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Rolling Stones pull 'Brown Sugar,' song with lyrics about slavery, from live performances

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards say the tune is off their set lists for now but could someday come back.
Image: Mick Jagger performs during the Rolling Stones \"No Filter\" 2021 North American tour on Sept. 26, 2021 in St. Louis, Mo.
Mick Jagger performs during the Rolling Stones' No Filter North American tour Sept. 26 in St. Louis.Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP - Getty Images

The Rolling Stones dropped "Brown Sugar" from their concert setlist, saying they fear 21st century fans won't grasp that the tune is about "the horrors of slavery" and not celebrating it.

In an interview published last week in the Los Angeles Times, guitarist Keith Richards confirmed the song's status after a reporter noticed its conspicuous absence from the group's current "No Filter" tour.

"You picked up on that, huh?" Richards said.

The song's out of rotation for now, but Richards and Mick Jagger said it has not been permanently canned.

"I don't know. I'm trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is," Richards told the paper. "Didn't they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they're trying to bury it."

The song's first lyrics paint a stark picture of the slave trade:

"Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields. Sold in the market down in New Orleans. Skydog slaver knows he's doin' all right. Hear him whip the women just around midnight."

The fan favorite hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts on May 29, 1971.

“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,’” Jagger, the Stones frontman and writer of the song, told the Times. "We might put it back in.”

Daphne Brooks, director of graduate studies at Yale University’s Department of African American Studies, counts herself as a longtime Rolling Stones fan but said the fetishizing of Black women in “Brown Sugar” — and of Puerto Rican women in “Miss You,” another Stones song — has always troubled her.

She welcomed the decision to pull “Brown Sugar” from live performances.

“It’s the most popular song about the systemic rape of Black women in slavery and celebratory anthem of this unspeakable crime,” said Brooks, author of “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound,” about the image of Black women in music.

“So this is a good moment.”

The inspiration for "Brown Sugar" has been alternately assigned to one of two singers who have been affiliated with Jagger, Claudia Lennear and Marsha Hunt.

"When he wrote it, it didn't suggest to me he was the one, he was the slave owner. It wasn't his point of view," Lennear told NBC News on Wednesday. "I don't think he was celebrating slavery at all. If anything he was celebrating having a sexual encounter with somebody, you know, like, 'Woo, woo,' he scored."

And just as a music fan, Lennear, a member of the The Ikettes who backed up Ike and Tina Turner, said she's sorry to hear the song has been dropped even temporarily.

"I mean, that hook, 'Brown sugar, how come you taste so good now?' That's fun to hear. That's fun to dance to," Lennear said.

The Stones are set to play Thursday and Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

A representative for the group could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.