XXXTentacion, the 20-year-old rapper shot and killed Monday, is now being remembered primarily for his gritty music, but he had recently been in the news for a darker reason: He was facing charges for aggravated battery of his pregnant ex-girlfriend. Two of his songs now appear at the top of Spotify’s RapCaviar playlist, but the world’s most popular streaming service briefly pulled them from all playlists just a few weeks ago. He’s not the only artist who faced expulsion, either.
It’s creepy to listen to “Ignition,” a danceable song about a party that ends in a hook-up, when its singer has been accused of sleeping with underage girls. But R. Kelly’s hit topped the R&B charts anyway in 2002, two years after the Chicago Sun-Times first reported his alleged atrocities, and it’s still getting more than six million streams a month on Spotify.
The dark allegations against these popular musicians were behind a decision by executives at the digital music service last month to implement a “hateful conduct” policy. The publicly owned company released a statement saying it would remove from its playlists music by any artist who had done something “especially harmful or hateful.” It provided as examples violence against children and sexual violence (both crimes R. Kelly has been accused of). Spotify pulled both R. Kelly and XXXTentacion from playlists including I Love My ’90s R&B and RapCaviar.
Then came the backlash. A representative for XXXTentacion wanted to know how the streaming service would handle rapper Dr. Dre (who pled no contest to beating a female journalist in a nightclub bathroom) and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson (who was infamously accused and acquitted of sexually molesting a teenage boy), among more than a dozen others. Women’s advocacy group Ultraviolet, rather than pointing out inconsistencies, simply argued the policy’s effects hadn’t gone far enough. What about Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna?
The policy did too much, and it did too little. So when Spotify reversed its decision on June 1, it cited “vague” language that had created “confusion and concern.”
R. Kelly is still missing from the playlists he was booted off (I Love My ’90s R&B, Chilled R&B, and Are & Be), probably thanks to the success of the viral campaign #MuteRKelly. XXXTentacion, however, is back on RapCaviar (with “Moonlight” and the appropriately named “SAD!”).
The New York Times called the reversal “embarrassing,” but there’s no shame in recognizing you’ve joined a game you can never hope to play fairly. It’s not Spotify’s job to censor these artists. It’s ours.
Musicians like R. Kelly shouldn’t continue to profit after being credibly accused of violent crimes, but Spotify marched into dangerous territory by preparing to define what qualifies as “especially harmful.” To help make these decisions, it enlisted organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has labeled conservative organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council as hate groups, and Color of Change, which is currently urging Amazon and Apple not to develop in North Carolina because the state is considering a “racist” voter ID bill.
Censoring artists based on hateful conduct is not only a complicated affair, it’s also completely ineffective, if the case of R. Kelly sets any precedent. What The New York Times didn’t report was that R. Kelly averaged about 6,600,000 streams a week before the policy; the week after, he had close to 6,700,000. Yes, that is a small increase in streaming. Whether the controversy generated more interest in his music or people just didn’t care, yanking his songs from three playlists did nothing to diminish his popularity.
The problem, then, lies not with Spotify, but with the listeners. R. Kelly is getting paid for our streams: Analysts quoted in the Wall Street Journal estimated artists earn $6-$8.40 for each 1,000 streams. It may not sound like much, but if R. Kelly is streamed 6,674,000 times a week (his overall 2018 average), that’s $40-$56,000 each week landing in the pocket of an alleged child molester.
That’s $2 million a year to encourage him to say, as he did in a recently released video: “I’ve got a million motherf—–s hating me, and 40 billion motherf—–s loving me.” To the alleged victims, he says: “It’s too late; they should have did this s–t 30 years ago.”
One fan, despite tweeting #MuteRKelly, said, “Being a lover of R Kelly’s music doesn’t mean I condone the behaviour he’s been accused of.” But no one condones it. That’s not the problem. The problem is the people who love his music. As catchy as R. Kelly is, as fun as Chris Brown feels, it doesn’t matter if we curse their morals when we’re shelling dollars into their designer pockets.
Kelly’s enduring popularity indicates something. Some 30 percent of an artist’s streams come from playlists, so the week Spotify removed him, enough listeners were looking him up both to compensate for the loss in streams and to boost his average streams. They were probably a lot of people who really hate what he’s done, but hey, they still love his music.
Spotify does have the power to pull hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for artists, but it’s not the streaming service’s responsibility to punish their actions. That’s on the record labels, who could drop artists accused of bad behavior (and some have), but it’s also on the consumers, who should consider not only the actions of the artists they listen to, but also the lyrics they consume.
Do we really need to listen to songs like “Throw This Money on You,” “Show Ya P—y,” and “Every Position”?
I’m not going to complain about R. Kelly’s absence from my R&B playlists (more room for Janelle Monae and Kendrick Lamar), but Spotify was right not to go further. It’s just a broker between producers and consumers. If labels won’t drop artists like R. Kelly and Chris Brown for being jerks, it’s because they’re money-making jerks. But we can stop showing them our wallets.
As a daily Spotify listener, I won’t boycott the streaming service for offering artists I dislike. But I am going to find out who’s been accused of awful or criminal behavior and refuse to pay them with my streams. Think about who you want to tacitly support when you’re cruising down the highway and bobbing your head to your favorite songs.
The next time you hear “I’m ’bout to take my key and stick it in the ignition,” whether on Spotify or anywhere else, don’t just nod along. Skip it.