behind the scenes

Why Spotify Finally Let People Mute R. Kelly

Kelly. Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images

In the continued effort to run R. Kelly off the internet — if not ultimately off the streets for good — last week, Spotify quietly introduced a new feature that allows users to effectively mute artists. It means that, now at their own discretion, people can go to any musician’s Spotify page and select “don’t play this artist” in the top-right settings; that artist will then be skipped on any Spotify playlist, radio station, or your own library, even if they’re listed on it. (The one loophole being that it doesn’t work if that artist is just a feature on the song.)

Though Spotify hasn’t acknowledged the feature as a new work-around to ban R. Kelly after its failed first attempt last year, the move unmistakably echoes the Mute R. Kelly movement founded by activists Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Barnes in direct response to the 2017 allegations that Kelly has been holding women against their will as part of a sex cult, compounded with the decades of existing abuse accusations. Spotify’s latest attempt at doing away with alleged abusers was also the work of activist group Color of Change, who’s been working to get the music industry to drop Kelly for years.

Color of Change’s involvement with Spotify first began last spring, when it and other rights groups — including GLAAD, the Anti-Defamation League, and more — were brought on as consultants to develop the language for a new proposed Hate Content and Hateful Conduct policy that would’ve given Spotify the editorial oversight to no longer promote art and artists that “incite hatred or violence” on platforms like its popular playlists. Spotify’s primary concern due to the headlines at the time, according to Color of Change senior campaign director Brandi Collins-Dexter, was targeting white nationalists. (It’d already banned white-supremacist bands in August 2017.) Instead, Color of Change suggested that their first order of business be going after R. Kelly.

“Part of our logic there was, you’re not talking about someone where the art is separate from the person. His art is very intricately tied to his acts and his engagement with young women and girls,” Collins-Dexter told Vulture. “When he’s singing about age ain’t nothing but a number or bumping and grinding, he’s specifically talking about what they’ve had to endure in the form of abuse. And he’s making money off that.” Spotify took their point to heart, she says, and rolled out the policy that May beginning with both R. Kelly and accused abuser XXXTentacion blacklisted from its playlists.

However, less than a month later, Spotify canceled the policy entirely and reinstated XXXTentacion on those playlists, saying that the company doesn’t “aim to play judge and jury,” though it continued to not promote Kelly and kept the ban on music that promoted white nationalism. CEO Daniel Ek later blamed the policy’s failure on a poor rollout and language that was “too ambiguous and open to interpretation.” But, as was later reported and Collins-Dexter confirms, Spotify caved to industry fury. “Their initial policy was met with a lot of backlash from artists like Kendrick Lamar, who threatened to pull his music, so they almost immediately backed down,” she says, noting that Spotify did not warn the organizations involved that it’d be ending the policy, though Color of Change had heard talk of artist and label retaliation.

After the fallout from that bungled policy rollout and backtracking, conversations between Color of Change and Spotify about R. Kelly stalled. Weeks after the cancellation, XXXTentacion was murdered and Collins-Dexter noticed that Spotify went into overdrive memorializing him with playlists. “You started to see this conversation come up again around streaming platforms and the role they can play in iconizing people who are engaging in really bad acts,” she says. Around that time, Color of Change had begun working with Lifetime on its docuseries Surviving R. Kelly (CoC board member Dream Hampton directed the series), and knew it had a watershed moment in the Kelly allegations on its hands. They began strategizing how to get eyes on the doc from “enablers of sexual violence against women,” including Spotify.

A week after the documentary aired in early January, and the outcry against Kelly picked up steam, Color of Change reopened talks with Spotify about removing Kelly from the platform. Still, the feeling of being burned by their past work together lingered. Collins-Dexter recalls, “As they walked back the [hate] policy, we definitely let it be known to them that we were really disappointed. That we were not gonna just congratulate them or give them a cookie for the good parts that they did leave.” This time around, Spotify wasn’t so bullish about adopting another editorial moral standards code even while recognizing the increasing demand for one. “They were scared,” she says. “It was clear to them that they needed to stand up in this moment. But it was a big tension point within the organization about where the lines of free speech are.”

As a compromise, Color of Change pitched a mute button, an idea that Collins-Dexter says sprang from conversations with its own members. “It’s a way for people to signal to companies, ‘This artist doesn’t have a place on my playlist, and I don’t want this artist to make money off of me,’” she says. Having the onus of holding artists accountable be on consumers versus corporations, though, is not ideal. Color of Change expressed that concern to Spotify: “We said, ‘We actually don’t think this is the best thing that you could do right now. It’s very conciliatory in a way, but it is something. It’s not the end-all be-all, but it could be one show of good faith from a corporate actor.”

Although Color of Change presented the mute button merely as a first step, and expected negotiations about stricter action to continue, Collins-Dexter says Spotify then blindsided them by surprise-releasing the feature on Martin Luther King Jr. Day without notifying them first. Spotify has also yet to formally announce the feature or release any public statement related to Kelly; instead, Thurrott first reported news that the mute button went live after it spotted it. Color of Change responded by sending an email to Spotify expressing its disappointment at the rollout. According to Collins-Dexter, Spotify blamed it on a beta-test release, and that even Spotify employees working on the new policy were not aware that it went live. (As of publication, the feature remains live on mobile; Spotify could not be reached for comment.)

Collins-Dexter says that the next step is to keep that line of communication open and request data from Spotify to get a better understanding of the impact the mute button is having on the music industry. Color of Change is also putting the pressure on platforms like Apple Music, Tidal, and Pandora to remove R. Kelly — it recently got Sony to drop Kelly, and more artists themselves are pulling Kelly collaborations — but says Spotify’s competitors have not been nearly as receptive to its recommendations. “It’s not just about R. Kelly, but the village that allows an artist like this to thrive,” she says. “Unfortunately, we want people and corporations to do the right thing all the time, but the truth is that they usually don’t until it’s convenient for them.”

Why Spotify Finally Let People Mute R. Kelly