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Inside the Rolling Stones’ Self-Censorship of ‘Brown Sugar’

·5 min read
Kevin Mazur/Getty
Kevin Mazur/Getty

This month, British rock icons The Rolling Stones—sans the late, great Charlie Watts—head out to stadiums across the United States for their No Filter tour where, ironically, they’ll be self-censoring one of their biggest hits.

In a new Los Angeles Times interview with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the two were asked why the song “Brown Sugar,” which depicts chattel slavery—specifically, the systemic rape of Black women and girls—was noticeably absent from their setlist.

“You picked up on that, huh?” Richards said. “I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it. At the moment, I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this shit. But I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track.”

Jagger remarked, “We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970, so sometimes you think, we’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes. We might put it back in.”

Charlie Watts Was the Beating Heart of the Rolling Stones

It’s clear from Richards’ bewilderment at the scrutiny the song has aroused and he and Jagger’s desire to reincorporate it back into the show that its removal was most likely the doing of a publicist—and for good reason. The first track from their 1971 album Sticky Fingers, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, is almost cartoonish in its level of offensiveness and could easily be mistaken as the creation of a YouTube edgelord, if read on paper. The first verse quickly establishes the scene of a slave ship carrying Africans to be sold in New Orleans, and, from there, presents the crude inner monologue of a slave owner taking advantage of a female slave, all over upbeat guitar riffs.

The first minute of the song goes, “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in the market down in New Orleans / Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ alright / Hear him whip the women just around midnight / Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?”

In the liner notes of the 1993 compilation album Jump Back, Jagger, the song’s primary songwriter, claimed that “brown sugar” is a double entendre for “drugs and girls.” However, this less offensive interpretation hardly obscures its darker, painful messaging—particularly, the song’s explicit references to slave ships, house boys and Black girls make it nearly impossible to experience it solely from the cliched perspective of a rocker enjoying heroin and predominantly reads as the musicians indulging in racist, masochistic fantasy. The additional knowledge that Jagger was dating Ikettes member Claudia Lennear (who is Black) at the time the song was written makes this particular form of lust uttered by the singer feel a lot less metaphorical.

While Richards claims the song is actually about “the horrors of slavery” despite portraying it as an environment of pleasure, it presents these violent scenarios without any real commentary and fails to handle them with any level of thoughtfulness or care. The Stones used similar reasoning to shield themselves from criticism from civil rights groups surrounding their 1978 hit “Some Girls,” which features the line: “Black girls just wanna get fucked all night.” The band eventually released a statement claiming the song was satirizing stereotypes of women, an easy cop-out that’s often utilized by people accused of harming marginalized groups in their art. Even in the ideal scenario that the Stones provide more context for these lyrics, this historical subject matter—the implications of which persist today in the ways Black women are hypersexualized and sexually degraded under the white gaze—does not need to be relayed in this particular idiom and sung in environments where thousands of white people will mindlessly jam out to its grim lyrics.

Like most recent incidents of artists, television creators and writers modifying their work in the era of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, conservatives like former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, YouTube troll Paul Joseph Watson and countless other right-wingers on Twitter are using this moment to decry “cancel culture” despite the fact that the Stones had gotten away with performing the song as recently as August 2019, according Setlist.fm. The fact that this repugnant tune by one of the most visible and beloved musical acts has been able to thrive in the rock landscape for the past 50 years speaks to the lack of accountability and standards of morality that exist within this whitewashed, male-dominated genre. Most notably, the omission of the song from live shows, for now, is not hurting the Stones’ bottom line. The band can still profit off of the song via streaming platforms and other places to purchase music.

This incident, like HBO Max’s temporary removal of Gone with the Wind and Tina Fey omitting episodes of 30 Rock that feature blackface from streaming services last year, conjures more complicated debates about whether problematic works of art should be completely erased or kept around as artifacts to be learned from and put into a historical perspective. But the Stones, in their twilight years, clearly aren’t giving their troublesome tunes that much reflection. And their die-hard fans—and even progressive people on the internet who typically care about discussing these things at-length—are hardly demanding them to. So far, it seems like “Brown Sugar’s” shelving will primarily serve as another cultural moment for voices on the right to weaponize in their banal crusades against “cancellation.”

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