Beyoncé smiles as she accepts an award. She's dressed in a low-cut, glossy black dress, with dangly gold and black earrings, with her hair falling over her shoulders in waves.
AP Photo / Chris Pizzello

Queen Bey Inadvertently ‘Elevates the Conversation’ Around Ableism

Outside of the Twitter drama, some disability advocates embraced musicians’ efforts to be inclusive through changing their songs.


You know times are crazy when there are people who want to take Beyoncé Knowles down a peg.

The global pop star and proud Houstonian had to deal with several controversies when she released her latest album, Renaissance, a few weeks ago. First, fellow rhythm and blues artist singer Kelis took to social media to accuse Knowles of theft, saying that her song “Milkshake” was sampled on the song “Energy” without her knowledge. While some may believe Queen Bey might’ve given Kelis a heads-up, Knowles didn’t steal anything. She credited the song’s writers and producers, Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, in the album’s liner notes, while Kelis is credited as an additional vocalist. (In an effort to squash all this drama, Knowles removed the interpolation from the song). Speaking of songwriters, Grammy and Emmy Award-winning songwriter Diane Warren posted a question on Twitter about the more than 20 writers it took to create “Alien Superstar,” another Renaissance track. After getting slammed by Beyoncé fans, Warren later posted an apology 

And, then, there’s the ableist slur. 

Knowles received a lot of backlash and criticism when she sang the line “Spazzin’ on that ass, spazz on that ass” on the track “Heated.” While “spaz” may be known around these parts as slang for going off or getting wild, it’s considered demeaning (especially in the U.K.) to people with spastic cerebral palsy. Since then, the offensive lyrics have been taken out.

It’s kind of surprising that Knowles released that out into the world, especially considering that Lizzo, another R&B/pop star with Houston ties (the former Detroiter grew up there), went through some similar drama just a few weeks prior. She used the same term on “GRRRLS,” a track off her recently released album Special. This also made the Twitter/TikTok crowd mad, and Lizzo eventually made an apology, saying she’ll remove the lyric.   

It’s like white folks thought she might incite an uprising in the middle of the Super Bowl halftime show.

This piece was originally supposed to be about how two H-Town divas can elicit different types of reactions from audiences. Beyoncé is practically untouchable. Her fans (aka the BeyHive) guard their queen fully, ready to drag the hell out of anyone who dares speak ill of her or her family. (Just ask Keri Hilson, film critic K. Austin Collins, or the woman people assume is “Becky with the good hair”). There have been times when her influential power has been known to scare white people. Who can forget when she released the Black-and-proud single “Formation” and it’s accompanying video a few years back, which made her a lightning rod for conservative criticism? It’s like white folks thought she might incite an uprising in the middle of the Super Bowl halftime show she was scheduled to perform during.

Lizzo (government name: Melissa Viviane Jefferson), on the other hand, gets both love and hate on the regular. While she has a dedicated fanbase (she has 12.8 million followers on Instagram—practically a small gathering of pals in comparison to Sasha Fierce’s 271 million), the singing and rapping flutist has been a target for those who prefer not to see a confident BBW—big, beautiful woman, for those who don’t watch porn–live her best life. Knowles and other top-40 temptresses (including rapper Megan Thee Stallion, former Fifth Harmony member Normani, and Knowles’ younger sister Solange, all of whom are also from Houston) are usually seen as curvaceous, sexually confident, cocoa-colored objects of desire and worship. But whenever Lizzo exudes the same thing either on stage or in her music, she’s pegged as a bad influence—an overweight menace to society.

When she’s not accused of promoting obesity and bad health choices (even though she’s been vegan since 2020), people just call her a “mammy” for the white masses. The vitriol keeps on coming even when she addresses her haters, like on the single “Rumors” she dropped last summer. The mixed response the song received made her go on Instagram Live and tearfully call out the fatphobic, racist comments she received. It seems that no matter how many inspirational, chart-topping anthems she makes, people are always gonna have a problem with girls who are proud and plump. 


The backlash these two have received for their unfortunate lyricism has, at the moment, brought them to equal footing. “Beyonce and Lizzo” became a trending topic on Twitter. And some have been quite vocal in their disgust over the ladies’ use of the word. In a piece that was picked up by the Guardian, writer and disability advocate Hannah Diviney begins by laying out her sheer disappointment: “It’s not very often that I don’t know what to say, rendered speechless by ignorance, sadness and a simmering anger born of bone-deep exhaustion. But that’s how I feel right now.” In another Guardian piece, Kathryn Bromwich says Beyoncé and Lizzo’s lyrical faux pas couldn’t have come at a worse time. “It has been an exhausting time to be disabled,” Bromwich starts, before mentioning other recent instances of ableism in media, like the online bullying of a deaf contestant on the reality show Love Island.

“I think they have a platform that most people only dream of … Hopefully, they’ll learn from it and grow and maybe help out the disability community.”

Jennifer McPhail, an Austin community organizer for disability rights group ADAPT of Texas, has had spastic celebral palsy since she was born. According to her, “spaz” is to the disabled community what the N-word is to African Americans or what “queer” is to the LGBTQ+ community—a slur they’ve now co-opted and say amongst themselves. So, she understands why people would get offended if other people use it, even in less-insulting ways. 

“I think that people with disabilities have the ability and the right to use ‘spaz’ however they want,” says McPhail. “Because, for so many generations, it’s been used as a negative term by the non-disabled world. So, I’m not gonna stop using ‘spaz’ because it’s mine to use however I please, because I am spastic.”  

McPhail also feels that Beyoncé and Lizzo are two creative people who can turn this negative into a positive. “I think that they can use this for the moment, to maybe elevate the conversation and understanding about disability rights,” says McPhail. “I think they have a platform that most people only dream of, and they’re good people, and hopefully, they’ll learn from it and grow and maybe help out the disability community and the movement.”

Let’s be honest here: We know damn well these two weren’t purposely being ableist. Hopefully, disability supporters and advocates online (and not those toxic Twitter folk who just wanna make some misery-seeking noise) recognize this and are using this as an opportunity to open up a dialogue and make people more aware of how derogatory certain slang words are. After all, that’s practically what Beyoncé and Lizzo are doing.

With both performers issuing apologies and assuring that their respective songs will be slur-free, Beyoncé and Lizzo continue to be accommodating, inclusive artists, ready to make people happy and satisfied—whether it’s their fans or people who just wanna hate. Even though they’re two of the most successful, empowering music stars to emerge so far in this century, they still have to live like the rest of us simple Black folk—and that means trying not to make (predominantly white) people feel uncomfortable and ready to take them down.