Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll...and the raping of enslaved black women: There's a thin line between edgy and the establishment

"The lyric was all to do with the dual combination of drugs and girls. This song was a very instant thing, a definite high point."
--Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones song "Brown Sugar" in the liner notes to 1993 compilation disc "Jump Back"
 
Rock music is often viewed as a counter-culture art form. But in a curious twist, rock artists can push the bounds of convention so far that what began as provocative and daring becomes the same-old, tired establishment shit. But rock stars, shielded by their cool, get away with parroting the messages of a sexist and racist society, because, y'know, they're rock stars.
 
Say, for instance, you are Mick Jagger in 1971. You are young and white and male and rich and famous and critically adored. Drink and drug and sex are free and liberally flowing. You built a career taking the tunes of forgotten and penniless, black, cotton-picking bluesmen and shining them to gold with a little long-haired, British public school boy cheek. You are white boy funky, "down" with the colored folk, because rock n' roll is liberal like that. You will happily play alongside black musicians like Billy Preston or Muddy Waters. You respect them even. And you're not averse to a little "brown sugar" in your bed. You're no racist, just a bold and celebrated hedonist. So lyrics like this...

gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
sold in a market down in New Orleans.
Scarred old slaver know he's doin' all right.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.

brown sugar
how come you taste so good
brown sugar
just like a young girl should

drums beating cold
English blood runs hot
lady of the house wondrin
where its gonna stop.
house boy knows that he's doin' all right.
you shoulda heard him just around midnight.

brown sugar
how come you taste so good
mmm, brown sugar
just like a young girl should

aw, get down on your knees
brown sugar
how come you dance so good?
aw, get down on the ground
brown sugar
just like a young girl should

I bet your mama was a tent-show queen,
and all her girlfriends
were sweet sixteen.
I'm no schoolboy but I know what I like,
You shoulda heard me just around midnight.

brown sugar

...lyrics that celebrate the rape of enslaved women, that exotify black women, that advance the Jezebel stereotype of the unrapeable, twisting, writhing, gyrating black woman with an animal need for sex, eager to get down on her knees...those lyrics aren't racist or sexist...I bet you would call them "edgy."

I was gobsmacked when Macon D at Stuff White People Do published the lyrics to "Brown Sugar." I had counted this as one of my favorite Stones songs. Though I'm usually a big lyrics person, I never could quite make these out; I was more taken by the driving beat and jangling guitar. I have cranked this joint on my iPod many a morning on the way to work.

Ya'll know that, when it comes to music, art and pop culture, I'm not averse to saying "fuck it, I just like it" (TM Latoya Peterson via The Cruel Secretary), righteous liberalism be damned. And don't we all expect sexism from rock dinosaurs like Mick and Keiff? But this...this...singing blithely about the sexual brutality that still scars black women and our sexuality and our relationships...this makes me feel ill.

What really sickens me is that while the song caused some hubbub upon its release, it didn't cause enough to stop it from reaching number one on the American charts. Most folks I shared the lyrics recently with were surprised at the song's content. Googling "Brown Sugar" and "controversy" or "racism" brings up nothing much. But I did note this comment in a music forum:

Mick Jagger is hardly a racist nor is the fact he wrote the song saying he agrees with slavery. He also has a mixed race daughter, Karis, from his affair with black singer Marsha Hunt in 1970. (Tami's note: A daughter that he initially denied, btw. Anyhoo...) Rock music was always meant to shock and polarise opinion from it's earliest origins. Elvis and his very active pelvis shocked a good few people in it's time.

See...edgy and shocking, not racist.

How have these lyrics not caused much of a stir for nearly 40 freakin' years? Why hasn't this song stuck to the Stones legacy? Lynyrd Skynyrd's much more subtle lyric, "In Brimingham they love the gov'nor" from "Sweet Home Alabama," has forever thrown the shade of racism over the legendary Southern rock band (well, that and their penchant for displaying the Stars and Bars). Why no shade for the Rolling Stones singing in a celebratory manner about raping enslaved black women?

Are the Stones getting the 70s version of the hipster pass which gives the young, white and cool free reign to do whatever fucked up offensive thing they can think of, as long as it can be disguised as satire or edginess? Or does "Brown Sugar" simply tap into what society believes about black women and thus arouse no shock?

Speaking of hipster passes...I've been getting DVDs from Jon Favreau's old A&E series "Dinner for Five" from Netflix. The show  gathers five actors for dinner and conversation at a trendy restaurant. It really is engrossing to watch.  

On an episode I watched this weekend, Sarah Silverman (whose face is in the dictionary next to hipster pass) lamented the backlash about her use of the slur "chink" in a 2001 appearance on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

Silverman caused a brief controversy after using the ethnic slur "chink" in an interview on the July 11, 2001, episode of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. In the interview, Silverman explained that a friend had advised her on how to avoid jury duty by writing a racial slur on the selection form, "something inappropriate, like 'I hate chinks.'" However, Silverman said that she ultimately decided that she did not want to be thought of as a racist, so she said, "I wrote 'I love chinks' – and who doesn't?" Silverman said that the joke satirizes the racist thought process. Read more...

The consensus among the dinner guests was that people who were offended by Silverman's bit just didn't understand. An eyerolling Peter Berg offered, "Sometimes a joke isn't racist, it's about racism."

Maybe.

But what really separates Silverman from the person who uses the word "chink" unironically? Her supposed intent? Are we supposed to just know that this pretty, young, hip and famous woman would never really be a racist, so, y'know...just joking? Similarly, are we to know that a band of good-time, blues-loving, English rockers don't really see black women as exotic, unrapeable, sex toys?

The problem is that African American and Chinese American people know that racism comes in many packages--including young, cool, supposedly-liberal ones. We cannot trust that the Stones' lyrics or Silverman's jokes are harmless merely because the artists say they are. Songs about hypersexualized black women and jokes that hinge on racial slurs may well be harmless to the cool, white folks who create them. But the impact felt by oppressed people is not harmless. Next time an 11-year-old black girl is gang-raped by 21 men and boys and people blame the victim, saying she was just "fast," it will be because of all the past propaganda stereotyping black women as Jezebels, including songs like "Brown Sugar."

Seen in that light, the Stones and Silverman aren't so much edgy as typically priviledged and part of a sexist and racist establishment.

Just some new insights from a couple of old controversies...

22 comments:

RainaHavock said...

Wow. I never heard of this song before. Very excellent post.

ThirstyDancer said...

Tami,
I love your blog, and I really love this post. I had never seen the lyrics to the song, and never quite heard all of them. My jaw is still hanging open.

livinonfaith said...

So apparently I'm not the only one who was shocked by the lyrics to this song when it was posted last week. Like you, I've probably heard this song seventy times or so in my lifetime and never once actually "heard" the lyrics, except the chorus and a few lines.
I'm not the type to pick songs apart and attach great meaning to them, unless they are that kind of song. Sometimes, like you, I just like them for the catchy beat and this was one of those for me. However, I have lost my fondness for this song, and quite frankly, am embarrassed that I ever sang along with the chorus in a club.
You know, there's a large chance that if both of us missed this until it was actually written down and slapped in front of us, that a large amount of other people have as well.
And although it may not have caused a lot of controversy when it was first released, I'll bet you money that there are now a lot of people out there who would be just as shocked and repulsed as you and I were if they knew just what they were shaking their booties to!

Anonymous said...

Then why isn't there MORE outrage from black women about sleaze like this?!! You all scream bloody murder if a black male rapper looks at you cross-eyed yet THIS garbage is contsantly overlooked! And rock stars aren't the only ones getting a free pass from black females comedians,Hollywood movies,reality tv shows,magazines,shock jocks,etc. make hateful sweeping generalizations about black women ALL THE TIME and you all just sit back and take it so why bitch now?!!

Anonymous said...

Good read. Also, there was another song by 'Mick & the boys' called 'Some Girls' where black women are similarly disparaged. smh

Tami said...

Anon,

If you think black women are silent about the indignities we face, but for the ones presided over by black men, then you are surely not listening.

Lady C said...

I'm not a fan of the Stones, and never have been. But just suppose, the Stones were stating a fact surrounding slavery and were not intentionally disparaging black women. What if, they were attempting to be thought provoking but nobofy got it. If you've never listened to the words, how many others really listened to words?

As far as Lynard Skynard is concerned, in Birmingham, they (white folks) truly did love the governor.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I may be a bit generous in my assessment, but it is how I am feeling tonight.

Shady_Grady said...

Hi. GREAT post. I thought everyone had heard the lyrics to "Brown Sugar". I am surprised that anyone hadn't. It is a racist song with a good beat.

I never heard the lyrics or saw any transcription that included "..get down on your knees...get down on the ground". Maybe that's from a live version? It's not from the studio version.

It's interesting that the Rolling Stones get a pass for stuff like this when Lynyrd Skynyrd never wrote anything close to being this offensive. The singer and primary songwriter for Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Zant, endorsed Jimmy Carter for President and said of George Wallace "Wallace and I have very little in common. I don’t like what he says about colored people."

I think part of the reason the Rolling Stones get a pass in some quarters was because as mentioned they were critical darlings and were known to be provocative. They also credited their sources and influences, gave a lot of work to black musicians, etc.

I believe the lyrics caused somewhat of a stir back in the day but Black people were not and are not the Rolling Stones' primary audience so Jagger could write lyrics like that without fear of complaint/censure.

There is a pretty good book "Hole in our Soul" by Martha Bayles that discusses what she refers to as the "blood knot" or the European stereotyping, distortion of and fascination with African cultural and sexual imagery. She posits the Rolling Stones as one of the major modern examples of this.

Sista GP said...

After becoming a mom/stepmom (long ago), I have been more aware of lyrics my children hear. I've stopped playing certain songs because of the lyrics, even though prior I listened for the music.

Anonymous said...

I AM listening I'm just not hearing much criticism directed towards white males in the entertainment industry as I am toward rappers. Not that they can't get their licks too but why are they always the ONLY targets?!!

Anonymous said...

And my name is Lavern by the way.

DJ Black Adam said...

Wow. I never paid attention to the Stones (aside from "Missing You", which Ron Hardy used to rock at the Music Box).

Incredibly racist not "shocking". The fact Mick has a Black daughter he denied only reinforces his attitude to me in regard to Black women.

Tami said...

Lavern,

I don't agree that hip hop is the only pop culture target of sexism charges. I think it gets a lot of (deserved) heat, because it is arguably THE most popular genre of the day, especially among young people. I also think, from a black woman's perspective, that seeing so many black men willing to denigrate and objectify "their own, furthering ugly stereotypes, is particularly horrifying.

Anonymous said...

Who cares if it's the most popular if they are not the only guilty party?!! Hollywood has been getting away for DECADES with degrading women period but especially black women and that gets overlook. As a black women myslef I feel that's b.s. there is NO excuse if everybody is guilty then everyone should be hung equally. And if you look at all the blogs,message boards,articles,columns,talk show subjects,radio talk show dialogues of criticism aimed at non-black males for misogyny it would be a DROP in the bucket to what rappers get and that AIN'T right!

Tami said...

Lavern,

We'll just have to agree to disagree. I DO see black women addressing non-black degradation. If rappers get an inordinate amount of hear it is because they have an inordinate amount of influence on our communities and our children. No one gives a rat's about Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones in Englewood...Lil Wayne, yes. Even still, behind the most egregious rappers are record companies that are certainly not run by black men, but white ones.

ALL OF IT is wrong. I agree with you that there is no one villain here. But I can't be arsed to defend black male rap stars who trade on the images of their mothers and sisters and daughters and ALL black women, making our lives harder, for a fast buck.

funnie said...

the difference is: Skynyrd -- geography, fan base, self-styling, and members' baground -- represented the caricature of "isolable racism" that a lot of people needed (still need) to believe in. Racism happens among bubbas at backyard barbeques.

It doesn't happen among good people, whether they're edgy counterculture types or uppercrust captains of industry (or, in the Stones' case, both). The Stones' geography, fan base, and self-styling have always been of a hipper and richer bent than Skynyrd's. They are both the counterculture and the upper crust -- so, what would otherwise look like racism, must really be something else. One is not racist in art school (Richards) or at the London School of Economics (Jagger). Nor is one racist in London or New York. Racism only happens when trashy people with a high school education sing songs about the South.

The rest of us white people, we don't have a problem. We're decent people, we have nice clothes and college educations, we know what's appropriate and what's edgy, and we know how to look good doing it. We're insiders, we're powerful, and we're better than that.

Macon D said...

I appreciate your analysis here, Tami--it really validates and clarifies my own disgust with "Brown Sugar." As these lyrics make their way around the net, it's sad to see a lot of people defend this song, and the Stones for writing and performing it.

Shady_Grady wrote, "I never heard the lyrics or saw any transcription that included '..get down on your knees...get down on the ground'. Maybe that's from a live version? It's not from the studio version."

Yes, I transcribed a live version that's on YouTube (it's also embedded in my post). Several versions have been posted on YouTube.

Anonymous said...

Maybe young black kids don't care about Mick Jagger or the Stones but they DO watch Hollywood movies and tv shows most of which are not only negative and sexist in how they regard women period but particularly women of color. And I'm not saying defend rappers I'm just saying if you want to complain then be consistent I mean if this were WHITE rappers saying this would it be such a big deal then?! And if you want to talk 'trading in' on black women to make a buck you obviously don't watch many black male comedians.

Anonymous said...

And another thing maybe black kids don't like the Stones but there ARE some black kids who listen to different music and not only rap. Lots of black kids like Disturbed,Smashing Pumpkins,Linkin Park,Greenday,Motley Crue,Guns&Roses. So to say that the ONLY music black kids like is rap is very myopic.

Tami said...

Anon,

Yes it would be a big deal if a black rapper wrote lyrics like the ones in this post. If you think that I don't hold sexist black men accountable, then you should spend some time looking at other posts on the blog.

Also,as someone of the hip hop generation who much preferred rock and pop, I also get that black people have diverse musical interests. Again, check out the rest of the site, including other posts about music.

Anonymous said...

Here's my personal theory on why the Rolling Stones get a "pass" for singing controversial lyrics such as this: no one ever understands what the he** Mick Jagger is actually SINGING!!

Marissa Charles said...

I actually really like this song. I too was amazed when I read the lyrics about ten years ago. However, as a historian – and a black woman – I have no problem with the song or the subject matter. The Stones are stating a fact. The slave masters did rape black women. They're neither condoning it nor celebrating it. Also, many of their songs are written either to provoke people, to get a reaction, or as a parody of someone else's opinion. The Stones are not racist. The picture they paint in this song isn't pretty but it is an ugly part of history and they're basically telling a story.

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