Before Social Media, Black Celebs Could Avoid the Ray Rice Treatment

Dr. Dre arrives at a pre-Grammy event at the Beverly Hilton Hotel Feb. 11, 2012, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Everyone wants to forgive the favorite child, the prodigal son, the hometown hero. It’s why, despite the overwhelming evidence, suspended Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice still has his online defenders. It’s why it took a video on TMZ to get the NFL to do the right thing.

The mindset?

Everyone knows who he is, but who is his wife, Janay Rice, to a football-worshipping, forgiving fan? Could she run a combine? Was she wearing a jersey? If not, then she could be chalked up as someone in the way of someone else’s football season—an inconvenience, a sideshow. And that’s what she would have become if it weren’t for TMZ and Twitter.


Because historically, if a black celebrity did some dirt—abused a spouse, become involved with someone underage—a lot of people didn’t hear about it. In the past, the white, mainstream press didn’t cover what was going on with the black jet set no matter how many albums were sold or how many movies were released. And the black press wasn’t much better. Celebrities held a lot of power, choosing to deny future access if black-owned publications attempted to report on and get at the heart of their demons.

But if we’d had the robust social media community that we have now, there are more than a few black celebs who probably wouldn’t have escaped the scrutiny that Ray Rice now faces.


Here are a few examples:

Miles Davis

Today it might have been harder for Davis to continually unleash his rage on the women who dared to love him. All three of his marriages were marked by domestic violence, including his marriage to award-winning actress Cicely Tyson. Writer Pearl Cleage even went so far as to pen a stage play, Mad at Miles, that has been described as a Vagina Monologues of domestic violence. There’s no discounting Davis’ influence and skill as a musician. Even his former wives tout his genius. But his infamous temper likely wouldn’t have survived today’s Twitter era, when police photos of battered faces, as in the case of Chris Brown and Rihanna, or hotel security-camera footage can be easily leaked or sold.


James Brown

In the new biopic Get on Up, there’s a brief scene in which Brown, played by Chadwick Boseman, hits one of his wives, played by Jill Scott. While an entertaining film, Get on Up sums up Brown’s propensity for violence with a bell-ringing slap, ignoring the dozens of stories of Brown inflicting pain on others, including allegedly once attacking singer Tammi Terrell with a hammer. Like Davis, Brown was also a musical genius and unrivaled showman. But in his day, few of his exploits ended up in the press, until his problems, and his iconic mug shot, became too big to ignore.


Jim Brown

Brown is a football legend. Many of his records as a running back in the 1950s and ’60s remain untouched. But Brown, too, faced charges of violence against women, on more than one occasion, but he mostly escaped sanction. As with James Brown, his history didn’t affect him professionally until he was already an old man. But none of it stopped the NFL from inducting him into the Hall of Fame.


Dr. Dre

Recently, Dr. Dre became a billionaire in a deal with Apple for the sale of his Beats by Dre headphones, but the hip-hop superproducer’s past is also checkered with accusations of domestic violence. Rapper and former TV personality Dee Barnes claimed that Dre viciously attacked her in 1991. In Rolling Stone’s description of her account of the assault, “He picked her up by her hair and ‘began slamming her head and the right side of her body repeatedly against a brick wall near the stairway’ as his bodyguard held off the crowd with a gun.” Singer Michel’le also alleged last year on her show R&B Divas: Los Angeles that Dre broke her nose on several occasions. Dre pleaded no contest to attacking Barnes and settled her lawsuit against him out of court.


R. Kelly

Singer R. Kelly’s interest in underage girls was the worst-kept secret in all of Chicago, but because the most sensational drama all happened in a pre-Twitter, pre-TMZ era, you still have people who will talk about Kelly marrying 16-year-old R&B singer Aaliyah as if that were normal, acceptable and all about “true love.” The response in the ’90s to Kelly’s proclivities was pretty depressing. Kelly was tried over a videotape purportedly showing him engaging in sexual intercourse with an underage girl, but the initial response from a lot of the media consisted of jokes on late-night TV and pirated video vendors selling bootleg copies of the child porn on the street. While Kelly has never been convicted for any of his alleged behavior, Twitter shamed him off the record charts (and out of a Lady Gaga video) when he tried to return to the mainstream with his album Black Panties in 2013.

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