R&B Singer Chris Brown: Redeemed Or Unrepentant?

R&B hitmaker Chris Brown has a new album in stores titled "Graffiti." As with any new project by a major artist, the album is being heavily promoted. But some still find it difficult to separate the young and talented singer from his troubled past. Earlier this year, Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault of his then-girlfriend, fellow music superstar Rihanna. LZ Granderson, senior writer and columnist for ESPN Magazine and ESPN.com, and Tracey Johnson, co-owner and editor of pop music blog neonlimelight.com, discuss Brown's attempt to regain his standing in the music world amid a chorus of critics and skeptical fans.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I'll share my thoughts in my Can I Just Tell You commentary. That's later. But first, R&B singer Chris Brown's new album "Graffiti" is now in stores, and it might be an occasion for a write-up in the entertainment sections of the newspaper or the celebrity mags, except that Brown was involved in one of the year's uglier incidents involving a star's behavior when he, according to authorities, beat his then-girlfriend Rihanna so badly after an argument that she required medical attention and did not make any public appearances for months.

Brown's album has received lukewarm reviews, but few seem to be able to separate Brown's music from his behavior. So we wanted to ask the question: Can you? Should you?

Joining us now to share two views are LZ Granderson. He's a senior writer and columnist for ESPN magazine and ESPN.com. Also joining us is Tracey Johnson. She's the co-owner and editor of neonlimelight.com. That's a pop music blog. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. LZ GRANDERSON (ESPN): Thank you for having us.

Ms. TRACEY JOHNSON (neonlimelight.com): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: LZ, you recently penned an opinion piece for CNN entitled "Why I Don't Feel Like Dancing to Chris Brown's Music." Why not?

Mr. GRANDERSON: I still feel that he hasn't talked about what happened publicly and openly and honestly enough. I think he's in such a hurry to get everyone to forget what happened that he's not really processing that it takes time for not only those who were directly involved with the incident, but because of who he is and the type of fan base that he has, that some of his fans are going to take some time, too, because that wasn't the image that we have of him. You know, listening to "Graffiti" just doesn't appeal to me at all.

MARTIN: Both Chris Brown and Rihanna have given interviews. Rihanna was on ABC's "Good Morning America," speaking to Diane Sawyer. And then a couple of weeks later, Chris Brown was also on "Good Morning America," speaking to Robin Roberts, and she asked him to respond to what Rihanna had said previously. I'm just going to play a short clip of that part of the interview. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Good Morning America")

Ms. RIHANNA (Singer): It's almost as though he had nothing to lose. He has so much to lose. It wasn't the same person that says I love you. It was not those - it definitely weren't those eyes.

Ms. ROBIN ROBERTS (Co-host, "Good Morning America"): Is that accurate?

Mr. CHRIS BROWN (Singer): I was wrong for what I did, and I would definitely say that. It's not something I would pass or look over. It's something that's really, really touchy. And like I said, I'm really sorry for what went down and what happened.

MARTIN: LZ, is that not enough?

Mr. GRANDERSON: He has yet to say what it is. Having been a journalist for 15, going on 16 years, I understand the type of meetings that someone like a Chris Brown would have with his publicist and with his agent and with his handlers. I understand the type of equivocal language that they would equip you with so that your name does not get directly linked to such ugly words as domestic violence.

And because he, in my opinion, is following that script, I'm having a hard time going all the way with him, and it's because of the handling that's being done. Even in that short clip: what went down, what I did - again, not saying exactly what happened, and there is some power in that.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying. You don't hear him say: I am sorry for what I did, and this is what I did. I lost control of myself. I did - you know, I see what you're saying.

Well, Tracey, let's bring you into the conversation. You recently gave a positive review to the new album. Was the whole February incident in your mind, the behavior? Why don't we just call it what it is? He beat up his girlfriend and hurt her very badly.

Ms. JOHNSON: Definitely.

MARTIN: Was that in your mind when you were listening to the album?

Ms. JOHNSON: It definitely was. You hear certain lyrics, and it takes you back to that time. I would be kind of inhuman if I didn't think about it, but at the same time, I tried my best to separate that with the actual album that was in front of me.

MARTIN: And how come?

Ms. JOHNSON: I just feel like we shouldn't crucify him for a mistake he made. I feel like he is owning up to it. He's out there getting counseling. He said repeatedly that he is sorry. He's spoken with her saying that he's sorry. And if we want him to grow and learn from this, then we have to try to give him that space to do so.

MARTIN: You know, one of the critiques of the album is some people feel it's just too lighthearted given the context and Rihanna, for example, recently released "Rated R," a very emotional album and there's some fairly, I don't know what's the word I'm looking for, just the kind of emotionally layered pieces on the album. I mean you could like them or not like them, but that some people feel that it's sort of emotionally kind of fits the moment better than this.

I just want to play a short clip from the first single, Chris Brown's first single, "Transform Ya." Just so people can get a little sense of what we're talking about. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "I Can Transform Ya")

CHRIS BROWN (Singer, performer): Transform ya. Need a ride, I can range you up. Money, I can change you up. You can ride your own, no longer be the passenger. Swag low, I build you up. Knees, we can stand you up. Red lips, red dress, like 'em like a fire truck. What you need, you can have that. My black card, they don't decline that. See potential in ya, let me mold that. I can transform ya. I can transform ya. I can transform ya. I can transform ya...

MARTIN: I want to hear from each of you. How do you hear that? Tracey, how are you hearing that? I mean it is a nice beat.

Ms. JOHNSON: I hear it as a guy who always made party records. He's thinking about his fan base, what they expect from him, and he's appeasing them, not the critics.

MARTIN: LZ, how do you hear it? I'm sorry. You know, in fact, you told us that you haven't listened to the album and you don't want to listen to it. And I apologize for imposing it on you because, you know, you laid down that marker.

Mr. GRANDERSON: No it's...

MARTIN: But...

Mr. GRANDERSON: It's fine. I did hear the first single in its entirety because I wanted to give him a chance and it just sounds as if there's a total disconnect from the person and the product that he's producing. And you know what? Some recording artists are like that. Some are just products. But I had always believed that he was an artist, a holistic artist that expressed things that was actually going on within himself and shared it with us. And when I hear that song, I hope that he's just not sharing where he is right now emotionally and mentally, because if that's where he is, then I don't think he's dealt with the Rihanna situation at all.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with LZ Granderson. He's senior writer and columnist for ESPN magazine, and Tracey Johnson, editor of neonlimelight.com, a pop music blog. And we're talking about Chris Brown's new album "Graffiti." Can you separate the behavior from the music? Should you even try?

You know, I wanted to raise a - Essence.com recently published a piece by Michaela Angela Davis talking about the dilemma of artists whom we otherwise appreciate but then when it becomes known that their behavior in some other realm is objectionable to us. And she raised earlier Miles Davis, for example, the great Miles Davis. And then it became known that he had been abusive in his relationship with another woman whom we very much admire, Cicely Tyson.

She talked about how should we feel about all this. And what was interesting to me were the reader comments. Many of them from women, presumably women of color, saying why should we join the haters and cast him out to, you know, what's he supposed to do the rest of his life? This is his profession. If we believe in redemption, how can we then deprive him of the opportunity to earn a living? So I have to raise that and ask, what do you think about that? Tracey?

Ms. JOHNSON: I wholeheartedly agree with some of those sentiments. If we want him to grow, this is what everyone's saying, they want him to learn from this and be a better man and do all that he can to change, how are we supposed to allow him to do that if we cast aside the very thing that gives him life, and that's his career? He loves to sing. He loves to perform. If we don't try to at least give him the chance to do so then how is he ever going to learn?

MARTIN: What about LZ's point that this behavior is objectionable and he doesn't seem to be taking it seriously? Even his language in recent interviews seems to sort of distance himself from his own conduct.

Ms. JOHNSON: I do agree with what LZ said about the language. It is something that's still a little touchy to me, but at the same time, I cannot tell him what to say. He has made his apologies. He has said that he made apologies directly to Rihanna. I don't think that we should crucify him for it.

MARTIN: LZ, what about Tracey's point of the point of some of these - some of the commentators to the Essence site saying he's 20 years old. He was 19 years old when the incident occurred. He's 20 years old now. A lot of people say he's a very young man. He needs a chance to recover from his mistake.

Mr. GRANDERSON: You know, I think it's indicative about the way that we feel about domestic violence in general in our culture. Many of us grew up with being spoon-fed images of domestic violence in a non-threatening, non-serious sort of fashion. I, you know, can think about, you know, "The Honeymooners" and I'm going to knock you to the moon. Ricky Ricardo spanking Lucy - putting her across his lap and he's spanking her. I mean these are the images that we've been fed for decades and decades and so it doesn't surprise me at all that we do not fully embrace the seriousness behind domestic violence. I think if we changed our attitude about what happened in terms of what's happening every day in homes all across this country, then I think we will talk about how we deal with an artist like a Chris Brown differently.

But because we tend to see it as something that happens between just couples, especially in the African-American community, or something that happens and is bad, but not as bad as some of the other things. I think we're far more forgiving and dismissive of domestic violence than we should be.

MARTIN: And Tracey, there are those who believe that, and I'm going to go to a sensitive place here, that African-American women are too quick to forgive and enable sme of this conduct, in part because there is a sense that African-American men have a tough time and we, you know, have to - the collective we, the community - has to support them. And there are those who argue that this is the - part of the reason that this behavior is perpetuated is that people don't draw a tough enough line. What do you think about that?

Ms. JOHNSON: You know, if there was a history of domestic violence within this person then I would definitely agree with that. But this is someone who had one incident - even Rihanna said so - he never did it before. He got caught. He pled guilty. He's getting counseling. I don't think he fits that script of the guy who has that history of domestic violence who should kind of not be able to work his livelihood because he doesn't deserve to.

MARTIN: Tracey, do I have it right, that you are planning to go to a Chris Brown concert tonight. Do I have that right? Monday night?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes. Yes. I am going to his concert tonight.

MARTIN: What do you expect to see when you go?

Ms. JOHNSON: I expect for him to perform, you know, just give a great show to his fans who - that's what they've come to expect from him.

MARTIN: Who do you think will be there?

Ms. JOHNSON: Definitely a lot of teenaged girls.

MARTIN: Can I push you on this point though? If you had a teenaged girl do you think - now you're a grown woman. You know, you're a grown woman and you've kind of thought this through for yourself and this is your livelihood as well. Do you think you'd let your young girl - your teenage girl go, if you had one?

Ms. JOHNSON: I would. I definitely would. I would have to make sure that she understood what he did was not right, that he is making amends for it. But he's not going to get on stage and beat a woman so I don't see why I shouldn't let her go.

MARTIN: LZ, final thought from you? You have a son.

Mr. GRANDERSON: I have a son.

MARTIN: Okay. Yeah.

Mr. GRANDERSON: He'll be 13 on Sunday and he was playing Chris Brown one morning and I let him, you know, play it. And then I just, after the song was over, you know, we talked about what happened and he didn't have all the details. He doesn't really follow pop culture all that extensively. And then the first thing he asked was: Dad, did he say he was sorry? And I said, he did and he didn't. And my son and I, you know, we talk about equivocal language, you know, that when you take ownership of something you take complete ownership of it. You don't, you know, edit the pieces that makes you feel more comfortable. You just go ahead and say what you did. And I told him how his apology went and my son doesn't listen to him anymore.

Now, I want Chris Brown to have a successful career. I want him to have all the things that he's worked hard for and has earned and I don't want him to be ridiculed and crucified for an accident he committed when he was 19 years old, but right now, knowing that the incident happened this year, seeing him use the equivocal language and then the concert - the thank you concerts and donating money to an organization but not saying that the organization was for domestic violence. I mean these are the things that are just rubbing me the wrong way. So you know, next year, 2010, I don't know I'll probably listen to him again because I think he's a great artist. Just right now I need more time as a fan to deal with how he's dealing with it.

MARTIN: LZ Granderson is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN magazine and ESPN.com. He was kind enough to join us from WGVU in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Tracey Johnson is a co-owner and editor of neonlimelight.com. That's a pop music blog. She joined us from member station WYPR in Baltimore, Maryland. If you want to read both pieces that we've been talking about, we'll have links on our Web site. Just go to NPR.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you.

Mr. GRANDERSON: Thank you.

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