10 classic rock songs that are offensively racist

Rock ‘n’ roll defiantly arose from racism and sadly it has often returned from whence it came in the worst possible way. What should always be a tool of progressive expression and a voice of liberation – and so often is – sadly also has an Achilles heel that has perpetuated problematic discrimination in song. This is the antithesis of what rock ‘n’ roll is about and it is our duty to recognise that, denounce it, and look ahead having learnt lessons from the past. 

For now, let us focus on the liberating resolution that early forms of modern music represented. The best recital of this comes from the late, great Lightnin’ Hopkins and his allegorical tale of Charlie’s Rolling Mill: “Once in the country there was this little boy and he stuttered,” Hopkins casually begins. 

He continues to tell the story of a pariah who left home after it became clear his mother couldn’t understand his stammering ways. Out on the road with a meagre flower pack full of possessions and a spiritual sack full of woes, the boy wanders his tired legs up to a dingy outbuilding called The Rolling Mill. It belongs to Mr Charlie. So, the boy stammers his way towards asking Mr Charlie if he has a place for him to stay. 

Mr Charlie tells him he can stay in his Rolling Mill down the road so long as he sees to it that his stove never catches fire. The boy agrees, and Mr Charlie tells him he never wants to hear from him again unless there is ever a fire. One day the boy is in the Rolling Mill, and the place catches aflame. He races his way up to Mr Charlie’s house to tell him about the blaze. As the boy struggles to spell out the problem in his failing words, Mr Charlie stops him and says, “Look here boy, if you can’t talk it, then sing it,” at which point Lightnin’ Hopkins strums his guitar and bursts into song.

The story holds a metaphorical mirror to the tale of folk and blues. When those suffering on plantations couldn’t speak, they had to learn to sing. It is this encrypted meaning and the humanised expression of these humble genres that elucidated the vital necessity of music, both as a means of communication and as a soulful vessel for exultation.

Sadly, as the examples below show, this hasn’t always been put forth with everyone in mind. So, from the insensitive to the straight-up discriminatory, it is important to wrestle with where these songs go wrong and ensure that music moves forward in a mindful way with egalitarianism at its heart so that everyone can be part of that unifying rejoice. 

10 classic rock song that are offensively racist:

‘Brown Sugar’ – The Rolling Stones

The subject matter of ‘Brown Sugar’ is two-fold, and neither brings any light to the other. Ostensibly the song is about Africans who were sold to New Orleans plantations and raped by their white masters. The connotations of this horrific overture were then played upon to impart the metaphorical double meaning of being a slave to the narcotic demands of brown heroin. 

In short, the song is about slavery, heroin, cunnilingus and rape, with jives at record-producing junkies and some of the most stunningly crude and offensive lyrics that have ever been written. The song was even initially titled ‘Black Pussy’. If that is the untampered raucous artistry of rock ‘n’ roll, then we have to question its tenets. 

To reassess ‘Brown Sugar’ 50 years on from its release is far from the merciless nature of condemnable ‘cancel culture’ (he who is innocent sends the first Tweet), raking up old bones, or an attempt at dreaded wokeness. It is simply a chance to reassess whether the holocaust of 12.5million Africans should ever be met with lyrics about the pleasures of slave rape should be pronounced unironically with gyrating movements and fuzz-pedalled attitude.

‘Island Girl’ – Elton John

Perhaps the most troubling thing of all about Elton John’s reggae track is that it hit number one without people batting much of an eye at the evidently problematic lyrics at the time. Middle-class lyricist Bernie Taupin used Caribbean musicology to weave what he perceived to be a fitting tale of a young girl who moves to New York City and instantly begins “turning tricks for the dudes in the big city”. 

While that might be a derogatory stereo-typing of Caribbean women, he then proceeds to pen a line with potent anti-immigration undertones, asking, “What you wanting with the white man’s world?” as though this “black as coal” “Jamaican honey” has nothing to offer or gain in the big city barring practices the track pertains to be immoral. 

This reduction of women of colour to objects with failing autonomy is exacerbated further with lines like “Black boy want you in his island world”. And beyond that, the general undertone of racist language is profound. The song even begins with the troubling line, “I see your teeth flash.” This track reached number one, and that fact alone is a prime example of why ‘wokeness’ should be reclassified as simple, equitable responsibility. 

‘Illegal Alien’ – Genesis

In a checklist of Mexican stereotyping, the video for ‘Illegal Alien’ offensively portrays the band as drunken poncho-wearing moustachioed layabouts acting sneaky in some downtown area while Phil Collins sings in a mock Mexican accent. The satirical song was spawned from the band’s struggles with getting visas to allow them to re-enter the US, but rather than probe into the whys and wherefores of this, it simply trivialises it as a joke.

This fun approach doesn’t spare the song and, if anything, only further highlights the systemic prejudices held against Mexicans. And the protagonist offering up sexual favours from his sister to solve his plight only makes the patent racism worse. Complete with an almost pejorative appropriation of Mexican music for the sake of whimsy alone, the mindlessness that runs through this track displays a stunning lack of empathy from a band having a lark on a very privileged perch. 

‘The March from the Black Queen’ – Queen

The lyrics of ‘The March from the Black Queen’ stand out on Queen II as a very perturbing moment. Freddie Mercury sings, “Put them in the cellar with the naughty boys / Little n***** sugar then a rub-a-dub a-baby oil.” In subsequent releases, the band replaced the offending word and have since buried the song in the past. 

Aside from the slur itself, it is once again the dark invocation that goes along with it that only makes things worse. Both this context and the blunt word itself are inexcusably used by the band for effect. As Professor Hakeem Jefferson states: “When white folks insist on using the N-word, even when Black folks say, ‘Don’t use the N-word,’ it’s about power. And the reason we keep having these amazingly silly conversations is b/c many white folks simply can’t imagine giving up any modicum of power to Black folks, ever.”

‘Indian Girl’ – The Rolling Stones

In this song, Jagger evangelically travels in a private jet to a worn-torn country to tell the only living girl left in her village that life gets harder. This sage lesson was instilled in Jagger the hard way during his own middle-class upbringing in the peaceful town of Dartford, where the neighbourhood bullies threatened to give him a papercut or steal his quince sandwiches—a hard knocks lesson that was reaffirmed during his time at The London School of Economics.

Paired with an Eagles-like soft rock sound, everything seems so casually insincere that somehow condemning war comes off as wildly offensive and glibly racist. It’s a soft and lulling tale of a misguided white saviour bringing more bad news from nowhere to a poor beleaguered child. With appropriated mariachi horns inexplicably entering the mix – to give some fun local flavour, I suppose – the whole thing is a crass ill-fought affair with an equally foolish musicology dragging along behind Jagger’s strangely flowery vocals.

‘Rock and Roll N*****’ – Patti Smith 

Patti Smith released her third album, Easter, in 1978, which contained one of her most well-known tracks, ‘Because the Night’. But ending side one is a song that has marred Smith’s stellar discography – ‘Rock and Roll N*****’. The punk artist brazenly uses the racial slur to refer to anyone considered an outsider, no matter the colour of their skin. She calls various people the slur, including Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Pollock, Jesus Christ and even Grandma. Referring to a woman that society has labelled a “whore”, Smith sings, “Baby baby baby is a rock n roll n*****/ Outside of society that’s where I want to be/ Outside of society they’re waitin for me.”

Although Smith seems to be using the word with good intentions (if that’s possible), she completely misses the mark. By watering down the word, Smith dismisses the severity of its use, and it’s bewildering that she thought she could use the term to refer to certain white outsider figures. It’s an uncomfortable listen, especially when she basically chants the offensive word near the end. In October 2022, the song was quietly removed from all streaming services, with Smith offering no comment on the decision. 

‘I Wanna Be Black’ – Lou Reed

Oh, Lou. The Velvet Underground frontman frequently highlighted marginalised LGBTQ+ figures in his work, most notably in his solo track ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. Yet, when it came to writing about race, his approach was much clumsier. In the 1978 song ‘I Wanna Be Black’, Lou Reed attempted to satirise the malaise of young, privileged white men by singing, “I wanna be black, I wanna be a Panther/ Have a girlfriend named Samantha/ And have a stable of foxy whores.” Unfortunately, the singer ends up heaping stereotype after stereotype into every line. 

Reed continues, “I wanna be black, wanna be like Martin Luther King/ And get myself shot in the spring/ And lead a whole generation, too/ And fuck up the Jews.” The singer’s incessant stereotyping only makes his track hard to listen to, even if he is attempting to highlight the racism of middle-class white men. Reed certainly wanted his song to be controversial, and he succeeded. However, we can’t help but wonder if there was a less offensive way of getting that message across. 

‘One in a Million’ – Guns N’ Roses

When Guns N’ Roses wrote ‘One in a Million’ in 1988, they must have had a checklist next to them with a list of every marginalised group they wished to attack. They launch a vitriolic tirade of abuse towards black people with the lines, “Police and n******, that’s right/ Get outta my way/Don’t need to buy none of your/ Gold chains today.” But the song manages to get much, much worse.

Axl Rose sings, “Immigrants and f******/ They make no sense to me/ They come to our country/ And think they’ll do as they please/ Like start some mini-Iran/ Or spread some fucking disease.” Yikes. Despite this being one of the most offensive songs in rock history, it sadly hasn’t stopped Guns N’ Roses from headlining festivals and selling out shows. 

‘Wig Wam Bam’ – Sweet 

British glam rockers Sweet rose to fame in the early 1970s, with the track ‘Wig Wam Bam’ proving highly successful. It peaked at number four on the UK Singles Chart, yet it was a blatantly racist adoption of Native American stereotypes which unnecessarily sexualise the characters in the song. Lead vocalist Brian Connolly sings, “Hiawatha didn’t bother too much/ About Minnehaha and her tender touch/ Till she took him to the silver stream/ Then she whispered words like he’d never heard/ That made him all shudder inside.”

This wasn’t the band’s only offence. While promoting the song alongside a string of other singles, the bassist Steve Priest dressed up in a military uniform, complete with a swastika armband and even a Hitler-esque moustache. It’s not a surprise that Sweet didn’t reach the acclaim of other glam rock artists like T. Rex and Roxy Music. 

‘They Sold Me Out’ – Van Morrison

On Van Morrison’s thirty-first solo album, Magic Time, released in 2005, he released a questionable song – ‘They Sold Me Out’, which has been criticised for its antisemitism. Singing from the perspective of Jesus, Morrison declares, “For a few shekels more, they didn’t even think twice/For a few shekels more, another minute in the spotlight.” The lyrics perpetuate the stereotype that Jewish people are preoccupied and obsessed with money, a sentiment that formed Nazi ideology.

It seems like Morrison hasn’t learnt from his mistakes. In 2021, he released ‘They Own the Media’, with many publications suggesting that the mysterious “they” referred to Jewish people. He sings: “They control the narrative, they perpetuate the myth/ Keep on telling you lies, tell you ignorance is bliss.”