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(Credit: Bent Rej)

Music

Examining the troubling and problematic The Rolling Stones song 'Hey Negrita'

@SamWKemp

A good number of hits from the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll have not aged well. The Rolling Stones know this better than most, and the group recently decided to stop performing their 1971 smash single ‘Brown Sugar’ after it drew fresh criticism nearly 50 years after its release. While many in the old guard regarded the move as an act of surrender to the thought police, others praised the decision, noting that it is the duty of musicians to navigate and adapt to contemporary political discourse.

‘Brown Sugar’ has been criticised for decades because its lyrics focus on the sexual exploitation of a Black woman by plantation owners in the deep south. While Jagger begins as an observer, he quickly becomes a participant in the racism and sexualisation in the lyrics. Deciding to withdraw the track revealed The Rolling Stones’ newfound willingness to accept their contribution to racist stereotypes. The issue is that Brown Brown Sugar wasn’t an isolated incident. The group’s 1976 single ‘Hey Negrita’ also reinforces racist and sexist tropes.

As is often the case with songs that have recieved heavy criticism, the true meaning of ‘Hey Negrita’ is unclear. In more recent years, The Stones have been unwilling to talk about the track, but when Black and Blue came out in 1976, Jagger was less hesitant to open up about the single. Talking to Rolling Stone, the frontman said: “If I tell you what the song is about, will you put it in your own words? Okay: it’s about a South American whore, and the singer, a poor man, is trying to get her price down. One last dollar / I’ve got my pride / I’ll cut your balls and I’ll tan your hide. A very deep subject, eh?”

Equally troubling is how The Rolling Stones and their team have previously defended the track: arguing that the undeniably chauvinist lyrics were meant to be throwaway. The Spanish phrases in the title and the body of the lyrics were simply a way of making a funky dance track sound fresh and commercial. Had they actually understood the word in a Latin American context, one wonders if The Rolling Stones would have been so careless. According to Afro-Latin scholar Hilda Lloréns: “The term ‘negrita’ or ‘negrito’ is the diminutive form of ‘Negra/Negro’ (Black). And so, the roughest equivalent translation to the US context would be when a Black man is called ‘boy’, or when a Black woman is called ‘girl’.”

Lloréns continues: “Negrita/negrito is a linguistic move that infantilises, that aims to make a person small as a way to render them less threatening, less powerful, thereby, allowing the speaker to produce a friendly and child-like individual. In the context of Latin America and the Spanish speaking-Caribbean, ‘negrita’ and ‘negrito’ were historically used to take the sting out of addressing someone, particularly a well-liked individual, as ‘Negro’ or ‘Negra’. Even today, ‘Negro/Negra’ is understood by some as a negative or derogatory term. This is, in part, because ‘Negro’ was, and still is, closely associated with enslavement. In many places throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, it is believed that to be called ‘Negro/Negra’ is to be called a slave.”

While Mick Jagger has claimed that he wrote the lyrics about his wife at the time, Bianca, who he affectionately called “Negrita”, that doesn’t mitigate the innately backwards-looking misogyny and cultural ignorance that run wild in this troubling single. While some might argue that you can’t hold a group accountable for something they weren’t aware of, I think that’s precisely why this song is such an awkward listen all these decades later: it demonstrates how readily white rockers plucked from other cultures but how unwilling they were to acknowledge the social context of what they were – for want of a better word – appropriating. Now, before you accuse me of attacking boomers, The Rolling Stones aren’t the only ones who have recieved criticism for using the term ‘Negrita’. In 2020, J-Lo sparked controversy after using it in her song ‘Lonely’ with Colombian artist Maluma. It was only used once, but that was enough to cause a social media storm. All of this begs the difficult question: why did The Rolling Stones not receive the same backlash?

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