STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN — Tonight, Chris Brown will perform in Stockholm. But for the past few days, a campaign to boycott it has taken root in the city’s streets. One poster plastered around bus stops looks, at first glance, like a Brown-approved promotional poster, complete with sponsors’ logos and the URL of the ticket vendor’s website. Except Brown’s image has been replaced by the infamous photo of Rihanna’s battered face taken on the night of the 2009 Grammys.
No group has claimed credit for the guerrilla poster campaign, which is going viral online. And Brown has other struggles in Sweden: On Monday, his opening act, Swedish hip-hop band Panetoz, announced they were pulling out of the gig, citing “technical changes in Chris Brown’s production.” Band member Nebeyu Baheru told the TT news agency, “After everything that’s been written we have of course discussed [the boycott campaign]. But we try to separate our music from everything else going on. We are not behind [the campaign] and do not want to be associated with it.”
Meanwhile, prominent members of the Swedish media are urging a boycott of Brown’s concert. Writing in one of the main Swedish broadsheets, Svenska Dagbladet, music critic Kristin Lundell said she was “disgusted” by Brown’s upcoming visit to Stockholm and his gig at the Globe Arena, one of the country’s premier entertainment venues.
“It is impossible to separate between the artist Brown and the woman beater Brown,” stated Lundell, who called on fellow journalists to publish statistics about violence against women on Tuesday instead of reviews of Brown’s gig. She also suggested that members of the public donate money to organizations fighting domestic violence instead of spending cash on Chris Brown concert tickets.
But Jonna Sima, editor of the weekly current affairs magazine ETC Stockholm and a former music critic, feels that Swedish journalists are ratcheting up a moral panic. “There’s a lynch mob mentality” surrounding Brown, she told BuzzFeed Shift.
“I’m not sure I would go to Brown’s concert myself, even though I like his music. But there’s a difference between a private person boycotting someone, which is to do with expressing a personal opinion, and the media doing so. … It seems some in the media have arbitrarily chosen to boycott Brown forever,” she continued. “What Brown did to Rihanna was horrific but he has served his punishment, he’s done community service, he’s been in therapy, he has apologized.” (After Brown pleaded guilty to attacking Rihanna, he was ordered to serve five years on supervised probation and to complete six months of community service, including roadside cleanup, graffiti removal, and manual labor.)
Svenska Dagbladet was the first media outlet in Sweden to announce that it would not send reporters to cover Brown’s gig.
“This is a journalistic mistake,” says Sima. “We’re talking about a big artist with lots of fans who is performing at a prime venue. Journalists should be covering the concert. Besides, not doing so is a missed opportunity to bring up the issue of violence against women.”
Some women’s rights activists in Sweden are grateful for the debate that has emerged as a result of the guerilla poster campaign and the partial media boycott.
Carina Ohlsson, president of the Swedish Association of Women’s Shelters and Young Women’s Empowerment Centers, says the controversy has helped refocus the conversation surrounding violence against women.
“The positive thing about all this is that here the discussion is focused on the perpetrator,” she said. “In order to work in a preventative manner, in order to fight violence against women, you have to focus on those responsible, you have to consider the man’s role, to consider society’s expectations on men and why men hit women, rather than focus on how the victim should avoid being beaten, which is all too often what the debate around this issue centers on.”
Ohlsson added, “I don’t want to take a stand on the poster campaign or the boycott.” She feels individuals must decide whether or not to go see Brown in concert. Brit Stakston, a Stockholm-based media strategist specializing in digital activism, thinks guerilla campaigns like the one against Brown’s show here can be “very effective.” “The images of the poster have been circulated online and journalists chose to boycott the concert,” she noted, adding that it’s hard to know whether or not some people decided to not buy tickets to the show as a result, but it’s a possibility.
“Campaigns like these present a great opportunity to highlight different aspects of a public figure,” she continued. “These days, when we make mistakes, we have to deal with it. An artist like Chris Brown will have to convince us that he is still worth listening to and still worth respecting. It’s not possible to keep the public in the dark today.”
Successful campaigns must “mobilize ahead of the ticket release,” Stakston said, “and not just when the concert happens.” A campaign’s influence also “depends on what kind of commercial muscle you’re up against. In this case we are talking about a huge marketing campaign for a concert at a major arena and there is a lot of money at stake. But none of that rules out the possibility of influencing public opinion — and that has happened here.”
Stakston noted a campaign in Stockholm to boycott the reggae artist Sizzla’s show because of his homophobic lyrics led to the show’s cancellation.
Monroe Friedman, emeritus professor of psychology at Eastern Michigan University and author of the book Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through the Marketplace and Media, says that carefully executed campaigns can be effective, but notes that “it’s hard to get people to pay attention, to get people to really think about what’s going on around them.”
(Brown’s and Rihanna’s reps did not return BuzzFeed’s request for comment.)
But Brown isn’t just up against guerilla activists — he’s also up against the music industry. Last month, Irish acoustic hip-hop band Original Rudeboys turned down a Chris Brown opening slot in Ireland. Sean Walsh, ukulele player for the band, explained the decision by saying: “Even though it’s a huge opportunity to play in the O2 arena with a major hip-hop star and a substantial fee was offered, we are completely against Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna. In addition, with our latest single ‘Blue Eyes’ being about domestic violence, it goes against everything we are about as a band, and supporting Chris Brown would send out the wrong message to our fans.”
Before that, a group in England calling themselves Abuse Sticks Out launched a guerrilla campaign to plaster Chris Brown albums with advisory stickers bearing the message “WARNING: Do not buy this album. This man beats women.” The organizers mailed packs of stickers to activists around the country, and they targeted work by other artists, including John Lennon, who has been accused of beating his first wife, Cynthia Powell, and Michael Fassbender, whose ex-girlfriend accused him of breaking her nose, though she later withdrew the charges.
Ironically, it seems the one person whose feelings are being overlooked in the anti-Brown guerrilla campaigns and media boycotts is Rihanna’s. Does reproducing the leaked image of her battered face violate her privacy? Do women’s rights campaigners override Rihanna’s own attempts to move on by using her image and past to promote their cause?
“You have to be very careful about publishing images of victims of crime. If you publish images on the Internet, they never go away,” Ohlsson said. “We run a big campaign called Cause of Death: Woman. It’s an international campaign which uses images of women who have been victims of violence, and we’ve been very careful about talking to them beforehand to get their approval.”
Just three days before her ex’s scheduled gig — amidst rumors that Rihanna and Brown were having a rendezvous in Stockholm — Rihanna performed at the nightclub Berns in the chic district of Östermalm.
But Brown did not show up, and on Saturday Rihanna left for Paris after tweeting, “Stockholm thank you, I love you so much. I think I’m gonna spend the night with you guys!!”
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