Was Rapper Danny Brown Sexually Assaulted?

Some people were outraged when a fan seemed to perform a sexual act on rapper Danny Brown during a concert. The controversy raised questions about sexual assault against men and hip-hop masculinity. Host Michel Martin talks to a roundtable of pop culture experts.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, as we approach Mother's Day this Sunday, we're checking out a new book. It's called "What My Mother Gave Me." It's about the special gift mothers give their daughters. That's just ahead.

But first, we want to talk about something that, if you follow hip-hop, you might have heard about, and if you haven't, you probably will. And this is probably a good time to tell you that this discussion will involve issues of sexuality that might not be appropriate for all listeners.

At a concert in Minneapolis recently, a woman from the audience allegedly performed a sex act on rapper Danny Brown during the show. There's been a storm of reaction to this on social media, and we thought this whole issue and the response to it raised some interesting and important questions about sexuality, about sexuality in popular media, and especially hip-hop.

So to talk about this, we've called Mark Anthony Neal. He is a professor of black popular culture at Duke University. Danielle Belton is with us. She's editor of Clutch magazine online. She's also the creator of The Black Snob blog. Malik Washington is the deputy director of the William Kellibrew Foundation. Through that work, he mentors young men, and one of the areas in which he counsels them is issues like this, sexuality. Also joining us is Jessica Hopper. She's a music critic and columnist for the Village Voice.

We're calling this the Salon, combining our Barbershop and Beauty Shop roundtables, as actually one listener urged us to do. So thank you all so much for joining us for this.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: Thank you.

DANIELLE BELTON: Thanks for having us.

MALIK WASHINGTON: Glad to be here, Michel.

JESSICA HOPPER: Thank you.

MARTIN: You know, I have so many questions about this, but I want to start by noting one thing: Brown himself did not write about this or talk about this. This issue surfaced because rapper Kitty Pryde, who is his opening act, wrote passionately in her blog that this was plainly a sexual assault, that those - that people have been condemning Brown for this, calling him a misogynist; and she thinks that that's crazy. And people have also condemned her for - and, again, this is where language advisory comes into play - for slut-shaming, for criticizing this behavior.

So I want to note that this is, in fact, how we know about this. I'm just going to go around and ask each of you, what are your first thoughts about this? Mark Anthony Neal - Professor Neal, you want to start?

NEAL: It was a surprising story to me. I mean, this is a narrative that we normally don't hear about, male sexual assault, or sexual assault against men. It's a narrative we don't hear, and clearly not something that we hear in the world of hip-hop. So the idea that there was some sort of public incident along these lines, you know, really challenges, I think, our sensibilities and interpretations of what masculinity looks like in the context of hip-hop, or can look like in the context of hip-hop.

MARTIN: Danielle, what do you think?

BELTON: I was disturbed by it. Like, I wasn't necessarily surprised because often in these concerts, you have over-zealous fans who will do crazy things. So I wasn't necessarily surprised by it, especially considering, you know, his lyrics tend to be very sexual. But, at the same time, I was, like, appalled and disgusted because there is such thing as consent. I don't know how you're able to consent anything when you're in the middle of rapping.

MARTIN: OK. So you were appalled, but what were you most appalled and disgusted by? The fact that somebody would do this, the fact that somebody would do this publicly?

BELTON: Well, it's just...

MARTIN: The reaction to it? What was it that appalled and disgusted you?

BELTON: The fact that a woman would get up on the stage and do this to someone while they were performing. Because it's like, how many different reactions can you have as you're in the middle of a performance? It's a violation. That was probably the most appalling thing for me right there to begin with, because I immediately put myself in his shoes. Like, what do you do? Do you stop what you're doing right now? Do you end up having an altercation on the stage? And then the fact that people do view things differently when it's a male. You know, there was a limited amount of things that he could do without people blaming him for it, even though he did not ask for it or consent to it.

MARTIN: And I'm going to jump in here to say that we aren't really sure exactly what happened. We know the facts as they've been described by his colleague, Kitty Pryde but, you know, I wasn't there. None of us was there. And there are those who are alleging - on Twitter, of course, on social media - that maybe this whole thing was planned. You know, I certainly don't know. I just feel like I need, for the sake of fairness, to point that out.

Malik, what are your thoughts about this?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I mean, it was shocking, I mean, not only because you're doing this while somebody's performing, but you have a large audience of thousands of people. I'm just wondering what's going on while this is happening. Danny Brown did mention it. Somebody asked about him on Twitter. Kendrick Lamar asked - tweeted about it on Twitter, and he responded. He said he didn't miss a bar - those were his words - while it happened.

It was one of the few times, I think, that life kind of met art. I mean, these are the things that a lot of rappers talk about, specifically Danny Brown. He's very explicit, even by hip-hop standards. So it was a moment where it was like, wow. This actually happened. Like, this is something that I just feel like I should be hearing in a hip song - hip-hop song.

MARTIN: Jessica, what about you? And you cover music for a number of publications. You weren't at this particular concert, but you certainly cover a lot of them. Have you ever heard of anything like this, and what do you make of it?

HOPPER: I think the last time, you know, this historically has happened was at The Doors show in Miami, in 1969. I mean, I don't think there's a lot of precedence for sexual acts happening on stage at shows. The thing is, is that this happened at a place called the Triple Rock Social Club, which is a small club in Minneapolis. It's known to be very artist-friendly, and it's really unfortunate that someone took advantage of, really, their proximity to Danny Brown.

I mean, the stage there is maybe 2 feet tall. There's no barrier. There's no security. This wasn't a Bieber-sort of situation of getting, you know, sort of tackled by a fan, and there's this wall of security, you know, that's going to take care of it. And someone really - while Danny was obviously interacting with the crowd, someone took it upon themselves to sort of breach that unspoken barrier. And I think that's unfortunate for everybody.

MARTIN: Well, why do you say that?

HOPPER: As people are saying, it is a violation. I mean, you talk about - this wouldn't happen at a show at an arena because you're so far away. And so here's a chance to see Danny Brown, someone who's an exciting person within music, within hip-hop; and someone literally is sort of transgressing this unspoken barrier.

MARTIN: Does it change anybody's feelings about this, that Danny Brown himself is not the person who seems to have complained about this? I mean, Kitty Pryde, in her blog, was very clear that she felt this was wrong. She was disgusted by it. She felt very clearly that this was an assault. She said if the tables had been turned, if a man in the audience had gotten up on stage and touched a woman performer in this way, it would have clearly been seen as an assault. And she doesn't understand why it isn't being seen in that way.

Does it change anybody's feelings about this that Brown himself doesn't seem to have complained? Professor Neal?

NEAL: I'm sure Mr. Brown himself is a little conflicted about this, particularly the way that, you know, masculinity is trafficked in the context of hip-hop. There are very few narratives in our culture in which men complain about sex or having sex. I mean, that's just not a narrative that most mainstream people think about, in relationship to masculinity. You know - so how, on the one hand, does he acknowledge the fact that he's vulnerable up on stage? I mean, that's part of what Jessica is saying. He's vulnerable up on stage. There was a violation. But how does he express that in a way that doesn't go against the way that masculinity is practiced within the context - or performed in the context - of hip-hop?

MARTIN: Malik, what about you? I know - do you mind if I mention that when we first called you about this, you said that when you first heard about this, the thought of sexual assault didn't even cross your mind?

WASHINGTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Have you changed your mind?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I did change my mind. I think Kitty Pryde's column or blog - whatever you want to call it - was very thoughtful. It was very intelligent and well-spoken, and it made me think. I mean, I think there is a line, and we have to separate consent and enjoyment. I think some people conflate the two. Just because somebody enjoyed this act doesn't mean that they actually consented to it. And then when we know that consent is - I mean, consent is the piece that - how we define sexual assault. And if he did not consent, then that is an assault.

What Professor Neal said is absolutely correct. He's probably very conflicted, and I think that it would take somebody else - specifically, a woman - to be vocal about this to actually bring it to people's attention, and make them see it in a different light.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting, is that this is also coming after Reebok - and Jessica, I'm going to ask you this. Reebok moved to end its relationship with Rick Ross. He had an endorsement deal with Reebok. First of all, there were lyrics that seemed to endorse date rape. And then Lil Wayne was recently dropped by Mountain Dew over lyrics about, you know, Emmet Till.

And so I think a lot of people are kind of saying, well, all right. Where's the line, and is the line created by the audience when they pick their heads up and say, this is OK versus not OK? Because I still have to point out that there are a lot of people in social media who are both sides of this. Some people think that Kitty Pryde was - she's wrong to complain about it. Some people are calling Brown a misogynist for reasons that still aren't quite clear. So Jessica, why don't you weigh in here?

HOPPER: Well, I think the issue with Lil Wayne, and also Rick Ross, those are issues that are more about - that's an issue of artistic expression. I mean, with Danny Brown here, he wasn't - it doesn't behoove him in this situation to be provocative in the same way that having provocative lyrics for Rick Ross or Lil Wayne is part of their image.

This seems to be something that's much more spontaneous. It wasn't something that was issued to the public. It was issued - I mean, it wasn't even - it occurred at a club that's a few hundred capacity. And so it wasn't meant for a wider audience.

...occurred at a club that's a few hundred capacity, and so it wasn't meant for a wider audience. I don't think, you know, this is something that was planned to help his image because it's just such a complicated thing, and also, because he hasn't responded, it makes it a lot harder for anyone to come in and say - to make a judgment call on it because if, you know, this sexual incident is really for him to classify how he feels about it.

These other things, I think, are a little bit more clear that they - while it might be artistic expression, it was in, at best, poor taste.

MARTIN: And let me just also point out, we reached out to Kitty Pryde and asked her to come and join us. And she initially seemed to be considering it and then she declined and said she didn't want to talk about it anymore and she seems to indicate on her blog that the whole group just kind of wants to put it - what they're calling that thing - behind them. They don't seem to want to talk about it anymore, but we're talking about it.

So, Jessica, I'm asking you. The fact that he hasn't complained about it - does that mean we still have something to say about it?

HOPPER: Well, I think it's very complicated. I think it's really complicated because we have so many expectations about male sexuality and a lot of our - the general media's understanding of it and our cultural understanding and expectation of it is that men almost have, like, no control and they have to say yes. And why wouldn't he want this?

WASHINGTON: Right, right.

HOPPER: And that brings up this question, like, oh, is he gay? Is he this? And it becomes - it just creates this much uglier discourse about male sexuality and expectation and what we think of performers, that they're supposed to be - have these sort of ravenous appetites and, you know, these sort of things and it becomes just a lot more complicated. And I think, by him not addressing it is kind of his best way of trying to avoid having these other conversations.

MARTIN: Malik, what do you think?

WASHINGTON: I think there's a few things they risk and the one thing is that - OK - if he's assaulted, I mean, that's a bad thing. But the other thing is that, when we don't draw lines for men about their sexuality in terms of having boundaries for them or respect for their bodies, we're not only putting them at risk, but we're putting - we're potentially putting women at risk, as well, because they're applying the same rules that are applied to their bodies to women and we know that that can't be the case. So we have to somehow level the playing field so that there's, across-the-board, an understanding about what sexual assault is and what sexuality is.

We can't - consent has to be more than, you know, sex being a man's world where women just consent to play in it. It has to be - sex is the world that is created when all parties involved are consenting and, if we can somehow level that, then I think that we lower the risk of things like this happening.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I just jump in and say I feel that Kitty Pryde is kind of the hero here, because I'm thinking of how many times women have been assaulted and it's their girlfriends who say - women are the ones who come forward to their girlfriends and say, what happened to you is not OK and you need to put this in its proper light because there a number of women who have been treated inappropriately in a sexual realm and didn't stand up for themselves and other women have come forward to say, well, actually, it's not OK and this is how I want you to think about this.

So, Danielle, a final thought from you?

BELTON: I was actually proud of her because there's so much pressure to endorse the status quo and the status quo is, oh, isn't this awesome that this happened to him, even though he didn't consent to it? That's the status quo and the fact that she pushed back against that and called it what it was, to me, was a very brave thing and a very noble thing and, you know, I commend her for it. I was proud of her.

MARTIN: Jessica Hopper, a final thought from you?

HOPPER: I think that she did do something important just as - in as far as bringing to light a bigger discussion that we need to have about male sexuality and hip-hop and power and, you know, the dynamic between fans and performers.

MARTIN: I'm wondering what should happen now. That's one thing I'm wondering. You know, this is one of the interesting things about social media - is that fans now have responsibility for things. They can make things happen by sort of discussing things and making - as we've seen with these endorsement deals, I'm kind of wondering what should happen now.

Malik, you have a final thought?

WASHINGTON: Well, I agree and I hope that the tide continues. I hope that fans and people who listen to hip-hop and just music in general or just entertainment in general - we take more accountability and, when we see things that we don't like, we step up and we take action and we can complain and be vocal about it. It's a shame that it always has to come down to somebody losing their endorsement and taking a financial hit to get the point, but if that's what it takes, then I think that's the direction that we need to go.

MARTIN: Professor Neal, you have a final thought?

NEAL: You know, it's always about accountability and how do we hold artists and the corporations that they work for accountable in significant kinds of ways. And, in the case of Danny Brown, I think it's important, also, to think about the fact that there'll be those who will say that the lyrics, you know, were the reason why this happened. We'll blame him for his lyrics and that's just as faulty as the logic that says that a woman deserves to be sexually assaulted because of what she wore. It really does challenge our perceptions about gender and sexual violence in ways that I think will lead to much more healthier conversations.

MARTIN: Well, now let me push you on that point for a second. You're saying that people are going to say, well, his lyrics are very explicit, so what is he expecting? You're saying that that's wrong. Why is that wrong?

NEAL: Someone's onstage persona is very different than who he is as the actual person and what happened in that club in Minneapolis really, kind of, collapses that space, you know, where that reality meets fantasy in some regard. But, even if his lyrics are sexually explicit, that doesn't mean he should be assaulted because of it.

MARTIN: Professor, you're in a position of, kind of, helping shape young minds through your work as a professor. Is there something you would want to - what lesson would you want us to draw from this?

NEAL: Better conversations about male vulnerability in terms of their bodies and sexuality - and particularly in the case of black men. I mean, that's one of the things that's kind of lost in this, also. You know, apparently, the young woman was a Caucasian woman and he's a black man. And, of course, there's a whole (unintelligible) mythology about black male sexuality that I think that also tagged into this conversation about what happens on stage.

MARTIN: Malik, what would you want to draw from this? I mean, I'm thinking this might come up in some of your mentoring sessions with some of your young charges. What kind of conversations do you want to have?

WASHINGTON: Well, I continue to say I want men to know that it's OK to be in complete control of their bodies and to turn down sex. You know, it's not this thing that you have to get every time that it's thrown at you or every time that it's available. You are in control of your body and, if you don't want it, you don't have to take it and I think a lot of men don't get that, particularly like - as Professor Neal said, particularly young black men.

MARTIN: Malik Washington is a youth mentor and deputy director of the William Kellibrew Foundation. He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of black popular culture at Duke University. He joined us from the studios at the campus. Music critic Jessica Hopper joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago and writer Danielle Belton is editor of Clutch magazine online and she's also the creator of The Black Snob blog and we reached her at her home office in St. Louis.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

BELTON: Thank you.

NEAL: Thank you.

WASHINGTON: Thank you, Michel.

HOPPER: Thank you.

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