An empowered slur in one country, AAVE slang in another

Lizzo (left) and Beyonce (Getty)

The internet (and Beyhive) has been in an uproar since Beyoncé dropped her new album Rebirth. While the album itself is receiving critical acclaim, one group is less than happy with some of the lyrics featured on it: specifically, the British disabled community.

In the song ‘HEATED’, Beyoncé uses the term “spaz” indicating that she is about to freak out. In the UK, “spaz” can be considered a capable slur. However, in the US, the term is commonly used in African-American vernacular English with a different meaning, often referring to oneself as out of control or disorganized.

While Beyoncé has already committed to changing the lyrics, she’s not the first artist to have fans questioning that language. Lizzo used the same term in her song ‘Grrrls’ and faced backlash from fans until she changed it (to ‘hold me down’).

As a disabled black woman in the United States, I find myself divided. No one deserves to feel like they are facing capacitism, but in my opinion the word was clearly not used in a capacitist context in ‘Grrrls’ or ‘HEATED’. “Spaz rap” is a genre of its own, and other black American artists also use the term in their music – it appears in songs by NERD, Lil Durk, and even Bhad Bhabie. It’s interesting to see that black female artists are the ones who really get the heat when the term is used, while white and male artists tend to go unnoticed.

Blacks have the second highest rates of disability in the United States and receive inferior medical care than our white counterparts, partially rooted in the stigma that makes medical professionals believe that black patients can tolerate higher levels of pain. Black women face a maternal mortality rate three times higher than our white counterparts. Disability is an everyday experience for many black Americans. It’s not something we take lightly.

“Spaz” is AAVE, and AAVE is its own language. Black and disabled Americans like me have no experience with this term being used against us; the word was never used as an insult in our own community. In Lizzo and Beyoncé’s songs, they use it to describe their own actions. Context matters.

Demanding that a musician change a lyric that makes them uncomfortable is, at best, armchair activism. Certainly, Lizzo and Beyoncé’s decisions to listen to their European fans and remove the reference say a lot about them: how willing they are to listen, dialogue, apologize and make the change if anyone is offended, even if what they said they didn’t. it was in bad faith. “As an influential artist, I am dedicated to being the change I want to see in the world,” Lizzo wrote in explanation.

But I would like to see all the white people who took offense at what these two black artists said to work to invoke effective change in the sphere of accessibility as well. If all they do is allocate attention to the songs of a black artist, then that speaks volumes. Also, it further alienates disabled black people as you don’t talk about our struggles but are happy to police our language. I would love to see people focus their attention on the collective struggle of black and disabled Americans without proper care as a reaction to this controversy.

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