Embattled R&B star R. Kelly and controversial rapper XXXTentacion became the first causalities of music streamer Spotify's just-launched Hate Content and Hateful Conduct public policy, which happened to coincide with the mounting #MuteRKelly campaign.
Spotify confirmed that it is removing the R&B singer's music from Spotify-owned and -operated playlists and algorithmic recommendations, such as Discover Weekly — a move that appears to be a result of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct that stretch back decades.
"His music will still be available on the service, but Spotify will not actively promote it," a Spotify spokesperson said in a statement to The Times on Thursday.
"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," the statement said, echoing the streamer's first iteration of the policy. "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," it added.
Kelly, a multi-platinum Grammy winner, has made a decades-spanning career of sexually explicit music but also has jumped genres to record retro R&B, pop ballads and inspirational tracks.
Kelly's team fired back at the decision.
"Spotify has the right to promote whatever music it chooses, and in this case its actions are without merit. It is acting based on false and unproven allegations. It is bowing to social-media fads and picking sides in a fame-seeking dispute over matters that have nothing to do with serving customers," Kelly's management said in a lengthy statement Thursday.
Some, however, roundly applauded Spotify's decision.
"I do think that people are entitled to their artistic expression, but I don't think people are entitled to financial compensation," said Ange-Marie Alfaro, a professor of political science, gender studies and sociology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, and a former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
"To the degree that Spotify has decided that as an organization, as a company, that they would like to take a stand against these types of behavior, I think they are doing absolutely the right thing," Alfaro said. "I think they are well within their ethical rights to do so. It's not that they are restricting the access to the actual songs or musical product but the fact that they essentially decided not to offer free promotion is the right middle ground."
Despite his continued success (Kelly remains an in-demand performer and collaborator), the 51-year-old has been the subject of sexual misconduct allegations over the past two decades, and scrutiny of the artist has ramped up in recent months as several women have come forward alleging sexually abusive and coercive behavior.
Kelly has categorically denied all allegations of wrongdoing but has professionally felt the brunt of renewed criticism in the throes of the #MeToo movement.Time's Up organizers have targeted the musician, and a #MuteRKelly social media campaign has aimed to halt the playing of his music and cancel his upcoming concerts.
A performance in his hometown of Chicago was canceled amid protests earlier this month, and critics have threatened to protest in Greensboro, N.C., if his scheduled gig scheduled for Friday isn't nixed.
"R. Kelly never has been accused of hate, and the lyrics he writes express love and desire," the singer's management said. "Mr. Kelly for 30 years has sung songs about his love and passion for women. He is innocent of the false and hurtful accusations in the ongoing smear campaign against him, waged by enemies seeking a payoff. He never has been convicted of a crime, nor does he have any pending criminal charges against him."
The singer-songwriter-producer has a large following on the streaming platforming, notching about 8.3 million monthly listeners with 1.5 million users subscribed to his artist profile (the bulk of his listeners are overseas, London to be exact, followed by L.A. and his native Chicago), however he's a legacy act — someone who isn't releasing music to appeal to new listeners and instead has continued to enjoy a sizable, loyal following.
XXXTentacion, who was also yanked from a number of Spotify playlists including the influential Rap Caviar, is a far younger act.
The 20-year-old rapper-singer has been charged with multiple felonies for allegedly beating and strangling his then-pregnant ex-girlfriend in 2016. He has also been accused of false imprisonment and witness tampering and faces up to 30 years in prison.
XXXTentacion's reps, like Kelly's, called into question the implications of the policy — sending out a list of more than a dozen artists that have been accused of crimes or sexual misconduct and are still featured on the streaming service — a roster that mentioned everyone from David Bowie to Ozzy Osbourne to Michael Jackson.
The streaming service declined to offer comment beyond its initial announcement. Music fans had a mix of reactions
"Spotify says it has standards, but out of millions of titles, the company is only using it once?" questioned Paul Porter, a member of the Parents Television Council and founder of the Rap Rehab blog. "I applaud Spotify for publicly stating its new Hate Content and Hateful Conduct policy. Its actions today are an urgently needed first step for social and corporate responsibility. But Spotify's next steps will prove to be even more important, as it will demonstrate just how committed the company is to living by its new policy,"
As noble as Spotify's intentions may be in this decision, this editorial culling raises new issues that, after Kelly and Tentacion's playlist removal, are no longer hypothetical.
First, what are the standards of behavior or evidence that would result in removal? A criminal conviction for sexual assault could be an easy call for removal, but what of bands like PWR BTTM, whose frontperson was accused of predatory behavior by several fans but was never criminally charged? And what about legacy acts like Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis, whose sexually predatory behavior had been largely glossed over in the canon of rock and roll?
USC's Alfaro said it's complicated.
"This is something we're grappling with as a culture more broadly," she said. "I think the best that we can expect companies to do is to make decisions and choices based upon the amount of information they have at the time.
"In thinking about who Spotify chooses to put on their playlists at this moment in time, it's worth it to go through and say there are these folks in which there's documented evidence," she said. "I think the thing that's really important is to walk the line away from a witch hunt and letting one tweet or viral post dictate company policy."
Times staff writer August Brown and pop music editor Todd Martens contributed to this report.