The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
As the editor of a lifestyle publication that covers hip-hop more than any other music genre, I was faced with a bit of a conundrum when the rapper XXXTentacion first rose to prominence on the scene. My readership wanted to know each new step of his journey towards the top of the industry, and yet his was a journey eclipsed by charges of brutal assault against his pregnant then-girlfriend. Alarmingly, many see these charges as the catalyst for X’s rise to stardom; his breakthrough Top 5 Billboard single climbed the charts only after news broke of his arrest report, which details “aggravated battery” and severe domestic abuse.
I elected to cease unwarranted coverage of X and his ilk, and, as we moved forward, to only report on subjects so clearly at odds with the moral integrity of our publication with extreme prudence. It’s a policy that straddles the line of morality, one that can be thought of as “curated” or “selective” censorship. If it sounds familiar, it might be because most all of us practice it on a daily basis; in a post-#metoo world, captains of every industry are reckoning with their misdeeds, and simultaneously, we are struggling to appropriately reckon with their now-tainted legacies which remain in the public eye long after their creators have exited.
Look no further than the most recent headlines concerning XXXTentacion for the latest iteration of this concept. As even more accusations continue to pile up against R. Kelly and the disturbing details behind his alleged “sex cult,” Spotify abruptly elected to remove any of the singer’s tracks that appear on the platform’s promotional playlists. XXXTentacion was also included in this ban, despite not having any new atrocities documented in the same manner that seemed to spurn the streaming service’s disavowal of Kelly.
These changes came as part of Spotify’s new policy addressing “hate content and hateful conduct.” The company has not replied to our request to comment on this story regarding this update, but the streaming giant told Billboard at the time of its unveiling that “We are removing R. Kelly’s music from all Spotify owned and operated playlists and algorithmic recommendations such as Discover Weekly. His music will still be available on the service, but Spotify will not actively promote it. We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions — what we choose to program — to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.” Not wanting to get left behind, Apple Music and other services swiftly followed suit.
It is, in so many words, the same policy I instilled on my own editorial platform, one that does not discredit an artist based on their behavior but one that allows us to cherrypick from a list of artists we – as a private enterprise – deem unacceptable, per our own subjective standards. This is not a bad system, but it is a faulty one – a system that XXXTentacion effectively obliterated in a single tweet sent by his camp in response to Spotify’s erasure of his work from their promoted features:
a response from XXXTentacion’s team on Spotify's decision to remove him from playlists pic.twitter.com/ivtEDJ2yGS
— Joe Coscarelli (@joecoscarelli) May 10, 2018
As X’s team very rightly posits, Spotify has a lot more work to do if they plan on fully adhering to this policy. While they may be incredibly serious about their desire to remove both X and R. Kelly from their promotional materials, that fails to account for the gargantuan list of artists faced with equally grim accusations still featured in said materials. As X’s list points out, artists as varied as Dr. Dre to Michael Jackson to Sid Vicious to Ozzy Osbourne to Miles Davis have all been levied with charges of assault, and yet no one – Spotify or otherwise – is attempting to silence them or deny them their platform.
And if that weren’t enough, Spotify’s actions against Kelly and X stand in direct contrast to the company’s behavior in the exact same scenario regarding the band PWR BTTM. Just last year, the beloved queer punk band met an explosive effectual end after multiple sources came forward to accuse band leader Ben Hopkins of misconduct on the eve of the release of what was widely assumed to be one of the breakout records of the year, Pageant. Of course, this did not come to pass. Mere days before its drop, iTunes pulled PWR BTTM’s entire catalog from their service, while Spotify elected not to upload their sophomore album, a decision that, as of press time, remains in place.
Taken at face value, this extreme discrepancy in disciplinary actions taken out against artists who violate Spotify’s freshly-inked code of conduct sets a dangerous precedent. No one, least of all a powerful multinational corporation, should begin to equate one instance of trauma versus another. Unlike the fresh crop of albums that appear ready to stream week after week, assault cannot be ranked and categorized with a set of identifiable markers or analytical assessments. Assault is assault, period, and it is not up to anyone outside a court of law to pass judgment over its aftermath.
Not only does Spotify’s recent shift shut the door on impartiality and suggest troubling outcomes in future cases, the company itself is clearly not capable of enforcing (or unwilling to enforce) their policy as written. As XXXTentacion put forward in his response, the music world has an exhaustive list of artists with charges of misconduct, and literally none of them are subject to the guidelines the company has established for that exact purpose.
By the tenets outlined in their own policy, Spotify has demonstrated outrageous bias – doling out punishment only to those whose misdeeds happen to be a trending topic. This is a heinous capitalization of real world suffering that is also free from all of its consequences, protected under the guise of enacting “real change” when (and only when) conveniently tied to the latest news cycle.
The trouble is, this situation is far from unique to Spotify. It’s a microcosm of our unique time in pop culture; a great reckoning of misdeeds both old and new as our idols topple around us. The fact of the matter is that there is no easy way to address these scenarios. We see that temporary or partial erasure of troubling figures is inherently flawed in design, and that a fully committed movement towards reaching this system’s desired end of full removal or censorship for all parties will never occur. Completely censoring the work of all those accused or convicted with acts of cruelty throughout history to the point of total erasure would come close to a blanket abolishment of art in its entirety.
This is not to suggest that society’s current efforts at handling these conflicts of moral interest are for naught; few could doubt that it’s in our collective best interests to not have the come-ons of an alleged child-sex cult leader appear in our weekend playlist. But Spotify’s belated, uneven reaction – one that has been echoed many times over in all fields – is a fresh reminder that our current mode of interacting with public figures accused of misconduct is in need of a serious overhaul. As it stands now, it utterly lacks cohesion, and when taken to its logical extreme it becomes lunacy.
No catch-all solution exists, and for a problem with such deeply systemic roots that affect every level of society, we shouldn’t expect one to. At the very least, we can attempt to standardize a system of public disavowal that eliminates the pseudo-meritocracy of punishment being lived out now. In the case of Spotify, the company not only needs to decide how to handle these cases moving forward, but how to enforce each case with the same procedural vigour to ensure fairness across the board. That would be a good start – but we shouldn’t let that inhibit our imagination of where to go from here. For instance, companies that continue to host the product of abusers could donate portions of their fees to charities aimed at combatting domestic violence, or these products could come with content warnings regarding its creators conduct. The only thing we shouldn’t do is nothing, which, unfortunately, is essentially what’s being done now.
If you have been sexually assaulted, there are resources to help you.
Donate to Rape Crisis here (UK) or RAINN here (U.S.).
For more like this, read our initial take on the troubled rise of XXXTentacion right here.