In May 2018, Spotify removed R. Kelly’s music from its official playlists. The biggest music streaming app in America said it wanted its “editorial decisions — what we choose to program — to reflect our values.”
Three years later, Kelly’s tracks are still absent from Spotify’s influential curated packages. But the disgraced superstar’s full discography was still available on the service’s app as of Tuesday morning, a day after he was found guilty on all counts in a sex-trafficking trial.
Kelly’s music was also easily accessible on Spotify’s major competitors, including Apple Music, Amazon Music and the Google-owned provider YouTube Music.
In the wake of Monday’s verdict, some on social media redoubled their efforts to push the major music streaming services to pull Kelly’s discography, arguing in part that it was wrong to provide a global platform — and possible royalty revenues — to a convicted serial sexual predator.
Spotify, Apple, Amazon and YouTube did not immediately respond to questions Tuesday about what they planned to do with Kelly’s music library and what criteria they might consider for removing the entirety of an artist’s work.
Kelly, 54, was trailed by troubling accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse for decades even as he climbed the Billboard charts, won Grammy Awards and entered the R&B pantheon with smash hits like “I Believe I Can Fly.”
But with the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017, the artist started to face deeper scrutiny. #MuteRKelly, a grassroots campaign co-founded by Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Tisha Barnes, worked to stop his music from being played on the radio or via streaming services.
“I started #MuteRKelly in July 2017 out of a feeling of outrage. After decades of blatantly abusing Black women and girls, R. Kelly was going on with his life with our community-sanctioned support,” Odeleye, who is Black, told HuffPost in February.
The campaign has been successful in certain clear ways. Kelly’s music is said to have largely vanished from the radio, and songs that were once mainstays of graduation ceremonies, weddings and backyard parties have faded.
But data on streaming platforms suggests that the appetite for his 1990s and 2000s-era hits has not waned. He racks up nearly 5 million monthly listeners on Spotify, according to information at the top of his artist page on the app.
George Howard, a professor of music business and management at Berklee College of Music, told NBC News he believes the need to remove Kelly’s music from streaming services has become even more urgent since the jury in the artist’s federal trial returned a guilty verdict.
“I think it became far less problematic with the decision that went down [Monday],” Howard said. “We are now dealing with a different class of decision-making.”
“I think, from an ethical framework, we as a society have to decide at what point we divorce an artistic output from a creator,” he said. “I think we can all agree that at no point in modern history has it ever been acceptable to sexually abuse children.”
“It’s a no-brainer to me,” he added, “and that behavior far outweighs any sort of artistic merit.”
Kelly, who has vehemently and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, was found guilty of being the orchestrator of a long-running scheme to recruit women and underage girls for sex.
The campaign to excise Kelly’s body of work still raises thorny questions about where streaming services draw the line. The top streaming destinations continue to promote albums by other artists who have been accused of sexual misconduct and abuse or other crimes, for example.
“He’s not an outlier here,” Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University, told NBC News NOW’s Joe Fryer on Tuesday morning, noting that music legends such as Miles Davis were accused of abusive behavior but continue to be held in high artistic esteem.
The New York Daily News editorial board, for its part, cautioned against dumping Kelly’s work in an article published Tuesday.
“When you patronize an artist, you elevate him; when you patronize a living artist, you help her profit. Similarly, it is the right of the companies that showcase creative products to refuse to stock any given individual on their real or virtual shelves,” the editorial board wrote.
“But for bookstores, galleries and streaming services to begin morally judging the lives of all those they feature? Down that road madness lies,” the board added.
In some respects, #MuteRKelly echoes the debate over the digital futures of other artistic creations, including films and television shows.
In summer 2020, for instance, HBO Max briefly pulled “Gone With the Wind” amid renewed scrutiny over the Oscar-winning film’s racist content. The movie has long been criticized for romanticizing the Confederacy and denying the horrors of slavery.
“Gone With the Wind” has since been restored to HBO Max with an introductory video message from TCM host Jacqueline Stewart that explores the film’s context and racial politics.
The issue also highlights the unprecedented power of Silicon Valley tech giants.
In the era of physical media, consumers purchased vinyl records or CDs and owned them in perpetuity. In the streaming age, subscribers pay for access to media floating in the proverbial “cloud” that could disappear overnight.