Should We Ever Forgive Troubled Artists?

From James Brown to Chris Brown, celebs' sins force fans to either support or reject their heroes.

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James Brown (Jo Hale/Getty Images Entertainment);Chris Brown (Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment)

But Chris Brown is 23, and his followers on either side of the forgiveness debate skew young. Teens taking the music of their parents for granted still probably don’t know much about Ike and Tina Turner’s history, much less the quieter transgressions of icons like James Brown and Miles Davis.

Brown (James, not Chris) was arrested four times on charges of domestic assault against his third wife, Adrienne Rodriguez. At 17, Motown songstress Tammi Terrell (“Your Precious Love”) got romantically involved with 29-year-old Brown, a relationship that turned abusive, according to her sister’s memoir, My Sister Tommie: The Real Tammi Terrell. (Later she was linked with Temptations singer David Ruffin; their union ended when he slammed Terrell in the face with his motorcycle helmet.) No one protested the worldwide mourning of James Brown when he passed away in 2006.

And then there’s jazz legend Miles Davis, who practically bragged about slapping his ex-wife, actress Cicely Tyson, in his 1990 autobiography, Miles. That same year, author Pearl Cleage penned the 64-page Mad at Miles, which approaches the whole question of whether physically abusive entertainers should be supported, but most critics and fans were ambivalent.

Twitter didn’t exist yet to rake Davis, Ruffin or James Brown over the coals. Their moral failings were only heard through the grapevine in the 1960s and ’70s. Tragically, physical abuse was also arguably more culturally acceptable back then; who knows if their careers would have been affected at all?

For critics, impartial distancing seems only fair when considering the art of musicians, directors, etc. (Yet where were the Chloe Papases of the world when judging the art of rumored racists? If Elvis had actually said that the only thing African Americans could do for him was shine his shoes and buy his records, would he not have been crowned the King? Doubtful.) Consumers, for their part, should feel free to hold on to their own personal grievances — and dollars — at the register.

Miles Marshall Lewis is the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Lewis is a former editor at Vibe, XXL and BET.com. Follow him on Twitter and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.

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