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#TRENDSIMO: What AAVE We Here? ‘Unholy’ Appropriation

Sam Smith and Kim Petras have included African-American Vernacular English in the lyrics for their latest single. But did they really need to?

Amit Vaidya Oct 07, 2022

Screenshots from the music video for "Unholy" by Sam Smith and Kim Petras.

Unless you’ve been off social media and audio-streaming services the past couple of weeks, there is little chance you’ve not come across the global smash hit “Unholy” by Sam Smith and Kim Petras. The song first became a viral hit on TikTok and the release of the single has been timed perfectly, so the track and the corresponding music video could chart at their max peaks upon release.

The song itself is a departure for Smith, who we’ve gotten used to crooning their way through emotional ballads, although of late they have wanted to dance and have fun. Petras, on the other hand, released her EP, Slut Pop, earlier this year, which was basically a prelude to this sexually charged single.

While the track itself feels like just another naughty pop single, there was something that bothered me upon watching the umpteenth TikTok video quoting it. “Mummy don’t know daddy’s getting hot / At the body shop / Doin’ somethin’ unholy / He’s sat back while she’s droppin’ it / She be poppin’ it / Yeah, she put it down slowly,” the lyrics go. Okay, so nothing really offensive, right? Well, not really unless you think about the fact that the lyrics clearly include AAVE, and as far as I know, neither Smith nor Petras are African-American.

‘AAVE’ is short for African-American Vernacular English, considered by academics as a specific way of speaking within traditional African-American English (AAE) aka Black English. Previously known as – quite controversially I may add – Ebonics, the modern-day way of speech has become quite mainstream, particularly as a result of the success of rap and hip-hop.

In many ways, a lot of language and phrases that were once unique to AAVE have now become a part of the broader vernacular. This could perhaps explain why artists like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber have seemingly gotten free passes with their music as it is deeply rooted in soul and hip-hop.

To their credit, they’ve both made sure that the appropriation remains in the music and not outside. It seems that lyrically and musically, we are much more okay with this form of appropriation than with speaking it or with the culture. From Billie Eilish donning a “blaccent” on Instagram Live (which even her brother called her out on) to Olivia Rodrigo, younger artists feel this need to look or sound cool, almost with the idea that AAVE is their foray into additional markets. Whether intentional or not, their widespread impact continues to dilute the impact and unique significance of the African-American community.

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What feels particularly troubling about the Sam Smith-Kim Petras single is that of all the artists out there, they should know better. As non-binary and trans-woman performers respectively, both artists have struggled to achieve success and acceptance. They both have also worn their identities and their pronouns with pride (I even once got death threats for inadvertently using the incorrect pronouns for Smith!).

So, what happens when one community appropriates another? Do they get a free pass? Should we simply say that because there’s been another struggle in your life, you can go ahead, sign and perform lyrics in a way that you’ve never actually spoken. I ask this because I think about what exactly it took for Smith, Petras and the five other credited non African-American songwriters – hit-maker heavyweights Ilya Salmanzadeh, Blake Slatkin, Henry Walter, Omer Fedi and James Napier (Jimmy Napes) – to greenlight this.

Melodically, singing “she be poppin’ it” and “she was popping it” would actually have made no difference. In fact, for the majority of the listening audience, they wouldn’t even realize it. So the argument could be that the “she” they are referring to may be from the African-American community, which sounds like a far-fetch but who knows, when you have a team of songwriters that have written and won awards for such big names as The Weeknd, The Kid Laroi, Katy Perry, Lil Nas X, Lizzo and more, maybe there is just an assumption that every pop song needs to incorporate AAVE to sound more “urban”.

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Of course, speaking of Lizzo, she recently faced severe backlash and accusations of being an ableist when her single “GRRRLS” released. She included the term “spaz,” which is considered derogatory towards the disabled community. Of course, just a short while later, even Beyoncé got into trouble for using the same word on her single “Heated.” It should be noted that both artists ended up removing the term from their songs.

So the question is, if artists are just recording however they want to, is it up to the groups that are offended to bring their outrage to attention to see a change? It’s possible, but unlike the Lizzo case, AAVE is something that has seeped so permanently into pop music right now that it seems unworthy for groups to have outrage.

But there actually should be outrage. Whether we see it or not, in prioritizing the plight of certain groups versus others, we are creating a hierarchy of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Be aware that this is likely what is responsible for the near complete appropriation of Black culture and art across the globe.

It may not be the intention of Sam Smith or Kim Petras to indulge in the appropriation, but they are making it easier for everyone else to believe that it is okay as long as they are getting likes for their TikTok dance videos. “Unholy” didn’t need to be performed lyrically the way it has been. It was intentional and seven songwriters agreed that “we be” was necessary as compared to correct English grammar. They knew very well that AAVE sells and trust me, if Smith or Petras ever did an interview and spoke like the song… well that’s the thing, they wouldn’t, they know better.

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