This past week, Spotify announced a new Hate Content & Hateful Conduct policy, resulting in the removal of artists R. Kelly and XXXTentacion from all of their sponsored playlists. It is unclear at this point if the policy will affect or has already affected other artists, but certainly the removal of R. Kelly and XXXTentacion—two men under “heavy” media scrutiny right now for, respectively, their alleged behaviors of sexual and violent abuse—are statement-making decisions from the multi-billion dollar company.
As fans, artists, and producers alike respond to the decision, here are five ways we can steer a conversation that is both contentious and crucial in our contemporary moment.
1. The policy stands on a shaky foundation, but so does the argument that the artists have not been convicted in a court of law.
As soon as the announcement came that R. Kelly and XXXTentacion had been removed from Spotify-owned playlists and would no longer receive promotion like other artists, some skeptics were quick to point out that neither man has been convicted in a court of law and Spotify cannot play judge-and-jury on whether they are guilty of a crime. (Similar comments were made when DJBooth decided to not cover XXXTentacion's music.)
On one hand, it is true that Spotify’s statement is vague enough to lend itself to questionable interpretations. In defining “hateful conduct,” the policy is meant to cover an artist or creator doing “something that is especially harmful or hateful.” This will be a difficult standard to maintain as anything they do not deem “especially harmful or hateful” will open them to criticism, whether justified in every case or not.
That being said, the idea that a court of law is the only institution that can weigh in on someone’s behavior is far more slippery than Spotify’s attempt at taking a moral stance. A base-level understanding of history or a few minutes watching the news is enough to know that many abusive men carry on with their lives without ever being convicted of a crime. The very recent arrest of the Golden State Killer, a man who serially murdered people and raped women back in the 1970s and 80s, should be the only example we need to cite to understand that justice moves slowly in this country, if at all.
Some men even admit sexual assault and become president.
Thus, we shouldn’t wait for handcuffs to believe women’s stories. Spotify may have further work to do in clarifying and executing their position, but at least they aren’t waiting on court orders to take a stance. We shouldn’t either.
2. The language of “censorship” must be used with precision or not at all.
If you want to listen to R. Kelly or XXX on Spotify, you can, because they haven’t been removed, banned, or censored from the app. We can have the conversation about whether Spotify went far enough in their decision—they’ll still make money from streams for the artists they are trying to distance themselves from—but we cannot say that they have stopped anyone from listening to the artists. There was a time not too long ago, before the streaming era, when listeners couldn’t hear any music regularly without seeking it out on their own at a record store. Now, we merely have to type in an artist’s name to have their entire catalog at our fingertips.
To say that either artist is being censored suggests that we have lost the ability to hear them when we simply haven’t. Current “free speech” debates happening all over America sometimes dip into this straw logic. In a recent New York Times piece, a group called the Intellectual Dark Web (made up mostly of conservative thinkers like Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens) is described in the following way: “Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.”
Following the argument that this group is being censored requires ignoring that they have the ability to create their own media platforms which, according to the article, are doing quite well. It also requires ignoring that they are being reported on in one of the nation’s most widely read publications. More importantly, it begs the question of whether they too have been put on the FBI watchlist like “Black Identity Extremists,” a thinly veiled code for Black Lives Matter activists which echoes all too closely the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights activists.
We can debate all day on whether there is marginalization at play, but the language of censorship is dishonest and disrespectful to artists and activists who have actually been the target of silencing efforts in this supposedly first amendment-loving nation.
3. Using “but what about”-isms reflect on our society and not in a good way.
After Spotify’s policy went into effect, XXXTentacion’s team sent a list of other artists charged or convicted of violent or sexual abuse and misconduct and asked if they would also be removed. Note that XXX’s team didn’t bother to deny the truth of the allegations, but rather chose to ask—in essence—“What about these other men who have also done bad things?” The #MeToo movement has shown that society cannot quite agree on how much harm a man has to do, at what time in his life and career, or how good his apology must be before he is ousted from his job or stripped of his beloved reputation.
Fellow DJBooth writer Jaap van der Doelen recently confessed the excuses he makes (and many of us make) for Nas’ and Big Pun’s behavior because he loves them, and Andreas Hale astutely observed that many people will only “cancel” an artist if their music no longer seems good or relevant. We should be made uncomfortable by their convicting arguments, and we should openly discuss why our moral compasses turn out to be so unreliable when they point to our favorite artists’ histories of abuse.
If XXXTentacion’s team wants to point out a double standard so that music platforms and individuals can be more consistent in our moral evaluations, then yeah, we should. But if his team (and anyone else, for that matter) wants to point out the hypocrisy only to protect their status, then “what about”-isms aren’t going to make any of us better at moving forward as a society.
4. If black men are the only artists affected by this policy, that’s a problem.
America’s history of criminalizing black men, from justifications of slavery rooted in false accusations of rape to Jim Crow justifications of lynching for whistling at white women, continues into today through systems like mass incarceration and evasions of responsibility for police brutality. I am not at all suggesting that R. Kelly and XXXTentacion have been falsely accused. (I personally feel the evidence against them is overwhelming.) That being said, if a policy by Spotify only targets black men, and ignores the white men charged with or convicted of similar actions (look no further than the indie and punk scene which have had their own recent reckonings), then Spotify (even if it is based in Sweden) will have to reckon with its participation in a too-long tradition of targeting black men exclusively.
This isn’t the “but what about” game I just warned against. It’s a question of how far Spotify is willing to go to enforce this policy, and whether they will enforce it with equal measure for all races.
5. We should be both aware and transparent about what, and who, we defend.
While commending Spotify for their decision to remove R. Kelly and XXXTentacion from sponsored playlists on their platform is within everyone’s right to do, I am mindful that Spotify is a corporation and, above all, exists to make money. Yes, they provide a platform for music to be heard by millions of people. But romanticism aside, they make business decisions based on a need to keep the money flowing and praising them for any action as if money isn’t a factor is idealistic at best.
In the same way, all of us as individuals have reasons for defending or not defending R. Kelly and XXX. It’s admirable to say that women’s safety is more important than keeping “Ignition (Remix)” on rotation. It’s questionable, however, to say this in one breath and in the next to make excuses for artists we cherish, or to not confront men at concerts who are harassing or assaulting women.
If we defend R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, we should consider whose interest it is in to defend them—is it really due process or artistic freedom, or is it merely personal interest? If we don’t defend them, we should consider the full extension of our moral stance—are we practicing this in every instance, or only selectively?
I’m not moralizing as if to say I have this all figured out. I am, however, advocating for a bit more self-awareness and transparency when we choose to stake a claim for artists, platforms, or ourselves.