming up. Mine is writing and yours is music. And because we both had gifts that people recognized, the more problematic sides of our personas were often overlooked, or ignored completely. In reality, Chris, I attended four grade schools and three high schools partly because my single mother and I (I am an only child) were very poor, and forced to move a lot; and partly because of my behavioral issues at various schools. Many adults could not understand it because I was routinely a straight-A student breezing through everything from math and science to English.
Yet I was no different than countless American children terrorized by their environments, with no true outlets to understand, and heal, what we were experiencing. That is why, Chris, I eventually was kicked out of Rutgers University, why I got into arguments with my cast mates on the first season of MTV’s “The Real World,” and why I often had beef with my co-workers, as a twenty something hot shot writer at Quincy Jones’ Vibe magazine. And why I was eventually fired from Vibe, Chris, in spite of writing more cover stories than any other writer in the magazine’s history. There was always a darkness in my life, Chris, a heavy sadness, born of years of wounds piled one on top of the other. And I did not begin to grasp this until a fateful day in July 1991 when I pushed my girlfriend at the time into a bathroom door in the middle of an argument. As I have written in other spaces, Chris, when she ran from the apartment, barefoot, it was only then that I recognized the magnitude of what I had done. Just like you I had to deal with public embarrassment and court and a restraining order. But the big difference, Chris, is that a community of people, both women and men, saw potential in me, the boy struggling to be a man, in the early 1990s, and rather than shun me or push me aside or write me off completely, they instead opted to help me.
The first step was returning to therapy, as I had done briefly in 1988 after being suspended from Rutgers for threatening a female student. The next step was my struggling to take ownership for every aspect of my life, and not just that bathroom door incident. That meant, Chris, I had to go very far into my own soul, and return, time and again, to being that little boy who had been violated and abused, and meet him, on his terms. I assure you, Chris, it was extremely difficult to do that, and I put off many issues for months, even years, unwilling or unable to look myself in the mirror. Add to that the sudden celebrity of my life on MTV and at Vibe, and I found myself around many other people who were living escapist lives, who were not bothering to deal with their demons, either. That, Chris, is a recipe for disaster, for a life stuck in a state of arrested development. The worst thing we could ever do is only be in circles of people who are wallowing in their own miseries, too, yet covering it up with fame, money, material things, sex, drugs, alcohol, and an addiction to acting out because that is much easier than actually growing up.
As a matter of fact, as I watched your “Good Morning America” interview, and read the accounts of what happened after, I thought a good deal about the late Tupac Shakur, who I interviewed more than any other journalist when he was alive. Tupac was, Chris, without question, equally the most brilliant and the most frustrating interview subject I’d ever encountered. Brilliant because his abilities as an actor (imagine what he could have been had he lived) were towering, and his writing skills instantly connected him with the man-child in so many American males, especially those of us who grew up as he did, without a consistent and available father figure or mentor, and with some form of turmoil in our lives. But, Chris, I could see the writing on the wall from the very beginning, of Tupac’s downfall, because he willingly participated in it, encouraged it, openly advertised it every single time he rhymed about dying, or spoke about a short shelf life in one of his interviews. I do believe each and every one of us human beings is given a certain amount of time on this planet. I for one feel very blessed to be here as long as I have been, especially given my past destructive paths. But I also believe, Chris, that so many of us participate in what I call self-sabotage, or slow suicide. That is, because we do not have the emotional and spiritual tools to process the many angles of our lives, we instead resort to predictable behavior that may feel empowering or liberating on the surface, but is actually damaging to us, and doing even more harm to us.
For an instance when I looked at the photo of you, shirtless, with the shiny tattoos across your chest, I saw myself, I saw Tupac Shakur, I saw all us American Black boys who so badly want to be free, who so badly want to be understood, who feel life unfair for labeling us “angry,” “difficult,” “violent,” “abusive,” “criminals,” or “cocky” or “arrogant.” Yes, Chris Brown, in spite of Barack Obama being president of the United States, America still very much has a very serious problem with race and racism, which means it still has a very serious problem with Black males who act out or behave badly, who speak their minds, who assert themselves in some way or another. I know that is what you are reacting to, Chris. And you are not wrong in tweeting that Charlie Sheen is catching a break in a way that you are not. I am very clear that Charlie Sheen’s father is Latino and his mother is White. But Charlie Sheen operates in a space of White male privilege because of his White skin and his access to White power, and thus he is given a pass for his violent, abusive, mean-spirited, and drug-addicted outbursts in a way you or I never will, Chris. Charlie Sheen, as insane as it appears, is even celebrated in many circles because of how American male (read, White male) privilege can exist while ignoring the concerns of those he has harmed, including women. That is why, Chris, I rarely discuss in public the chapter of my life that is MTV’s “The Real World.” In spite of who I am as a whole human being, my numerous interests and skill sets, the one thing that was played up were the arguments I had with my White cast mates. So I was labeled, for years and years, Chris, as “the angry Black man,” something that troubled me as deeply as you were bothered on “Good Morning America” by the Rihanna questions. And how certain media folks, including Joy Behar on “The View,” must bother you calling you a “thug,” in spite of the obvious racial overtones of such a loaded word. If you are a thug, then what is Charlie Sheen, or Mel Gibson, or John Mayer, or Jude Law, or any other famous White male who has engaged in bad behavior the past few years? Why are they often forgiven, given a pass, allowed to clean themselves up and to redeem themselves in a way Black males simply cannot, Chris? It is because, to paraphrase Tupac, we were given this world, we did not make it. And it is because of power, Chris, plain and simple. Whoever has the power to put forth images and words, to put forth definitions, to determine what is right and what is wrong, can just as easily label you a star one day and a thug and a has-been the very next day. Or make you, a Black male, the poster child, for every single bad behavior that exists in America. Just ask Black males as diverse as Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson, or Kanye West. No apologies being made by me for these men or their actions, but the chatter, always, in Black male circles is how we are treated when we do wrong as opposed to how our White brothers are treated when they do wrong. Call it racial or cultural paranoia if you’d like. We Black brothers call it a ridiculously oppressive double standard. And that is because America has historically had a very complicated and twisted relationship with Black men, ranging from slavery to the first heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson to Malcolm X and Dr. King both, and including men like Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, Prince, and, yes, Barack Obama. Sometimes we feel incredible love and affection, and sometimes we feel as if we are unwanted, armed, and dangerous. It is a schizophrenic existence, to say the least, and it is akin to how the character Bigger Thomas, in Richard Wright’s classic but controversial novel “Native Son,” saw his life reduced to the metaphor of a cornered black rat. Thus so many of us spend our entire lives, as Black males, navigating this tricky terrain, so few of us with the proper emotional and spiritual tools to balance our coolness with a righteous defiance that, well, will not get us killed, literally and figuratively, by each other or the police, or by the American mass media culture.
I am telling you the truth, Chris Brown, man-to-man, Black man to Black man, because you need to hear it, straight up, no chaser. If you really believe that because you are famous and successful that the same rules apply to you, you are deceiving yourself. Like many, I love people, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, disability, religion, any of that, and I believe deeply in the humanity and equality of us all. But until we have a nation, and a world, where the media places the same energy and excitement in documenting a Black man who is engaging in, say, mentoring work, as it does in a Black man smashing a window at a television station, then we are sadly fooling ourselves, Chris, that things are fair and equal in this universe. They are not. And sometimes it will be big things, like what you just experienced, Chris, at “Good Morning America,” and sometimes it will be quieter moments, far off the radar, where we Black men have to think on the fly about who we are, what we represent, how others perceive us or may want to perceive us, how we say things to people, particularly our White sisters and brothers, for fear or worry of being misunderstood and being pegged as “problematic” or a “troublemaker,” and magically navigate best we can to assert our humanity, our dignity, our leadership, our visions and ideas and dreams, and, yes, our definitions of manhood rooted in our very unique cultural journeys. Complete insanity, this emotional and spiritual juggling act, no question, and our harsh reality in this world, my friend.
So what you have to understand, Chris, and what I had to grapple with for years, is there is no escaping your past, especially if we engage in angry or violent behavior. If we do not confront it, probe and understand it, heal and learn from it, and use what we’ve learned to teach others to go a different way, then it dogs us forever, Chris, and we unwittingly become the entertainment, nonstop, for others. And that simply does not have to be the case for you, Chris. You are too much of a genius to allow this to destroy you, but your self-destruction is exactly what many of us are witnessing. I have no idea who is around you at this point, or what kind of men, specifically, are advising you, but the worst possible thing you could do is act as if what happened with Rihanna was no big deal. It was and is a major deal because women and girls, in America, and on this earth, are beaten, stabbed, shot, murdered, raped, molested, every single day. Because of your fame you have become, unfortunately, a poster child for this destructive behavior in spite of your proclaiming just a few years before, in a magazine interview, you would never do to a woman what had happened to your mother. What I gathered, very quickly, Chris, after I pushed that girlfriend back in 1991, was that I could not hide from my demons or myself. That is why I wrote an essay in Essence magazine in September 1992 entitled “The Sexist in Me.” That is why I made it a point to listen to women and girls in my travels, in my community, even within my family, tell stories of how they had been violated or abused by one man or another. And that is why, Chris, nearly twenty years later, so much of my work as a leader, as an activist, as a public speaker, is dedicated to ending violence against women and girls. In other words, I took what was a very negative and hurtful experience, for that girlfriend, and for myself, and transformed it into a life of teaching other males how to deal with their hurts without hurting others, particularly women and girls.
Tupac Shakur, Chris, never got to turn the corner, as you well know, because he was gunned down at age 25. I do not know if he actually raped or sexually assaulted the woman in that hotel room as he was charged. But one thing he did admit to me, Chris, in that famous Rikers Island interview, was that he could have stopped his male friends from coming into his hotel room and sexually exploiting his female companion that night. And he did not. You, Chris Brown, cannot turn back the hands of time to February 2009. We have seen the photos of Rihanna’s battered and bruised face. Yes, you’ve apologized, yes, you’ve done your time in court and your hours of community service, and yes, and you have been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. But it is really up to you, Chris, to decide in these tense moments, as you approach your 22nd birthday on May 5th, if you want to be a boy forever locked in the time capsule of your own battered and bruised life, or if you want to be the man so many of us are rooting for you to be, one who will take responsibility for all his actions, who will sit up in interviews and answer all questions, even the uncomfortable ones. And the kind of man who will admit, once and for all, publicly, privately, however you must do it, that you need help, that you need love, that you need to love yourself in a very different kind of way, that you no longer will hide behind an album release, music videos, dyed hair, tattoos, or even your twitter account, Chris Brown. That you will make a life-long commitment to counseling, to therapy, to healing, to alternative definitions of manhood rooted in nonviolence, love, and peace, that you will become a loud and consistent voice against all forms of violence against women and girls, wherever you go, as I do, for the rest of your life. All eyes are on you because you’ve brought the world to your doorstep, my friend. The question alas, Chris, is do you want to go forward or not? And if yes to going forward, then you must know it means going to the deepest and darkest parts of your past to heal what ails you, once and for all, for the good of yourself, and for the good of those who are watching you very closely and who may learn something from what you do. Or what you do not do. The choice is yours, Chris Brown. The choice is yours—
Kevin Powell is an activist, public speaker, and award-winning author or editor of 10 books, including Open Letters to America (essays) and No Sleep Till Brooklyn (poetry). Kevin lives in Brooklyn, New York. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell