spotify are blacklisting r kelly from playlists: who should be next and where do we draw the line?

Yesterday, the streaming giant announced that R Kelly’s music will no longer appear in its company owned playlists. That brings up some interesting questions about censorship and the moral ambiguity of enjoying art by certain individuals.

by Alim Kheraj
11 May 2018, 4:11pm


In what could be an industry first, Spotify has announced that it would no longer be incorporating the music of R Kelly in any of its owned playlists. The streaming service told Billboard that, as part of a new public hate content and hateful conduct policy, its editorial team and algorithm would be removing Kelly’s music from the playlists and that they would stop promoting the singer’s material in every way.

“We are removing R Kelly’s music from all Spotify owned and operated playlists and algorithmic recommendations such as Discover Weekly," Spotify said in a statement. “His music will still be available on the service, but Spotify will not actively promote it. We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behaviour, but we want our editorial decisions -- what we choose to program -- to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator."

Spotify’s new policy comes amid new accusations that R Kelly is running a sex cult in Atlanta where he is holding women against their will. These accusations follow numerous investigations and reports by BuzzFeed, as well as a recent documentary by BBC Three, which helped spark the #MuteRKelly movement. Kelly himself has vehemently denied the claims, calling the allegations false and an “attempt to distort my character and to destroy my legacy that I have worked so hard to build.” Representatives for Kelly also gave a statement to the New York Times, suggesting that Spotify’s decision was about the company jumping on “social media fads”, rather than serving its customers.

The company’s new morality code has, so far, only spread to one other artist, popular Soundcloud rapper XXXTentacion. The 20-year-old, whose real name is Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy, has not only been charged with robbery and assault with a deadly weapon but has also faced allegations of false imprisonment, witness tampering and aggravated battery brought against him (although it’s worth noting that the alleged victim, Geneva Ayala, later rescinded her testimony, refusing to testify in court). Onfroy was later seen in a leaked video punching a woman in the head. Still, via his attorneys, he claimed that the video was a joke, while the woman who appears in the clip went on record stating that she was “terrified for [her] life”. Onfroy has since brought a suit of fraud and defamation against the woman in the video.

When it was announced that Onfroy, like Kelly, would be subjected to Spotify’s new code of conduct, Aishah White, a representative for the 20-year-old, sent a message to the New York Times, not with a comment but with a question, asking whether Spotify would also be removing other artists -- including Ozzy Osbourne, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nelly, Backstreet Boys and Miguel -- from their playlists.

Onfroy and his team’s response to the stream service’s decision might be misjudged, oblivious and glib, but it is -- dare I say it -- fair. The number of artists who verge on problematic is high, and if we take history into account that number increases exponentially.

Does this mean, then, that at Christmas, Spotify won’t include any Phil Spector songs considering he is literally serving a sentence for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson? It’s also bizarre that while Kelly and Onfroy’s music has been targeted, Chris Brown’s discography remains intact. Brown was convicted for felony assault and making criminal threats after he beat up Rihanna before the 2009 Grammys. At the time of writing, Brown -- who is also currently being sued by a woman who claims the singer raped her -- still features on Spotify’s “This Is How We Do” R&B playlist, which has over 500,000 followers. Likewise, will music produced by Dr Luke, who has faced allegations of sexual, verbal, physical and emotional abuse levelled at him by the singer Kesha, be buried?

Nevertheless, Spotify’s decision comes as tech companies have been forced out of their Silicon Valley cocoons and tasked with accountability. Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, both Facebook and Google have taken steps to prevent false advertising and outside interference in the upcoming abortion referendum in Ireland, while all social media companies have been taken to task with removing hate speech from their platforms, to varying degrees of success.

It does make Spotify the perfect target for accusations of hypocrisy, and already artists have started taking aim. 50 Cent wrote on Twitter that he didn’t support the company’s decision. As the New York Times reports, criticism was also levelled by Terrence Henderson (aka Punch), the founder of independent record company Top Dawg Entertainment – home of artists like SZA, ScHoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar. “Woah,” he wrote on Twitter. “Are they censoring the music? That’s dangerous.”

But is Spotify censoring music? By refusing to promote artists like R Kelly (something they are not obliged to do), they aren’t encroaching on free speech. They have been clear that these artists’ music isn’t being removed from their services entirely, but rather that, editorially, a decision had been made to no longer actively support them. The complications arise, really, from Spotify’s standing as the market leader among streaming services, and their power when it comes to who does and who doesn’t have a hit. In Kelly’s case, this is less of an issue given he hasn’t had a hit record in over a decade. But XXXTentacion had a Number 1 album this year in the United States, with 85% of his equivalent sales (the number of “sales” assigned via streaming) coming from streaming services. There’s ambiguity, too, about what constitutes “hateful conduct”, and Spotify are well aware that they’re unable to police their entire catalogue of music. They maintain, instead,they will rely on content monitoring, expert partners and the voices of their users.

All this feeds into a wider discussion occurring in the wake of #MeToo, the rise of call out culture and increased awareness surrounding identity politics — can we and should we separate the art from the artist? It’s a question that we’re still trying to figure out the answer to, and one that I can’t legitimately answer here. Why? Because, historically, everyone has been terrible in one way or another. But morality and history can be subjective. The question is: Where do you draw the line?

R. Kelly