And with the album generating thousands of articles, reviews, responses, videos, Tweets and other comments on the internet, it’s fair to say that it has been dominating online discourse too.
Renaissance has particularly been provoking conversations around black culture, queerness, the re-emergence of dance tracks in mainstream music and reclaiming certain music genres. Beyoncé worked on the album with several prominent trans and queer black artists such as MikeQ and Honey Dijon, both important players in the LGBTQIA+ and ballroom scenes.
But the response hasn’t been all good. Disability rights advocates pushed back against the singer last week after words used in the song Heated were deemed to be an ableist slur. On Monday, one of Beyoncé’s representatives said that the singer would be changing the words “spaz” and “spazzin” from the song, saying, “The word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced.”
Some fans in America came out to defend the singer, saying that the word did not have the same meaning in the US as it does elsewhere in the world. In the UK it is a derogatory term derived from spastic diplegia – a type of spastic cerebral palsy that affects leg movement. But for others, these environmental excuses did not wash.
Speaking to The Guardian, disability activist and writer Hannah Diviney said: “I thought we’d changed the music industry and started a global conversation about why ableist language – intentional or not – has no place in music. But I guess I was wrong, because now Beyoncé has gone and done exactly the same thing.”
Beyoncé’s decision to use the words came just weeks after Lizzo had apologised for using the same word in her song GRRRLS. She said she would be changing the lyrics, saying: “I never want to promote derogatory language. I’m proud to say there’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyric change. This is the result of me listening and taking action.”
However yesterday Lizzo Tweeted, “Damn…. Beyoncé and Lizzo is trending… 12 year old me in Houston listening to destiny’s child is crying rn. Never in my life did I think this would be my life…” seeming to forget that one of the reasons the two acts are trending is because they both used the same slur in their songs. For some, the comment reduced the conviction of her GRRRLS apology.
But the story doesn’t stop there. As Beyoncé agreed to change Heated, American activist Monica Lewinsky, who describes herself as a “rap song muse”, Tweeted, “Uhmm, while we’re at it… #Partition”. In Beyoncé’s 2013 track Partition, one line goes: “He bucked all my buttons, he ripped my blouse. He Monica Lewinski’d all on my gown”.
Lewinsky has previously spoken about the fact that her affair with President Bill Clinton has caused her a lifetime of shame, humiliation and years of therapy.
When a fan asked Lewinsky if she had spoken to Beyoncé’s team about it before “all the heat”, she said: “No, i haven’t. i did mention it in the first vanity fair article i wrote in 2014… which was the first public thing i’d done in 10 years. but you make an interesting/fair point…”
So far it does not seem as if anyone from Beyoncé’s team has responded to Lewinsky.
Social media has brought audiences and artists closer together, with conversations between musicians and their fans now a casual, and even expected, occurrence online.
But this week’s incident – where fans have been able to so quickly impact a major release – seems like a departure. In a way it is: Beyoncé is often viewed as one of the most powerful people in the music industry and her latest album will have spent months and months in the studio, editing room and then with music label bosses.
However, the lyric drama isn’t actually as novel as it seems. In 2019, following backlash, Drake changed a lyric from his track Jodeci Freestyle where he used the words “autistic, retarded” as a slur. Drake then released a statement saying, “I share responsibility and offer my sincerest apologies for the pain this has caused. Individuals with autism have brilliant and creative minds, and their gifts should not be disparaged or discounted.” The lyric was removed from the song.
Then, a 2013 remix of Future’s track Karate Chop saw Lil Wayne in his added verse say: “Beat the p**sy up like Emmett Till.”
After the criticism, the lyric was removed and Lil Wayne released a public apology to the Till family which said: “ I cannot imagine the pain that your family has had to endure. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge your hurt, as well as the letter you sent to me via your attorneys.”
There are dozens of similar examples, including the 2003 Black Eyed Peas track, Let’s Get It Started, which was originally called Let’s Get Retarded, and the 2009 Taylor Swift track Picture to Burn, which said, “So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy, That’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay,” which was duly changed.
And it’s not just a recent, internet-fuelled phenomenon either. The day before Michael Jackson released track They Don’t Care About Us in 1995, The New York Times reported that the track contained racist and anti-Semitic lines. In particular, the lyric “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/ Kick me, k*ke me, don’t you black or white me” caused offence.
At the time, Jackson responded to the newspaper saying, “The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems”, then later said on ABC News, “It’s not anti-Semitic because I’m not a racist person… I could never be a racist. I love all races”. Only a week later however, it was agreed that Jackson would return to the studio and remake the song, replacing the offending phrases with “do me” and “strike me”. Jackson also apologised for the mistake.
So while it might feel like we are witnessing some kind of revolution, where fans and critics have a new power to influence the work of the world’s biggest stars, in fact Beyoncé’s oversight on Heated, and her willingness to change the lyrics, only confirm a pattern of fallibility that’s been going on for decades.
And, for Beyoncé, the lyrics controversy isn’t the last issue the singer has faced since her Friday release. The Houston-born singer has now also begun the process of removing a Kelis sample from her Renaissance track Energy after Kelis said she had not been credited or even consulted about its use. The original song had Beyoncé singing a sequence of ‘las’ to the melody of Kelis’ 2003 hit Milkshake.
On her Instagram, a fuming Kelis said: “There are bully’s and secrets and gangsters in this industry that smile and get away with it until someone says enough is enough. So I’m saying it today. I’m coming for what’s mine and I want reparations.”
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