The Rolling Stones pulled one of their most famous songs, “Brown Sugar,” from the setlist of their current tour, after complaints that the song depicts scenes of slavery and rape.
When a reporter at The LA Times noticed that the rock classic was not being played at any of their concerts, Keith Richards, 77, responded asking, “You picked up on that, huh?”
“I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is,” Richards, the legendary guitarist of the Rolling Stones, told The LA Times. “Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it.”
Despite depicting “the horrors” of slavery, “Brown Sugar” also describes a slave master raping his young, female slaves, which led many critics to decry its meaning and demand its performance be retired.
In the opening lines, frontman Mick Jagger sings about a “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields” and slaves “sold in the market down in New Orleans.”
“Skydog slaver knows he’s doin’ all right/Hear him whip the women just around midnight,” he sings. “Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good/Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should.”
Mick Jagger, who wrote the song back in 1969 (though it was not recorded until 1971), said at the time that all of the metaphors of being whipped and mastered by “Brown Sugar” were about heroin use, which cooks brown in a spoon. Jagger reportedly also liked the allusion to slavery, and the double entendre of “Brown Sugar” meaning both heroin use and the act of making love to a Black woman.
According to Songfacts, the song was partially inspired by a Black backup singer for Ike Turner named Claudia Lennear, whom Jagger briefly met when they were touring with Ike Turner and his Ikettes.
“We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970,” Richards told The LA Times. “Sometimes you think, ‘We’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes.’”
According to setlist.fm, a website that records the setlist’s for thousands of concerts, The Rolling Stones have played “Brown Sugar” live 1,136 times, making it their second most-played song behind “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
“We might put it back in,” he said. “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.”
In an exclusive interview looking back on the Rolling Stones’ success, session pianist Jim Dickinson told Gibson magazine that Mick Jagger wrote the song in about 45 minutes at the studio right before they recorded it.
“You can’t imagine how nonchalantly Jagger wrote that,” he recalled. “It was already a fully developed song as far as the music went, but there were no lyrics. Jagger sat down with one of those green steno pads and filled up three pages. It took him 45 minutes. Then he stood up and sang. It was unbelievable.”
Despite the song’s near-50-year tenure, critics were still asking for the song to be pulled. In their last five shows of the “No Filter” tour, the Stones have yet to perform “Brown Sugar.”
“This is not a call for censorship or curtailing of artistic speech, but a plea for superstars to accept at least a fraction of accountability for their words as the rest of us,” Chicago Tribune critic Ian Brennan wrote in 2019. “The issue today is not that they ever wrote the song. Nor that they have ever sung it. The fault is that they keep singing it.”
Back in 1995, Mick Jagger said that “I never would write that song now,” in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I would probably censor myself. I’d think, ‘Oh God, I can’t.'”
Their latest show was their first without drummer Charlie Watts, who recently passed away at the age of 80 with throat cancer.