According to setlist.fm, “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones is the band’s second-most performed song. But, the danceable tune with the questionable lyrics has been retired from the band’s setlist – – at least for now.
According to the L.A. Times and elsewhere, 77-year-old guitarist Keith Richards has said, “…I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they know this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they are trying to bury it.”
Despite numerous media outlets reporting on this development, it remains unclear if there was a specific person or group whose recent complaint led to the removal of “Brown Sugar” from live setlists, or if the band has simply censored itself to head off cancel culture protests.
“Brown Sugar”: a song and more
While “Brown Sugar” was a hit for The Rolling Stones in 1971, the phrase can be construed as demeaning and overly sexual when directed at black women and girls. However, the song itself does present the term in a historical context, with the lyrics creating a context of 19th century Louisiana and the brutal, often sexualized reality of slavery.
At no point in the song do the lyrics switch to first person. Audiences who have been careful listeners for decades, are likely to have either categorized the song as “mere” entertainment, or have recognized the history contained in the lyrics and simply accepted it.
The problem with certain aspects of cancel culture is that it fails to address what is pertinent now. Canceling “Brown Sugar” does not erase slavery. Allowing certain individuals or groups decide what everyone gets to hear, read, or view, treads a bit on individual freedoms. It seems too late to engage in after-the-fact censorship. The song, and other media that describe slavery, can be useful tools for learning how the practice is discussed.
The argument here is not that slavery is “okay.” That claim is not nearly the point here. Instead a more fruitful conversation should involve what have Americans learned about the vestiges of slavery.
For fans of rock music, and Rolling Stones’ fans in particular, “Brown Sugar” is a good song. The bluesy riffs and catchy hook make the song a favorite of rock radio stations. Taking it away from audiences only disappoints them; it does not fix the misdeeds of the past.