The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
The ever-growing dominance of social media has created a culture in which nobody ever forgets. One man who understands this better than most is Chris Brown, the musician whose brutal 2009 assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna will likely never be forgotten – and nor should it be. Last week, he made headlines for starring in a cameo-laden video for "Freaky Friday," a track recorded alongside rapper Lil Dicky. The clip follows the premise of the seminal film, in which two characters switch bodies: in this case, Dicky, the nerdy, below-average white guy, wakes up to find himself in the body of super-cool, tatted-up musician Brown. As the visuals draw to a close, the guest spots flood in as Dicky transports himself into the bodies of DJ Khaled, Ed Sheeran and Kendall Jenner.
Unsurprisingly, the three have all been criticized online for their involvement in the track and their vicarious support of a musician whose criminal history is as famous, if not more so, than his discography. But is this fair, and should we still be holding Brown accountable for something that happened almost a decade ago?
The first thing to note is that the artists involved aren’t the only problems with this video; the opening scene updates a particularly racist scene from Freaky Friday, but the results are just as bad. In the 2003 film, critically-acclaimed actress Rosalind Chao plays a blatant stereotype; she works in a Chinese restaurant, her English is fractured and her speech is manic and considered "crazy." Her mother, of course, is an exotic, mystical woman who uses her mysterious powers to curse the film’s protagonists using–what else?–a fortune cookie. Lil Dicky’s "Freaky Friday" video recreates this storyline almost verbatim, but instead casts an elderly Chinese man–whose poor English comprehension becomes a punchline–as its exotic wizard, reinforcing a centuries-old, racialized stereotype in the process.
There are obviously other stereotypes in the video–obvious in the context of Lil Dicky, whose entire act is a parody of white mediocrity–but these have been overshadowed by the involvement of Brown. In terms of the way he’s discussed, he’s never managed to shake his reputation as a perpetrator of domestic violence. A quick scroll through Twitter shows that some users think his violent past–and mediocre output–should block his success, whereas others are angrier at the video’s other stars for buoying his career. This is the online narrative: Brown’s past actions make him unworthy of success.
But these cyberspace opinions have rarely hindered his actual career. It was in February 2009 that a police report showed Rihanna’s bruised, beaten-up face, and the backlash against Brown was both swift and brutal. Following advice from his legal team, he stayed quiet for a while, then released the requisite apology, and then “broke his silence” with one of those intensely awkward televised interviews that always follow these controversies. He talked about “spiritual leaders”, claimed he was ashamed of his actions and promised to undergo anger management. Whether you think these speeches were damage control or genuine remorse, Brown undeniably jumped through all the hoops we expect artists in the midst of a scandal to jump through. This apparent renaissance was short-lived, though; the past decade has seen scores of other allegations–mainly of threat and assault, aimed at both men and women–leveled against him, whereas he also notoriously tweeted nasty messages at singer Kehlani just hours after she attempted suicide.
There were, however, some short-term repercussions, namely the critical and commercial failure of 2009 album Graffiti. Reviewers were particularly harsh, with some describing it as “obnoxious,” others pointing to the obviously Rihanna-inspired track "Famous Girl" as clunky and attention-grabbing, and plenty more outlets refusing to even review it. But this backlash was short-lived; a collaborative mixtape with Tyga in 2010 boosted his profile, paving the way for the success of 2011’s F.A.M.E., an album which spawned hit singles and landed Brown his first ever #1 debut despite receiving mixed reviews. Not only was he forgiven, his success actually grew.
Essentially, Brown was afforded a narrative that not everyone is allowed to benefit from: the phoenix rising from the ashes. After the failure of Graffiti, Brown kept a low profile before re-emerging at the 2010 BET Awards to sing a Michael Jackson tribute. He broke down in tears whilst singing "Man In The Mirror," a track about self-reflection and personal growth, winning over his audience in the process but attracting skepticism from journalists accusing him of crocodile tears. In the years since, this has been the narrative: the media has largely held him accountable, but the public has continued to support him by buying his music.
Perhaps surprisingly, artists have also rallied behind him. F.A.M.E. featured high-profile collaborators including Justin Bieber, Ludacris and Busta Rhymes; even Rihanna worked with him on 2012 album track "Nobody’s Business" after publicly forgiving him. Ironically, she faced some online criticism for failing to play the perfect victim, highlighting the double standards which continue to plague women in the process.
The real problem is that stars are held to different standards of accountability because we automatically expect them to be role models. Kendall Jenner is a prime example: What would her public profile look like if she had never been involved in the notorious shit show that was that Pepsi campaign? Or if she had never regrettably superimposed her face over those of rap icons in that bizarre attempt at a clothing line? Ultimately, we might be asking too much of stars by expecting them to be socially conscious. In fact, as Jenner has proved on numerous occasions, some celebrities would probably be better off if they just stopped trying to prove progressive ideals which nobody should really expect or demand them to hold. In this context, her inclusion–and those of Sheeran and DJ Khaled–in this recent video shouldn’t really be surprise.
But what about Chris Brown? The entire concept of Lil Dicky’s "Freaky Friday" is that Chris Brown is aspirational; despite his well-documented history of abuse, he’s still seen as a role model. This is especially important in the context of today’s cultural conversations. The last year has seen women bravely speaking out on their experiences of abuse at the hands of powerful men, largely in the hope that, by speaking out, we can ensure these men are held accountable and ultimately face repercussions. Brown held himself accountable way back in 2009 and reaped the rewards afterwards, but nothing has changed since. By celebrating him we not only continue to funnel money into his pockets, we also perpetuate the idea that repeated abusers should not only be forgiven, but allowed to thrive. Nobody’s asking him to be a role model, but holding him up as aspirational sends a message which, especially now, is too damaging to ignore.
Alas, the survivor of the whole ordeal in question, the main target of Chris Brown's abuse - Rihanna - doesn't even think she should be perceived as a role model.
At the end of the day, Lil Dickie's "Freaky Friday" is a lowest common denominator rap music video. At best, it's a surface-level commentary on celebrity navel gazing that's just as vapid as the celebrity culture it's parodying. At worst, it shows us that we all still have a lot of work to do when it comes to holding people accountable - especially when those in positions of immense cultural and economic power like Kendall Jenner, Ed Sheeran, and DJ Khaled are still cashing cheques they don't really need while choosing to tacitly support abusers.
For more of our op-eds, read staff writer Kyle Hodge's investigation into whether or not white people should wear Supreme x UNDERCOVER x Public Enemy right here.