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Editor’s note: the following story includes multiple uses of the term “spazz,” which may be offensive to some readers.
Both Beyoncé and Lizzo have been called out recently for using the ableist term “spazz” on album tracks. And, to their credit, both women reacted quickly to the backlash, with Lizzo swiftly removing the offensive term in early June from the Special song “Grrrls” after being called out by disability advocate and writer Hannah Diviney, who also took Bey to task in late July for repeatedly using the same word on her Renaissance track “Heated.”
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In both cases, the apparent intention was to refer to someone who appears to be out of control/not able to control their actions, employing it as colloquial slang that has long been used as a playground taunt. That is not, however, how differently abled people see it, so Billboard reached out to a writer who has taken on the hurtful deployment of the word in her writing, and a college professor who specializes in issues around disability culture and identity to get a sense of why Bey and Lizzo’s lyrics struck such a harsh note.
“‘Spazz’ is a direct derivative of the word ‘spastic,’ used to describe a medical condition … and when people use that term it’s always in relation to these medical conditions even if intention is not there to be offensive,” says Jessica Ping-Wild, a differently abled creator and advocate who recently penned the explainer story “Ableist Language to Avoid And Acceptable Alternatives – Spaz Edition.”
Though the word’s origin is in reference to a medical condition (short for “spastic”), Ping-Wild points out that the way it’s been used in casual conversation (and lyrics) over time is as a derogatory term aimed at describing someone not in control of their body or emotions. “It’s used to refer to how people hold themselves or behave or how they can’t control their motion or movements,” she says. “If you call someone a ‘spazz’ it’s known that that is connected to their ability or functionality or ‘normalcy’ in a setting.”
Advocates were quick to call out Lizzo and Bey for the inclusion of the offensive term, but it is far from the first time that it has been used in recent hip-hop or pop lyrics. G Perico and Remble released a song in 2021 called “Spazz,” while Lil Baby included a track with the same name on his 2018 release Harder Than Ever, as did Lil Durk (on 2018’s STTS III) and Lecrea, who included the song on his 2012 Church Clothes mixtape.
Key Glock dropped “Spazzin’ Out” in 2019 and Kid Cudi included the song “CuDi Spazzin'” on his 2008 A Kid Named Cudi album on a song produced by the Neptunes; other acts who’ve used the term in songs include Method Man (“Spazzola”), T.I. (“Spazz Out”), Lady Leshurr (“Spazzing”), Fredo Santana (“Spazz Out”), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 (“Spazz Out 2”), Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus’ band the Jicks (“Spazz”), Waka Flocka Flame (“Spazz Out”), Yo Gotti (“Spazz Out (Intro)”), Riff Raff (with Travis Barker) (“Spazz Out”) as well as a number of artists who’ve used the term as a stage name (Spazzy D, Lil Spazz, Spazz and Spazzkid).
“When I first read about it, I attributed it less to cruelty or somehow more to their cluelessness about the power and stigma of the word,” says David Serlin, University of California San Diego professor of communications. While not an excuse to use a potentially offensive word, Serlin wonders how stars with the reach of Bey or Lizzo did not have someone on their team who might look over their lyrics for any potential issues of this kind, chalking their inclusion up more to “ignorance about its power.” “As opposed to someone like Eminem, who deliberately uses language to stigmatize and hurt people,” he adds of the rapper who has frequently used homophobic and misogynist lyrics in his music, noting that it’s possible that neither woman was aware of the word’s history and its contemporary significance.
“You would expect that these incredibly strong, Black feminist figures should be aware of the complexity of language — something we want them to have because of their social power in the marketplace and the influence they have — but even women as smart, savvy, sophisticated and empowered as them can still use slang that they are importing into their music with a history they could not be aware of,” he says.
Unlike such words as “queer,” “dyke” or “crip” — which Serlin notes have been reclaimed by the historically marginalized LGBTQ and differently abled communities and are now in more common parlance in an empowering way — he’s not seen”spazz” reclaimed in any widespread fashion to date.
Ping-Wild says that when someone with a substantial platform like Lizzo uses it in a casual way, it may make others feel like they don’t have to be as careful with their language. “But the more frustrating thing is Beyoncé using it two months later … the same situation months later is a slap in the face for a lot of people in the community,” she says.
Just days after Renaissance‘s release, a spokesperson for Beyoncé released a statement on Monday (Aug. 1) noting that “the word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced.”
In her piece, Ping-Wild, an American who lives in London, includes the Dictionary.com definition that reads “an awkward or clumsy person,” or, in the verb usage, “to move in an awkward or clumsy way (usually followed by out) … to become more angry than a situation warrants (usually followed by out) … to twitch” as means of showing how the word has been deployed in a pejorative manner over the years. She also explains that the term “hits more offensively” in the U.K.
“I grew up using the term on the playground and not a lot has changed in the past 30 years, but since I’ve been made aware that it’s an ableist term, I’ve tried to remove it from my language,” says the 25-year-old, who was born with a very rare genetic condition called CHILD Syndrome that resulted in the amputation of her left leg and a shortened arm. “The difference between the U.S. and U.K. is that it is considered to be on the same level of inappropriate here as the R-word,” she says. “Though it’s been more casually used in the U.S. it doesn’t take away from the derogatory meaning, even if the intention is not to offend.”