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Music Last Updated: Apr 10th, 2009 - 07:35:50

Rhythm and Beatdown?
By Mark Anthony Neal--Critical Noir,
Feb 25, 2009, 10:14

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The recent accusations, regarding Chris Brown's alleged attack on girlfriend and fellow R&B and Pop star Rihanna Fenty, has brought the issue of domestic abuse to the
forefront, particularly in Black communities. In far too many Black communities, the choice has been to treat issues of domestic abuse and sexual abuse with hushed tones, presuming that such issues are best handled within the privacy of the home. But like the R. Kelly child pornography case, the Chris Brown/Rihanna drama, puts these issues on the front page and demands that our communities come to terms with the prevalence domestic violence in our lives.

According to the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community at the University of Minnesota, Black women reported 30 percent more cases of intimate partner violence than their White peers. And while domestic violence also occurs to men, Black women are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than men. It goes without saying, that a significant number of incidents go unreported, which likely would have been the case if witnesses to the purported dispute between Brown and Renty had not intervened by calling law enforcement officers. In cases of domestic violence such interventions are crucial, because Black Women are far more likely to be victims of homicides related to intimate partner violence. As a community, Black Americans account for 33 percent of such homicides with Black women specifically accounting for 22 percent of these cases (though they make up only 8% of the national population) and 42 percent percent of all female homicides related to domestic violence. These numbers suggest a national crisis existed, well before fans speculated about the absences of Brown and Fenty at the recent Grammy Awards.

Brown is viewed as a clean-cut alternative to much of what passes as Black urban youth culture and he and Fenty were viewed as ideal role models for the hip-hop generation. That Brown might be guilty of intimate partner abuse is a shock to those who see his image as out of sync with such behavior. Audiences and fans would more readily assume that such behavior would occur at the hands of mainstream rap artists, whose lyrics gratuitously trade in metaphors of violence against women. To the contrary, some of its most well known Black artists have been accused of violence against women and incorporated such violence into some of their music.

One of the most memorable images of James Brown, was the mug shot of the late Soul music genius, after he was arrested on charges of domestic abuse in January of 2004. As Michael Eric Dyson suggest in his book Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves, and Demons of Marvin Gaye, such behavior was part of a pattern in Brown's life dating back to his volatile relationship with a very young Tammi Terrell in the mid- 1960s, before Terrell became renowned for her romantic duets with Marvin Gaye. In the 1970s, classic soul singer Bill Withers was long rumored to have battered his then wife, actress Denise Nicholas, though such rumors were never publicly substantiated. Nevertheless, within the context of such rumors a song like "Who Is He (And What is He to You)?" takes on a different meaning. And then there's the case of the legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, who rather gleefully recounted battering his wife Cicely Tyson in the pages of his autobiography Miles.

Those individual examples aside, the music itself has also been a site where the drama of violence against Black women has played out. Perhaps the most well known example is the music video for the R. Kelly/Ronald Isley collaboration "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)." The video was the first in a series of very popular videos with Kelly and Isley (as alter-ego "Mr. Biggs"). On some level the videos are laughable (though entertaining), if not for their regular trafficking in particularly troubling gender politics. For example the video for "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)" ends with the image of actress Garcelle Beauvais in the role of "Lila Heart," laying near death in a hospital bed because of injuries she sustained in a beatdown ordered by her jealous lover, "Mr. Biggs." In "Contagious," a later video in the cycle, where Kelly and Mr. Biggs spar over singer Chante Moore, the latter's character is told "shut-up, can't you see two men are talking? Told your ass to get to walking" when she tries to intercede between the two men.

Even a beloved r&b figure like the late Gerald Levert wasn't beyond gravitating to such narratives as was the case on his track "Eyes and Ears" from his 2003 recording Stroke of Genius. On the track, Levert is joined by his father Eddie and late brother Sean. The song is a troubling glimpse at the responses of a group of men when one of them suspects infidelity on that part of a female partner. One of the men, for example, offers to "whip that ass?" in response to the woman's presumed "transgression." At the end of "Eyes and Ears" we're left with the trio of men bantering back and forth singing lines like "we don't love them hoes" and "let me freak her out, let me freak her out...We gonna freak her out" (a threat of a gang rape perhaps?) and "daddy" chiming in "ever since you were boys, I told you to pay your taxes and leave them bitches alone."

Even the mainstream commercial fare of Tyler Perry is marked by a proclivity towards violence towards women. Though Perry is deservedly applauded for recognizing a niche market for Black film and television and is to be commended for making the politics of the "Black Bible Belt" visible for many Americans, his films has long expressed a rather disturbing view of Black women where Perry's popular character "Madea" functions as little more than "Patriarchy in Drag." Of course there are those who might believe that Perry's use of domestic violence is films such as Madea's Family Reunion (2006) places a spotlight on the incidence of domestic violence in Black communities.

But often, Perry's films address domestic violence in a manner that places the onus of such violence on the victim. Such was the case with his most studio release "The Family that Preys" (2008) which details the exploits of a college-educated professional Black woman (Sanaa Lathan) who is cheating on her "working class" husband (Rockmond Dunbar). The story-line played to a well-worn mythology about professional black women and their so-called proclivity towards emasculating black men. In the film's critical confrontation, where Dunbar's character finally comes to terms with his wife's infidelity, he reacts by literally smacking her across a lunch counter. Because so many viewers had come to empathize with Dunbar's character throughout the film, it is not surprising that some would think that his use of violence was justified in that instance. Indeed, audiences loudly applauded his act of violence in the theater in which I viewed the film.

As the case between Chris Brown and Rihanna Fenty continues to unfold, there have been some who suggest that if Brown had indeed battered Fenty, it was only because he was provoked to do so. Unfortunately that excuse is made for far too many men, especially in a society that often views women and girls as little more than the property of the men in their lives. As Kevin Powell has recently suggested, we must be vigilante in our rejection of violence as a legitimate choice of mediating conflict, regardless of whether the victims or perpetrators are male or female.

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