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."


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...

UPDATED: How not to write about Africa

Hat tip to Womanist Musings and Jack and Jill Politics:

UPDATE: Read the full essay by Binyavanga Wainaina in Granta.


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