Tech, Now + Beyond

#MuteRKelly is only the beginning of streaming social justice

In the wake of Leaving Neverland and Surviving R.Kelly, streaming services have an obligation to stand with victims, regardless of backlash.

The Women of Colour branch of the #TimesUp movement began the #MuteRKelly campaign in May 2018 which encouraged streaming services, clubs, DJs and people in general to no longer play rapper R. Kelly’s music. R. Kelly has been accused, as far back as 1994, with links to child pornography, trafficking, sex cults, domestic violence and abuse of minors, including an allegation of an illegal marriage between himself at the age of 27 to the 15-year-old singer, Aaliyah in 1994.

Many people took action – radios and DJs stopped playing his music, but the pressure was put on streaming services, particularly Spotify to stop streaming his music and allowing him to earn royalties. Spotify eventually stopped advertising R. Kelly and allowed for people to mute his music altogether back in 2018 but not because of the allegations against him, rather for the ‘hateful content’ that was present in his works. Despite this, not much has been done to dwindle his streaming numbers on the music app. 

This was also the case with XXXTentacion, a 20-year-old rapper whose domestic abuse allegations hijacked much of his promising hip-hop career and with no remorse for his actions, which resulted in the same punishment as R. Kelly. While many of R. Kelly and XXXTentacion’s fans are angry that their music is no longer promoted through the streaming service, many people have supported the move and praised Spotify for taking action. 

In the wake of the MeToo movement and an ever-growing streaming world, streaming social justice could put pressure on companies and individuals to punish those who use their power for the wrong reasons. It prevents the accused from having a platform to get them the reputation, respect, and power that allowed them to abuse others initially. 

Streaming services have always had the power to determine what they allow for streaming and what they don’t. They have to do what is best for their business interests, even if some people won’t agree with their decisions.

But when stars have unforgiving scandals attached to them, are the companies obliged to continue supporting their own interests or to take action?

With the highly-profiled release of HBO’s documentary, Leaving Neverland, many radio stations are having to deal with the dilemma of whether or not they should stop playing Michael Jackson’s music. Continuing to play his songs could either be seen as condoning or ignoring his alleged behavior. Yet there has been an increase in the number of radio stations boycotting his music – either through their own free will or public pressure as the revelations of his alleged sexual abuse against minors re-emerged in the public. Jackson’s reputation had already been ruined before in 1993 and again in 2004-05 when he was accused of sexual abuse and inappropriate contact of children, but both times, he was cleared of all charges and everything went back to the way it was. He released singles and prepared to go on sold-out tours. The allegations have come to light again, ten years after his death and many fans again, refuse to believe the allegations. In fact, Jackson’s music was streamed at an increased rate when the documentary-movie was released and Spotify continues to promote and advertise his music. Other outlets are not so forgiving. The Simpsons creators have agreed to remove a Michael Jackson episode from ever airing again and a radio station in the Netherlands has also stopped playing his music since the release of the documentary. 

But could this be because Jackson hasn’t been charged with anything? R. Kelly and XXXTentacion have both been charged (R Kelly is awaiting trial and XXXTentacion was killed before he could stand trial for domestic abuse allegations), and while Spotify is no longer promoting the music of the aforementioned men, their music is still readily available with a simple search.

An example of streaming social justice done right is the Welsh rock band, Lostprophets, who formed in 1997 with three albums in the top charts in the UK. In 2012, the lead singer, Ian Watkins was charged with thirteen counts of sexual offenses against children, including the attempted rape of a one-year-old girl. Watkins was sentenced to twenty-nine years in prison in 2013 and the Lostprophets disbanded. Now, their music is virtually non-existent on so many retail and subscription platforms. Should this be the way streaming services follow suit?

Streaming social justice has its positives and Spotify has been adamant on policing content not conduct, but is it enough to just ban those who promote hateful content? Allegations against artists such as R. Kelly, XXXTentacion and Michael Jackson are just as bad, as these stories have not just come out of the blue – they have been known and deliberately ignored for whatever reasons. Bad behavior should never be condoned, no matter who is behind it and streaming services owe it to the victims of sexual misconduct and abuse to not give perpetrators a platform to continue to grow their fan base and power. It was that undying loyalty from fans and the power given to them that allowed for the misconduct to happen in the first place.