“With all artists who have challenges, I believe it’s about the music,” Thea Mitchem, a New York radio programmer, told Billboard recently about her station’s decision to play the song “Sad!” by XXXTentacion. “Artists who have challenges” is a euphemism, and the challenges in his particular case are accusations that XXXTentacion had beaten his then-pregnant girlfriend. The fact that the 20-year-old rapper is awaiting trial on charges related to those allegations, and that he has often bragged of committing violence, has elicited many critics to call for listeners to shun his music. But “Sad!” nevertheless sits at #35 on the R&B/hip-hop airplay charts—which would not be possible if radio were boycotting him.
On Thursday, one music-industry institution finally announced that it, at least, would not promote alleged abusers. As part of Spotify’s newly announced “Hate Content & Hateful Conduct Policy,” XXXTentacion’s songs have been removed from playlists controlled by the world’s most popular streaming service. So has the music of R. Kelly, the R&B star alleged to have routinely preyed on young and underage women. Their music will remain available to call up on Spotify, but will be absent from the company’s editorially or algorithmically generated playlists, whose users can rank in the millions. The move raises a number of tough questions—including why this modest step is arguably the strongest stance the music industry has taken regarding reported abuse in the era of #MeToo.
Spotify’s policy follows last year’s news that the service, as well as its competitors, would no longer host music by bands with white supremacist messages. As I noted at the time, the ban seemed like it could open the door to censoring other risky kinds of music, such as violent hip-hop or metal bands who flirt with but don’t openly endorse racism. Spotify now says it will make decisions on the matter in consultation with groups of experts, including The Southern Poverty Law Center, The Anti-Defamation League, Color Of Change, Showing Up for Racial Justice, GLAAD, Muslim Advocates, and the International Network Against Cyber Hate.
The bigger news is that Spotify will take into consideration the conduct of artists when programming playlists and undertaking other editorial initiatives. So far, only two artists are reportedly affected, and they are each uniquely notorious. R. Kelly is perhaps the first name people think of when talking about bad behavior in pop music, owing to both the child pornography charges