Popular British Rock band The Rolling Stones have removed their 1971 hit single, Brown Sugar, from their U.S. tour setlist. Though the song has gained considerable commercial success, critics have long called for the band to stop performing it as some of the lyrics notably depict slavery, nonconsensual sex and drugs.
According to The Guardian, the controversial track is the award-winning band’s second most performed tour song. But critics argue the song has “some of the most stunningly crude and offensive lyrics that have ever been written”, adding that it is “gross, sexist, and stunningly offensive towards black women.”
Despite confirming the song has been removed from their U.S. tour setlist, band guitarist Keith Richards told the Los Angeles Times he was perplexed by the criticisms over its lyrics. “I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is,” Richards said. “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.”
Lead vocalist Mick Jagger also said they were no longer performing the song because it was “tough” to curate setlists intended for stadium shows. He, however, said they might not permanently shelve the song.
“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,” he said.
Per an interpretation of the song by Genius, Brown Sugar “runs through different white and Black sexual interactions” that includes a slave owner having nonconsensual sex with a slave, USA TODAY reported. The supposed slave owner, in the lyrics, also had “total ownership of Black women but also had total physical and sexual access.”
The song’s first verse reportedly portrays enslaved people being sold in New Orleans during the slave trade, and a slaver beating women as and when he pleases. “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.”
The song also ends: “How come you, how come you taste so good? Just like a, just like a Black girl should.”
The band’s previous performances of the song were criticized by music producer Ian Brennan during an interview with Rolling Stone last year. Brennan said the song lauded slavery, rape, torture and paedophilia.
Following the announcement of the band’s decision to drop the song, Brennan, in an interview with The Guardian, called on the band to “seize this moment” to enlighten their “gigantic platform” on racial equality.
“That they now retire the song is a victory. But that the band continue to play coy as to the reasons for their decision rather than just making a frank admission of the inappropriateness of the lyrics as the reason why they have chosen to no longer play the song live is an opportunity for healing and leadership missed,” Brennan said.
“The Rolling Stones insistence on continuing to perform the song was not only insensitive, but a prime example of entitlement.”