R. Kelly Is Trash, but Spotify’s Punishment for Him Is Dangerously Messy

In response to #MuteRKelly, Spotify stopped promoting his music on its playlists. Yes, we should cheer this. And yet: It’s all so complicated. How do we treat Bad Men’s past work?

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Last week, the Time’s Up campaign made its biggest move yet toward more inclusivity when celebrity members of the group including Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, and Lupita Nyong’o spearheaded a campaign to #MuteRKelly, a call for the R&B singer to be held accountable for decades of sexual abuse accusations.

Thursday morning, Spotify took the campaign literally. R. Kelly has been muted.

In an unprecedented move, the streaming service will no longer promote R. Kelly’s music, in accordance with new hate content and hate conduct policies. That means users will no longer be able to find his songs on any of Spotify’s playlists, including the popular RapCaviar, Discover Weekly, and New Music Friday playlists.

His music will still available elsewhere on the site. Spotify’s decision is more political than definitive in nature: It is removing Kelly’s work from any of its editorial or algorithmic playlists, one of the tools the service has to promote an artist.

“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 to Billboard. “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.”

The latest spate of accusations against Kelly include that he has been running a “sex cult” of young women. While more and more women have come forward alleging abuse and misconduct—including two more just this week—he has never been convicted of a crime.

He has said the accusations are “perpetuated by the media” in an “attempt to distort my character and to destroy my legacy that I have worked to build so hard.” He called the Time’s Up campaign an “attempted public lynching of a black man.”

Spotify’s head of content and marketplace policy, Jonathan Prince, defended the decision to stop promoting Kelly’s music to Billboard.

“When we look at promotion, we look at issues around hateful conduct, where you have an artist or another creator who has done something off-platform that is so particularly out of line with our values, egregious, in a way that it becomes something that we don’t want to associate ourselves with,” he said. “So we’ve decided that in some circumstances, we may choose to not work with that artist or their content in the same way—to not program it, to not playlist it, to not do artist marketing campaigns with that artist.”

In so many ways, this is a corporate stance worth cheering. A major part of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, not to mention human decency, hinges on repercussions and comeuppance. While we’ve seen the first gestures of that in the film and TV industry—firings from TV shows, expulsions from the Academy, actors denouncing accused filmmakers’ works—the music industry has been criticized for its lethargy, bordering on ambivalence, in responding to the movement. Spotify’s decision with R. Kelly, then, is monumental.

But here is where things get murky.

It was originally thought that Kelly was currently the only artist that Spotify specifically punished under this policy, but The New York Times reports that Spotify also removed rapper XXXTentacion, who is facing charges including aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, from playlists as well. Others artists may be affected in the future, and that’s the headache-inducing caveat.

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The music industry is full of men—men who are active in the business, retired, and deceased—who have been accused of gross misconduct of many kinds, and certainly of sexual abuse. Who among them will be next? Do these standards only apply to current artists? What is the line an artist’s behavior must cross in order to be punished?

These are all questions that were raised—and not answered to much satisfaction—when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which governs the Oscars, made the historic move to expel Harvey Weinstein following the accusations against him, and, just last week, revoke Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski’s memberships, too.

Do these standards only apply to current artists? What is the line an artist’s behavior must cross in order to be punished?

Just as there are dozens of members in the Academy’s ranks who have been accused of sexual misconduct and domestic violence that the organization has not yet made decisions about, there are countless music stars for whom the same case could be made.

The first name likely to come to everyone’s mind is Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna, has a restraining order against him from ex-girlfriend Karrueche Tran, was accused of battery by Frank Ocean, was arrested for assault again in 2013, had an armed standoff with police in 2016, and, just this week, was named in a lawsuit by a woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted in his house.

A cottage of industry of think pieces exists about how or why Brown’s career has remained seemingly untarnished by all these incidents. Would he merit scrutiny under its “hate content and hateful conduct” guidelines?

What about Nick Carter, Ethan Kath of Crystal Castles, or Nelly? Open the vaults and include artists who have been accused throughout history, and you’d never be able to stop naming names.

Case in point, when reached for comment by The New York Times’ Joe Coscarelli about XXXTentacion’s removal from the Spotify playlists, the rapper’s team responded with a call of hypocrisy and a list of artists along with their accusations of sexual misconduct who should also be removed, including Gene Simmons, Seal, and Dr. Dre. 

This is not to say that there shouldn’t be punitive actions taken against artists who have been accused of wrong doing, and certainly against those who have been convicted. (Weinstein aside, conviction seems to be the line when it comes to expulsion from the Academy—though it took 41 years for the organization to come around to that in Polanski’s case.)

We needed major entities like Spotify and the Academy to start acting in order for there to be meaningful change tied to real consequences. But now that they’ve started, the messiness follows.

There’s a marked difference between removing an artist’s entire catalog and simply refusing to promote them. That’s a distinction that, to some, might make Spotify’s big move an empty gesture. But it also belly flops Spotify into the uncharted waters of what to do not just with the Bad Men who are being named in this movement, but how to treat their content and past works.

It’s easy to rally around the idea that these men don’t deserve Second Acts. But what about their first ones? You could argue that Spotify didn’t go far enough and should mute R. Kelly completely and take his work down from the service. You could also argue that any silencing of his past work, or hindering in its accessibility, is unjust and perhaps even unethical.

One instinct right now is to disappear content made by these Bad Men, which is an understandable reflex but may be more of a reaction of passion than it is a responsible and effective decision.

Whether or not someone continues to listen to R. Kelly’s music or watch Woody Allen’s films or laugh at Louis C.K.’s comedy or marvel at Kevin Spacey’s acting should be a choice. A choice that could, yes, be judged and questioned. But a choice nonetheless. (The cheers on the dance floor last weekend when the “Ignition” remix played at a friend’s wedding certainly speaks to that.)

The purest goal, the one that will save this movement from the scrutiny and backlash of “collective hysteria” and “witch hunt” accusations, will be to direct punishment on the future, not the past. The art vs. artist debate is its own wild, complicated animal, but it’s a debate that more directly applies to art that already exists. Justice can’t always travel through a time machine, but it can be acted on now.

Mute R. Kelly’s future. Don’t let him make more music. Stop working with Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Put Harvey Weinstein in jail. Stop crafting P.R.-planted “articles” charting the paths to comebacks for disgraced men.

This part of the conversation may not directly apply to Spotify’s decision this week, but Spotify’s decision does contribute to that conversation. Messy as it might be, it’s a conversation with a volume that deserved to be dialed up.