The TRUE story behind the Rolling Stones' controversial song Brown Sugar
After much controversy over its lyrics, the band decided to stop performing 'Brown Sugar', here's why it's facing such heat
'Brown Sugar' is now canceled, or so it would seem. The Rolling Stones' hit single, which has been a regular feature in almost all their live performances is now on a break, frontman Mick Jagger confirmed in an interview on October 7. The song has not been featured on the Stones' 13-date US tour, which kicked off on September 26. In fact, it hasn't been played by the band since August 30, 2019, when it echoed through Hard Rock Stadium, Miami.
The news comes just months after the group's legendary drummer Charlie Watts died in London at the age of 80. It was one of the many topics Jagger commented on in his interview. Watts earlier pulled out of the group's US tour and was replaced by Steve Jordan. By no stretch is 'Brown Sugar' the only controversial Stones' hit, as we have reported in the past, plenty of their songs have been heavily criticized over the decades.
But it seems as if there's something special about 'Brown Sugar'. Since its release in 1971, the song has constantly been panned, with its criticism gaining more and more prominence over the years. In fact, in 2015, Vulture called the song "gross, sexist, and stunningly offensive toward black women." In the past, Jagger appeared to have acknowledged some of the controversies, even changing the lyrics during live performances. So what makes 'Brown Sugar' so controversial? Here's the truth.
The 'Brown Sugar' controversy explained
At first pass, the song can come off as incredibly crass, talking about slavery, and even rape. It's a fact that the group hasn't been shy about. "It was disgusting. God knows what I’m on about in that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go," he told Rolling Stone in 1995. In fact, he even originally titled the song 'Black P---y', before deciding it was "too nitty-gritty". But while the name changed, the subject itself didn't.
With lyrics like "Hear him whip the women just around midnight" and "Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should", the song is a clear ode to America's drug problems. In his book ' Up And Down With The Rolling Stones', author Tony Sanchez says the whipping is a double meaning for the perils of being 'mastered' by Brown Heroin, the drug referred to as brown sugar. But, by clearly using the term "black girl" in the song, the song also carries a strong racist undertone. Furthermore, it also refers to rape, with "Skydog slaver" being a reference to a slave owner.
Mix in racism, rape, and slavery, and you have yourself a pretty controversial song. It didn't help that the album cover for 'Sticky Fingers' (which the song was released as part of) featured a man in jeans with a close-up of his crotch. As SongFact concluded, "The subject matter is quite serious, but the way the song is structured, it comes off as a fun rocker about a white guy having sex with a black girl."
'We might put it back in'
So given all that, it was perhaps apt that the Stones chose to remove the song from their setlists for now. With a nation on edge about racism, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, the song has garnered a lot of attention in recent years, and not the good kind. In 2019, Chicago Tribune called it "repulsive" and "jeering harassment". So, when the Stones' resumed their 'No Filter' tour after the pandemic, they decided to skirt the controversy entirely.
"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?" Jagger told the LA Times. He added, "At the moment I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this s--t. But I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track." Jagger then said, "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."
So despite the clear backlash and overtly racist and crass themes, Jagger makes no apologies for 'Brown Sugar'. He's also got plenty of defenders. That Vulture article we mentioned at the start? it goes on to say, "Its disturbing lyrics bother me, but lyrics aren’t the only thing it has to offer. It’s a great rock and roll song." So perhaps in another time, 'Brown Sugar' will retain its original popularity, but in an American dominated by the debate over racism, that seems unlikely.