What will happen to R. Kelly’s music? Inside the push to deplatform abusive artists

A look at the fate of artists accused of abuse, and the decisions brands make in their wake

Published October 3, 2021 8:00AM (EDT)

Singer R. Kelly performs in concert during the '12 Nights Of Christmas' tour at Kings Theatre on December 17, 2016 in Brooklyn (Noam Galai/Getty Images)
Singer R. Kelly performs in concert during the '12 Nights Of Christmas' tour at Kings Theatre on December 17, 2016 in Brooklyn (Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Following years of controversy and open secrets about R. Kelly's horrifying treatment of women and girls, the disgraced R&B singer has been found guilty and convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking. His New York trial featured testimonies from many women who claim to have survived violent abuse and even imprisonment from Kelly, often starting when they were underage.

With Kelly finally convicted, the outcome of his case raises a key question of what will now happen to his music, which continues to stream on major platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, making somewhere in the millions in royalties each year, and frequently appearing in video content on social media. As streaming platforms, brands, record labels, and really any and all media companies that handle music determine what — if anything — should be done about Kelly's work, their approaches could set an important precedent for the many other artists accused or found guilty of abuse, moving forward in the #MeToo era.

Defenders of artists accused of abuse often condemn brands and streamers for any moves to censor and violate these artists' "free speech" — as if Spotify is the federal government — or assert that these artists are "innocent until proven guilty." Kelly's conviction now pokes a significant hole in at least one of these arguments, and may open the door for brands and music companies to take clear stances on what behaviors from artists aren't acceptable.

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Then of course, there's the important distinction between the corporate policies of a streaming service like Spotify on whether to publicly promote an abusive artist's work, and the personal music consumption and preferences of individuals. In the long history of artists accused of harm and abuse, there have never been one-size-fits-all solutions.

R. Kelly's contemporaries also accused of abuse

To understand what fate that R. Kelly's music could face, it's wise to look at other artists who have been in similar but not necessarily equivalent situations. The severity of the accusations against Kelly, including rape and assault of often underage victims, are so horrifying that the idea of stepping away from his music in some form doesn't seem that far-fetched.

Other well-known, even alarmingly popular artists accused of abuse include Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to felony assault of his then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, and has been accused of rape and violence by other women in the years since. He continues to feature on tracks with music legends like Drake, and create widely streamed singles, pretty much without a peep from Spotify or the other streaming giants and record labels that gleefully release his music.

The late XXXTentacion, who was killed in 2018, was accused of and admitted to strangling his pregnant then-girlfriend the year earlier — all while his wildly popular music continues to stream and generate millions in royalties for his estate to this day. And in 2015, 6ix9ine pleaded guilty to the use of a child in a sexual performance, and has been charged and convicted of other crimes including racketeering and his role in a drive-by shooting. His songs and features on Nicki Minaj tracks continue to draw millions of streams.

Another artist, Ryan Adams, has been dropped by his record labels, and has struggled to put out new music since several women including Mandy Moore and Phoebe Bridgers accused him of emotional abuse in 2019. Still, Adams' existing music and music he's released through his own PAX AM independent label, remains readily available on streaming platforms.

Marilyn Manson, accused of rape, grooming, and other jarring acts of sexual violence by several women, sings about the night he was arrested in a recent track on Kanye West's new album "Donda," streaming on music services without any issue. Just last year, Megan Thee Stallion accused Tory Lanez of shooting her in the foot and successfully obtained a restraining order against Lanez — only for him to release a new album shortly after, continue to feature on popular tracks with some of the biggest names in the industry, and appear on stage at music festivals like Rolling Loud, violating Megan's restraining order against him in the process.

More famously, the late singer Michael Jackson faced numerous allegations of child sexual abuse in the 1990s that had all but faded from public consciousness for years before HBO's "Leaving Neverland" documentary released in 2019. The documentary led to significant backlash against Jackson and his surviving legacy and work, nearly 10 years after his death.

Before nearly all of these artists, Don McLean, who sang "American Pie" in 1971, was accused of intense emotional abuse by his wife last year, and his daughter just this year. From a similar era as McLean, Phil Spector produced numerous albums and records for multiple artists including the Beatles before being convicted of murdering a woman in 2003. Should the music produced by men accused of abuse also be reconsidered? Where should music companies and individuals begin to draw the line?

What's happened to the art of accused men before

For insight into how music streamers and brands might respond to R. Kelly's conviction, as well as other artists accused of misconduct, there are numerous past examples to revisit — many involving Kelly himself. His music hasn't gone anywhere for those who actively seek it out for personal consumption. But there's an important difference between streaming platforms allowing users to privately listen to his music, and the active promotion of this music on radio stations, in DJ sets, in TV episodes and movies, or featuring on official, Spotify-curated playlists.

The New York Times reported that in recent years, Kelly's music has been "all but erased from the radio and other commercial placements, his high-profile concerts and record deals a thing of the past." Still, the Times found that Kelly's music remains a fixture in videos and social content among influencers on platforms like Tik Tok, ranking as one of the top 500 music artists by Chartmetric. Despite the widely shared #MuteRKelly social campaign created by Kenyette Tisha Barnes and other activists in 2017, Kelly's music has still had about 780 million audio streams in the U.S. since "Surviving R. Kelly" aired on Lifetime in 2019, and he continues to draw 5.2 million monthly listeners on Spotify, the Times reported.

Spotify has specifically addressed the misconduct allegations against Kelly before, although its response left many confused. In 2018, Spotify announced that it would take action against the singer's popular catalog of music, and instituted an awkward playlist-ban policy, which would remove music containing "hate speech" and music from artists who, like Kelly, had committed "hateful conduct" from its playlists.

However, some regarded Spotify's policy as toothless, because Kelly's music continued to stream on the platform. Others expressed confusion about the inconsistency of the ban, noting that many artists accused of "hateful conduct" — which the platform had only nebulously defined — weren't subject to the playlist-ban policy. In particular, critics named XXXTentacion, who was subsequently added to Spotify's playlist-ban list, but many other accused artists remain.

The playlist-ban policy also received criticism from those who pointed out that Kelly and other artists had only been accused of sexual misconduct and hadn't been found guilty — as if all sexual abusers are reported to law enforcement and convicted. Overall, these myriad criticisms of Spotify's attempts at accountability for abusers and alleged abusers were enough to make the platform back down — not overturning its policy, but no longer really publicizing it. 

It's also worth noting that it's not just streaming platforms that are affected by revelations about abusive artists. For example, Kelly's song "I Think I Can Fly" initially featured in an episode of "The Goldbergs" spinoff show, "Schooled," but the song was pulled before the episode aired in 2019 in the wake of escalated controversy around Kelly. 

Following the release of "Leaving Neverland," several brands, global radio stations, TV shows like "The Simpsons," and even city governments like Brussels took action in boycotting Jackson's legacy. Many canceled scheduled celebrations of the singer to mark the 10th anniversary of his death. Louis Vuitton pulled Jackson-inspired products planned for its 2019 collections, and gymnast Katelyn Ohashi removed Jackson's music and dance moves inspired by the artist from her floor routine at the 2019 PAC-12 Championships.

Responses and actions taken around artists who are accused of abuse are widely inconsistent, possibly because, among other reasons, many cases lack the now open-and-shut legal nature of R. Kelly's conviction. Ultimately, many brands and streamers seem conflicted about where to draw the line, or really, what they can and can't look the other way on without stoking controversy and backlash. Documentaries like "Surviving R. Kelly" and "Leaving Neverland" have made Kelly and Jackson's histories and allegations impossible to be silent on. But in contrast, few big-name artists or activist movements have taken public stands against Chris Brown for the accusations against him, or Tory Lanez, for allegedly shooting Megan. 6ix9ine has yet to become the subject of a tell-all documentary.

Many brands and streamers are left to work out the calculus of what may lose them more money: platforming or promoting someone accused of abuse, or upsetting these artists' vengeful fan bases. And on an individual level, many consumers may feel similarly conflicted, with some appalled by the behaviors of artists like Kelly, while still privately enjoying the music they've made.

The eternal debate: Artist vs. art

The debate about what to do with the art created by artists accused of abuse has been semi-recurring since 2017, when dozens of entertainment industry titans were very publicly accused of sexual misconduct. 

Contrary to loud and proud right-wing talking points, private corporations ranging from social media platforms to music distributors are well within their legal rights to remove or at least not publicize content that conflicts with their values, if their values include, say, being opposed to sexual violence. But legal considerations aside, the philosophical question of whether artists, who are real human beings and as such often do real, horrible things, can be separated from their art. The answer to that question might vary pending who you ask.

For some people with the privilege of not having experienced sexual harassment or abuse, it might be easier to consume content created by an abuser without feeling triggered or devalued by it. It's certainly not wrong for individuals to be able to privately compartmentalize abusive artists from their art and enjoy it by themselves. But there will always be consumers who can't do this and who should be respected, too. The voices and demands of many survivors and advocates, for brands and corporations to find meaningful ways to take a stand against sexual violence and abusers, deserve to be heard. 

That said, deplatforming isn't always simple in the age of the internet. As Variety's Jem Aswad points out, even if Spotify removed R. Kelly's music, or a movie streaming service somehow removed all work produced by Harvey Weinstein, their work would continue to be uploaded and distributed on other parts of the internet, and wouldn't just disappear. And frankly, none of these men produced these works alone, so those collaborators would become collateral damage if such works were removed.

Amazon's approach to hate speech or "hateful conduct" seems to be summed up by its inclusion of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" on its marketplace, with all sales of the book apparently going directly to Jewish charities and organizations.

R. Kelly isn't the first artist to be accused of abuse or horrifying behavior, leaving companies and brands with serious decisions to make. His conviction isn't the first moment that's forced them to consider making a public statement or policy regarding the art created by sexual abusers.

But Kelly's conviction certainly injects credibility and legal validation into the demands of survivors calling for him and other abusers and alleged abusers to be deplatformed, or no longer publicly promoted. How brands respond to the outcome of Kelly's case could influence how they handle the art of abusive artists going forward — but ultimately, how the public receives and experiences the art of abusers will always vary from person to person.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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Commentary #metoo Music R. Kelly Sexual Abuse Spotify Surviving R Kelly