Spotify removes R. Kelly, XXXTentacion from branded playlists, but leaves Chris Brown in place

A look at Spotify's new Hate Content and Hateful Conduct Policy and its uneven, complicated application.

R. Kelly performs at Little Caesars Arena on February 21, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. CREDIT: Scott Legato/Getty Images
R. Kelly performs at Little Caesars Arena on February 21, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. CREDIT: Scott Legato/Getty Images

R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” is about as inescapable as a song can get, an earworm that winds its way into just about every pregame, every party, every after-the-show-it’s-the-afterparty. It plays at wedding receptions and sweet sixteens and bat mitzvahs, dive bars and nightclubs and strip clubs. If you have ever heard it in your life, you almost certainly have it stuck in your head right now, just from reading this paragraph.

No surprise, then, that the smash had long enjoyed prominent placement on Spotify’s in-house playlists. The streaming service has both editorial (as in, made by humans) and algorithmic (as in, made by the robots that will eventually replace the aforementioned humans) playlists, and an artist that gets a song on one of its marquee offerings — like the immensely popular RapCaviar which, at press time, had nearly 9.5 million followers — is lucky to have landed in the heaviest rotation of them all.

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But Thursday morning, Spotify announced that R. Kelly’s music would no longer be placed on any of its branded playlists — though his music will remain available elsewhere on the platform. Spotify gave a statement to Billboard about the decision:

“We are removing R. Kelly’s music from all Spotify owned and operated playlists and algorithmic recommendations such as Discover Weekly. 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 behavior, 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.”

That last “we don’t censor…” bit is lifted verbatim from Spotify’s new Hate Content and Hateful Conduct Public Policy, which the company rolled out earlier this month.

According to court documents, R. Kelly has spent his entire career seducing and sexually abusing women — all of them young, some underage — starting in the early 1990s and continuing to this day. Though reporting on his pursuit and rape of underage girls dates back nearly two decades, attention intensified (or, to put it less generously, finally arrived) after a recent spate of stories published in Buzzfeed. This reporting contained one bombshell that made it impossible to continue turning a blind eye to Kelly’s misdeeds: The news that Kelly runs a “cult” in which the singer has essentially imprisoned at least six women, controlling “every aspect of their lives: dictating what they eat, how they dress, when they bathe, when they sleep, and how they engage in sexual encounters that he records.”

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Last week, two more women came forward with allegations against R. Kelly: One “about a mentally and physically abusive relationship” she experienced with him, the other who says her daughter is “brainwashed” and trapped in Kelly’s cult.

Amid renewed public interest in the Kelly accusations, and in the wake of the conviction of Bill Cosbythe Women of Color group within Time’s Up called on the entertainment industry — including Spotify — to cut its ties with the R&B star. “We demand appropriate investigations and inquiries into the allegations of R. Kelly’s abuse made by women of color and their families for over two decades now.” In doing so, the Hollywood-founded organization joined with the official #MuteRKelly campaign, started by Atlanta arts administrator Oronike Odeleye in July 2017.

Kelly not only denies the allegations but, through a representative, told Buzzfeed that the Time’s Up statement is an “attempted public lynching of a black man who has made extraordinary contributions to our culture.”

Along with Kelly’s music, Billboard reports that the song “SAD!” by XXXTentacion, who currently faces four felony charges — aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering — has also been deleted from Spotify’s official playlists. According to the story, “‘SAD!’ held a prime spot on Spotify’s flagship RapCaviar playlist” as recently as May 9; today, the song has vanished from the list. “A source close to Spotify confirmed that the song had been removed under the new guidelines.” (The 20-year-old XXXTentacion is awaiting trial.)

Spotify has been working to scrub music that would fall under this hate policy for at least the past year or so. Last August, the service removed a number of white-supremacist acts that the Southern Poverty Law Center had, three years prior, labeled as “hate bands.”

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But the case of Kelly and XXXTentacion is more complex: While Spotify won’t promote the songs, they are nevertheless still available for streaming. It’s a little like the parent who tells you that you can drink as long as you do it in the house, and also they won’t buy you the beer, but hey — if you figure out a way to get your hands on it, they’re not going to tell you how to live your life.

And, though the policy is in its early days, it appears to be unevenly applied — perhaps only singers whose causes have hashtags will find themselves out of favor with the playlist powers-that-be. For instance, Spotify has yet to comment on Chris Brown, who was just sued by a woman who claims she was repeatedly raped at his house by Brown’s friend,Lowell Grissom Jr., who is also named in the lawsuit. The Los Angeles Police Department is actively investigating the case. As of May 10, Spotify still has a “This Is Chris Brown” branded playlist up, and Brown’s music is still featured on at least three other Spotify playlists, one of which has almost 3.8 million followers:

Screenshot of Spotify taken May 10, 2018.
Screenshot of Spotify taken May 10, 2018.
Screenshot of Spotify taken May 10, 2018.
Screenshot of Spotify taken May 10, 2018.

In an interview with Billboard about the decision to pull R. Kelly from its branded playlists, Jonathan Prince, Spotify’s VP/head of content and marketplace policy, said, “I think that, frankly, all of us have become increasingly aware of the responsibility that we have when we make recommendations about content, and particularly when we’re doing that in a way that may send signals to our audience about what we believe and what we value.”

Spotify is in a strange spot: Unlike the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has recently revoked the memberships of Harvey Weinstein (alleged serial sexual predator), Bill Cosby (convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand), and Roman Polanski (admitted child rapist), Spotify’s function is not to celebrate quality but to guarantee quantity. Its catalog — tens of millions of tracks vast — is arguably its number-one selling point.

Critical to its appeal, too, is that the artists most people want to hear will be just one search away, which explains why Spotify engaged in some cringe-worthy displays of desperation back in 2014 when Taylor Swift took her music off the service. Swift was among Spotify’s most popular artists; at the time, 25 percent of Spotify users listened to her music. When she bailed, citing the the devaluing of her product through lousy pay per play, Spotify actually made a playlist called “Come back Taylor,” begging her to change her mind. (As with virtually all of Swift’s feuds, this one ended with a performative reconciliation and some mutually-beneficial PR; she rejoined the service last spring.)

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In a similar fashion, Spotify is making a public display of taking the moral high ground by denying Kelly’s music the prime real estate of its branded playlists. But the very language of the company’s hate policy is laced with loopholes: An artist’s hateful conduct “may affect the ways we work with that artist or creator.” If content violates the policy, “we may remove it… or refrain from promoting or manually programming it on our service.” There isn’t actually anything in the policy that promises Spotify will take any specific action about any individual or song — under any circumstances.

So Spotify is making it so R. Kelly fans will just have to do their own searching to find his hits — and ensuring that they won’t leave Spotify for a streaming service that will offer what Spotify denies them. Users who want to #MuteRKelly will have to do so on their own.

UPDATE (5/11/2018): R. Kelly’s management team has issued a statement responding to Spotify’s decision, calling its actions “without merit” and saying Spotify “promotes numerous other artists who are convicted felons, others who have been arrested on charges of domestic violence and artists who sing lyrics that are violent and anti-women in nature.”

CORRECTION: This article previously stated that Chris Brown had been sued by a woman for rape. The lawsuit alleges that she was raped at Brown’s home by his friend, Lowell Grissom, Jr.; Brown is attached in the lawsuit.