The Rolling Stones recently retired ‘Brown Sugar’ from their concerts amid all the backlash the band received about the coarse subject matter they address on the song. However, Mick Jagger first disassociated himself with the track in 1995, a time when he professed that he “doesn’t know what he is on about” during the song.
When it was revealed that The Stones were no longer choosing to perform the track live, a section of fans amid the toxic culture war used this to fuel their lamentation about the state of modern society. The truth is that Jagger has been distancing himself from ‘Brown Sugar’ for decades and has long been uncomfortable with the lyrics.
The track was initially titled ‘Black Pussy’ and is a harrowing tale about slaves sold in New Orleans who, subsequently, were raped by their masters. While musicians should be free to write about the most troubling of topics, it has got to be convicted appropriately, and The Stones lacked any sense of empathy on ‘Brown Sugar’.
Instead, the deliberately provocative track comes across as a white chauvinistic rockstar boasting about viewing a Black woman simply as a sexual object. If the message was about the harrowing darkness of the slave trade, then The Stones royally missed the mark and created an offensive, racially insensitive mess.
Jagger did not reveal that the thoughtless lyrical nature of ‘Brown Sugar‘ was the reason why it had been taken out of the setlist, instead offering an elusive explanation. “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,” he told the LA Times. “We might put it back in,” he added.
However, Keith Richards is still an ardent defender of the song and told the same publication: “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 s***.”
On the face of it, Jagger was the one who made the executive call for The Stones to retire the hit song, and he first backtracked on the lyrics during an interview with Rolling Stone in 1995. “God knows what I’m on about in that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go,” Jagger admitted. After being asked if the success of ‘Brown Sugar’ took him by surprise, the singer added: “I didn’t think about it at the time. I never would write that song now.”
Explaining why he would no longer create a song in the same mould, the frontman said: “I would probably censor myself. I’d think, ‘Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop. I can’t just write raw like that.'”
On the first verse, Jagger distastefully sings, “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, Sold in the market down in New Orleans, Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright, Hear him whip the women just around midnight”.
While the world has moved on since it was released, in truth, this material wasn’t acceptable even 50 years ago, and Jagger likely knows this himself. One crass faux-pas doesn’t mean The Rolling Stones are racist, and it doesn’t take anything away from all the progressive work they’ve done to spread the word of Black culture, but it does leave a sour taste in the mouth.