Led by the grassroots campaign #MuteRKelly, a growing wave of voices is demanding greater scrutiny on R. Kelly, the self-described Pied Piper of R&B who has for decades battled allegations of sexually abusing women.
But a high-profile decision by Spotify to stop promoting the singer this week has ignited a debate about how far this reckoning could extend.
The #MuteRKelly campaign scored a boost last week with support from Time’s Up, the group born from the explosive #MeToo movement that is devoted to aiding victims of sexual harassment and abuse.
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, singer-songwriter John Legend, bandleader Questlove, actors Ashley Judd and Lupita Nyong’o and TV creator Shonda Rhimes were just a few of the famous names who reiterated the campaign’s call for a probe into the multiple allegations against Kelly and for his music industry partners — including record labels, music streamers, radio stations, concert promoters and ticket-sellers — to cut ties.
The campaign seems to have persuaded streaming giant Spotify, which struck a significant blow on Thursday when it announced that, as part of its new policy on hate content and hateful conduct, it was removing Kelly’s music from its editorial playlists and algorithmic recommendations. Though his music is still technically available on the service, Spotify will no longer promote it.
“While we don’t believe in censoring content because of an artist’s or creator’s behaviour, we want our editorial decisions — what we choose to program — to reflect our values,” Spotify said in a statement.
“So, in some circumstances, when an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence), it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.”
The move — which could be a catalyst for other companies to follow — is a healthy compromise, with the company riding a fine line between moral values and censorship, according to A. Harmony, a contributor to Canadian music magazine Exclaim!
“They made the right move by pulling back on promoting him, but then still allowing other people who choose to indulge in his music to still have the access,” she told CBC News.
“Consumers are at a stage where they want to see artists [who] have a bit more integrity and content that has a bit more integrity. So Spotify actually getting behind the consumer in this way and championing that from a corporate level says a lot,” Harmony said.
She said she hopes the company will revisit this decision for any artist who “has served their time or atoned for their behaviour.”
‘What does it look like for us to stay silent?’
Kelly has repeatedly denied all allegations against him.
Regardless, his 2008 acquittal on child pornography charges, the mounting accusations over the years, along with his multiple settlements to resolve civil sexual misconduct lawsuits, has long been a topic of discussion in the black community, said Yamikani Msosa, a specialist with Ryerson University’s office of sexual violence, support and education.
“With the Time’s Up movement, with the #MuteRKelly [campaign], with Ava DuVernay, with really notable people saying ‘This is not okay,’ we see a surging of people with power — such as Spotify’s organization — saying ‘Well, what does it look like for us to stay silent on these issues?'”
But she questioned the actual intent behind Spotify’s decision and just how far the streamer will be willing to go.
“We know there are so many other artists that are misogynistic: their lyrics in themselves have hate speech or violence against women, against trans people,” she said.
“Spotify would not have artists, to be quite candid, if they actually follow through with that policy.”
That same issue was also what the singer’s management team underlined in its response to Spotify — echoing a similar debate that emerged after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and other industry groups expelled disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein from their ranks last fall.
“R. Kelly never has been accused of hate, and the lyrics he writes express love and desire … Mr. Kelly for 30 years has sung songs about his love and passion for women,” the singer’s team wrote in a statement to CBC News.
Kelly has never been convicted of a crime, “nor does he have any pending criminal charges against him,” the team added, but Spotify continues to highlight “other artists who are convicted felons, others who have been arrested on charges of domestic violence and artists who sing lyrics that are violent and anti-women in nature.”
It emerged later Thursday that another performer has also been partly removed from Spotify in accordance with its new policy: Florida rapper XXXTentacion, who is facing charges that include aggravated battery of a pregnant woman and witness tampering.
“Will Spotify remove all the artists listed below from playlists?” Aishah White, a spokesperson for XXXTentacion, said in a statement that recounted the names of more than a dozen, wide-ranging artists (including Michael Jackson, Dr. Dre, Backstreet Boys, Ozzy Osbourne and Miles Davis) who have faced allegations of sexual misconduct or physical violence over the years.
More education needed
Beyond this latest debate, the #MuteRKelly campaign continues to roll ahead, with community leaders in North Carolina pledging to protest outside Kelly’s Greensboro Coliseum concert Friday night.
They’ll undoubtedly come face to face with devoted R. Kelly fans.
“We don’t want to believe that people are able to cause harm in these ways,” said Msosa. She said she nonetheless looks toward moving beyond punitive measures.
“I’m a huge fan of educating people on issues of sexual violence, demystifying rape culture and working with those who have caused harm so that they can take accountability through restorative justice means.”