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Who’s next? As it snubs R. Kelly, Spotify opens a moral can of worms

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On Thursday, Spotify implemented its new Hate Content & Hateful Conduct Policy, which outlines the streaming platform’s ethical ideology, renouncing not only music with hateful and discriminatory messaging, but also artists whose actions — whether espoused musically or not — qualify as “harmful or hateful.”

The first two casualties of the new policy are R&B star R. Kelly — currently in the midst of a lengthy investigation triggered by allegations that the singer has long been engaging sexually with underage women and even, in some cases, abducting them and holding them against their will — and 20-year-old hip-hop sensation XXXTentacion, who has cultivated a contentious reputation through a series of public feuds, violent assaults, and controversial posts on social media promoting his music and his lifestyle. Young rapper Tay-K, who faces multiple murder charges at age 17, has also been axed, though to less fanfare.

That’s not all: According to Pitchfork, Apple Music has quietly been phasing Kelly’s music out of its own curated playlists over the past several weeks, though several dedicated R. Kelly playlists remain active. (Apple has not officially commented on the matter; Pitchfork’s source is “[a person] close to the matter.”) Pandora has also stopped promoting Kelly’s music, though it’s unclear whether this means he’ll stop showing up in computer-generated radio stations. Neither platform has levied any such penalties against XXXTentacion or Tay-K.

While Spotify’s decision to remove Kelly and XXXTentacion’s (birth name: Jahseh Onfroy) music from all Spotify playlists — this includes algorithmic playlists like Discover Weekly in addition to curated playlists — is reasonably justifiable from a moral standpoint, it raises a new set of questions surrounding the role of streaming platforms in the public consumption of music, questions which could conceivably apply elsewhere in the entertainment world.

Despite denials from his legal counsel (calling accusers “instigators and liars who have their own agenda for seeking profit and fame”) and no criminal proceedings of yet, Kelly’s culpability seems a foregone conclusion at this point. As with the ugly Bill Cosby saga, the proverbial woodwork appears rife with victims who, until now, lacked the courage (and, indeed, the promise of being taken seriously) to come forward with claims about Kelly’s alleged predations. The piper is on a sinking ship, and his rats are fleeing. A leaked video showing Kelly himself saying “It’s too late, they should have done this 30 years ago” isn’t helping his case, either.

Kelly’s not a convicted felon, and despite overwhelming evidence of guilt, nothing has been officially proven in court. Still, the decision-makers at Spotify saw fit to take action, likely in hopes of limiting Kelly’s streams (and, thus, his royalty payments). Meanwhile, the same punishment was meted out to Onfroy, who does have a comprehensive rap sheet, but whose public image resides in a sort of gray space. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to voice support for Kelly by now, but Tentacion’s fanbase is as vocal and active (if not as numerous) as his detractors.

Further, Onfroy’s entire career has existed in the Spotify streaming era. Artists might not get paid much per song stream (even after January’s court-mandated increases), but many of his 20 million-plus followers might have found his music through those same Spotify-endorsed playlists from which the rapper now finds himself excluded. He may have made his name on Soundcloud first, but Spotify is the music-streaming king, and fluctuations in its formula can shape the music industry.

Onfroy’s fame, as with many of his contemporaries, derives somewhat from a perception of honesty, even if that honesty depicts actions typically considered immoral. The removal of his music from Spotify playlists begs questions of subjectivity; after all, rappers (and musicians in general) aren’t necessarily known as paragons of virtue. Other young stars, like 6ix9ine (sometimes stylized as Tekashi69) — who pled guilty to one felony count of Use of a Child in a Sexual Performance in 2015 and later admitted it was “for [the benefit of his] image” — and Bobby Shmurda, currently serving 7 years in prison for conspiracy to murder, have seen no such sanctions from Spotify.

Who decides which artists (and which songs) are in violation of Spotify’s new policy? At risk of sounding dramatic, there’s no rubric for morality. You can’t say “Song X has Y curse words in it, this is where we draw the line” without upsetting certain listeners, whose outrage might well be justified. Is it even Spotify’s right to make these decisions? Last year, Spotify removed entirely a number of musical groups promoting white supremacy — a choice few would argue, I’m sure — in addition to some metal bands with offensive names (like Infant Annihilator). Yet those decisions came before the official policy’s implementation, and further, some bands with equally offensive names (see: Anal Cunt, Dying Fetus) went unscathed. What gives? Some have speculated that those bands’ associations with major labels tied Spotify’s hands.

Perhaps more interesting is the potential for Spotify’s policy to promote similar changes within the entertainment industry. Imagine if Netflix decided to remove all films produced by the Weinstein Company or all of Louis C.K.’s comedy shows from its library.

I can’t stand XXXTentacion, or 6ix9ine. They strike me as immature attention hogs, lazy lyricists, and generally reprehensible human beings. Similarly, I don’t foresee myself getting down to R. Kelly tunes anytime soon, which saddens me, because I did like some of his stuff. That said, I’m not sure how I feel about Spotify’s actions.

Do I think the removal of these artists from certain playlists will impact their bottom lines? Not particularly. In fact, the extra publicity might be a boon for younger artists who clearly subscribe to the “any press is good press” school of thought. (Update: Kelly’s numbers actually went up a bit, while Onfroy’s dipped.) Still, the possibility remains for abuse of such policies, both by Spotify and by any other company that follows suit. I encourage listeners to consider the ethical impact of their fandom and to ignore crappy “artists” like 6ix9ine altogether, but far be it from me to decide who you can or can’t listen to.

Spotify built a platform which has become a premier destination for music discovery, but to borrow the words of one Uncle Ben: With great power comes great responsibility. Use it wisely.

Update: Spotify has decided to reinstate XXXTentacion in promotional playlists following criticism from artists like Kendrick Lamar, who argued that the policy was set up to target artists of color. Kelly will not receive the same treatment.

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Nick Hastings
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Nick is a Portland native and a graduate of Saint Mary's College of California with a Bachelor's of Communication. Nick's…
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