MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. 2011 was a good year for some of us. For R&B singer Chris Brown, it was a great year. You might recall that not long ago, Brown was convicted of assault in a highly publicized domestic violence incident. It could have ended his career.
Then he capped last year with a top selling album and three Grammy nominations. NPR's Sam Sanders reports that Brown's career has been revived in part because many of his fans don't think he did anything wrong.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Two years ago, Chris Brown was at a career low. He had just beaten his superstar girlfriend, Rihanna, right before the Grammys. He was only 19.
NEWS ANNOUNCER: And we begin at 10:00 with breaking news. A Grammy Award nominee has just posted bail on criminal threat charges. Chris Brown is accused of assault and battery.
SANDERS: After the incident, Brown pled guilty to felony assault and was sentenced to five years of labor intensive probation. He virtually disappeared from top 40 radio, but fast forward and Chris Brown may have had his best year ever in 2011, at least musically.
Here's Keith Caulfield, a chart expert at Billboard.
KEITH CAULFIELD: It just makes sense that he would be one of the top artists of the year. Chris Brown got his first number one album on the Billboard 200 chart and Chris has been a force, both on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, as well as our R&B hip-hop singles chart, where he's had, just in the past year, five top tens.
SANDERS: In spite of the success, a cloud still hovers over Brown's career. Just after he beat Rihanna in 2009, the Boston Public Health Commission's Start Strong Initiative polled teens in that city to see how they felt about the incident. Casey Corcoran, former director of Start Strong, led the poll.
CASEY CORCORAN: Close to 50 percent of the young people we surveyed thought that Rihanna was actually responsible for the incident. They were blaming her.
SANDERS: They still are.
KRISTINA COLEMAN: Obviously, she played a part in, you know, getting beat or whatever, however you want to put it.
SANDERS: Nineteen year old Kristina Coleman waits outside of a Chris Brown concert in Baltimore and she wasn't alone in her opinion. Seventeen-year-old Frances Stephenson recalls her reaction to what's come to be called the incident.
FRANCES STEPHENSON: I was like, show me some pictures. I don't believe it.
SANDERS: Pictures of Rihanna's battered face leaked soon after the beating, but two more things make these young women's views surprising. First, Brown has apologized for the incident, denouncing his behavior on national television and in a YouTube video.
CHRIS BROWN: What I did was unacceptable, 100 percent. I can only ask and pray that you forgive me, please.
SANDERS: And, secondly, many of these young women are at a high risk of experiencing domestic abuse themselves.
CORCORAN: We know that, nationally, close to one in five teens experience some form of dating violence before they exit their teen years.
SANDERS: Casey Corcoran says that number is even higher if you count things like emotional abuse and cyber-stalking, but outside of that Chris Brown concert, 17-year-old Alicia Robinson is among the fans who go beyond just forgiving Brown and blaming Rihanna.
ALICIA ROBINSON: He's kind of like what we would like our boyfriends to model after in a way - in a way.
SANDERS: Casey Corcoran says some of Brown's current songs aren't exactly role model material.
CORCORAN: While he hasn't been involved in any dating violence incidents since this one with Rihanna, he's put out a number of songs that have really challenging lyrics.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WET THE BED")
BROWN: (Singing) You don't know what you're in for. 'Bout to get inside your mental, huh. Bend you back like it's limbo. I'm going to make you feel like a nympho tonight. Oh, you're mine, baby girl.
CORCORAN: You know, he may have addressed his behaviors, but we have to question whether he's really addressed his thoughts and beliefs that underlie those behaviors.
SANDERS: The teams Corcoran works with make a list each year of the 10 songs that most promote unhealthy young relationships. Chris Brown made that list in 2010 and may make it again with his latest hit, "Look at Me Now."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK AT ME NOW")
BROWN: (Singing) Better cuff your chick if you with her. I can get her and she accidentally slip and fall on my (censored). Oops, I said on my (censored). I ain't really mean to say on my (censored), but since we talking about my (censored), all of you haters say hi to it. I'm done.
SANDERS: Chris Brown declined to be interviewed for this story. Gina McCauley, who writes the blog, "What About Our Daughters," says Brown may be benefiting from a certain mindset that's prevalent in the black community. She thinks black men can get away with almost anything, but black women...
GINA MCCAULEY: It doesn't matter if she's a poor black girl in the middle of the 'hood or one of the most famous and probably commercially successful artists on the planet. She's still a black girl and she's still responsible for every single thing that may happen to her in life.
SANDERS: And so, she says, young black women tell themselves they're invincible, in spite of the data on domestic abuse. It's a bit of a contradiction or, to McCauley, a coping mechanism. If they admit that a young black woman like Rihanna, at the top of her game, can be abused, they have to admit it can happen to them.
MCCAULEY: To not blame Rihanna is to acknowledge that they, as young girls, are vulnerable, too.
SANDERS: McCauley says admitting they're at risk would shatter the myth of the strong black woman so many of these girls have come to internalize. But she says it's not all their fault.
MCCAULEY: We don't have conversations with girls about violence. We don't say, how do you navigate interpersonal relationships with boys?
SANDERS: For her part, Rihanna, in a recent Esquire interview, said she's a Chris Brown fan and has put the incident behind her. Gina McCauley says she isn't surprised that neither star has made more of an effort to advance the dialog about domestic abuse.
MCCAULEY: I don't expect celebrities to be anything other than what they are, which is famous.
SANDERS: Chris Brown is having no problem doing just that. And, for his young fans, that seems to be enough. Sam Sanders, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.