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Why Patti Smith called Mick Jagger a racial slur


Both Mick Jagger and Patti Smith have a history of using racial slurs in their songs, creative decisions that, in truth, have aged dreadfully despite the context of the lyrics and their defence of artistic purposes. In Smith’s justification of her usage, she strangely used the ‘N-word’ again to describe The Rolling Stones frontman.

It is important to note that society has made meteoric cultural advancements in this time, and everybody is aware that it’s unacceptable for white people to use that word — no matter the context. In the ’70s, it still was an unacceptable phrase, but musicians with the urge to be controversial decided to flirt with the edge of acceptability and instead overstepped the boundary by a considerable distance.

Admittedly, the intentions were honourable when The Stones used it in ‘Sweet Black Angel’ on Exile on Main StIt was designed as an effort to support civil rights activist Angela Davis who was facing murder charges at the time of the song’s recording. The Stones were on her side, yet, their choice of words didn’t do their cause any justice. In the track’s second verse, Jagger sings: “Ten little n*s, Sittin’ on de wall, Her brothers been a fallin’, Fallin’ one by one.”

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The Rolling Stones weren’t the only guilty culprits, and Smith included the track ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll [N-word]’ on her 1978 album, Easter. Her decision to include the unjustifiable slur was immediately met with fury. Still, the singer-songwriter decided to defend the lyric in a somewhat bizarre interview in which she again used it, but this time against Jagger. Additionally, in the liner notes to the album, Smith claimed the usage of the word was related to “being an artist mutant that was going beyond gender”. 

Later, Smith also discussed her comments about Jagger qualifying to be the ‘N-word’ with Rolling Stone. The interviewer pointed out his background is incomparable to the suffering of someone from Harlem. In response, Smith said: “Suffering don’t make you a [N-word]. Stylistically, I believe he qualifies. I think Mick Jagger has suffered plenty. He also has great heart, and I believe, ya know, even in his most cynical moments, a great love for his children. He’s got a lot of soul. I mean, like, I don’t understand the question.”

She continued: “Ya think Black people are better than white people or sumpthin’? I was raised with Black people. I don’t have any kind of super-respect or fear of that kind of stuff. When I say statements like that, they’re not supposed to be analysed, ’cause they’re more like off-the-cuff humorous statements. I do have a sense of humour, ya know, which is sumpthin’ that most people completely wash over when they deal with me.”

Smith intended to shock audiences and was successful on that front. However, the ill-thought-out stunt was repulsive even back in 1978, and although she likely didn’t set out to offend Black people with her comments, it was careless and made light of the word’s true origins.

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