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Morgan Wallen’s Racial Slur Reignites Spotify’s Playlist-Ban Controversy, Started With R. Kelly

country singer racial slur
John Shearer / Courtesy Big Loud

Morgan Wallen, country music’s biggest new star, suddenly found himself a pariah from the nation’s airwaves after video of him using a racial slur emerged late Tuesday. His music was yanked from major radio networks and streaming service playlists — notably Spotify, where the situation revived the playlist-ban issue based on “hate speech and hateful conduct” that it began, and then quickly backed away from (at least outwardly) in 2018.

While Wallen — whose new album, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” has been No. 1 in the country for four weeks — remained on at least two official multi-artist Spotify playlists at the time of this article’s publication (“Chillin’ on a Dirt Road,” with more than 2.5 million followers, and “Big Country,” with over 200,000) and his music remains available to stream on the platform, his songs were no longer anywhere to be seen in Spotify’s list of 50 top Hot Country songs. Likewise, his image does not appear among the dozens of photos or track listings or playlists on the home page of Apple Music Country, where observers said he had been featured earlier on Tuesday.

While Spotify CEO and cofounder Daniel Ek declined to answer Variety’s direct question about Wallen during a brief interview on Wednesday morning (via a rep, who said the matter would be addressed later), the issue has revived the conversation around the company’s short-lived policy on “hate speech and hateful conduct,” briefly instituted in May of 2018.

The policy was first announced via a vague mission statement against “hate content and hateful conduct” and a simultaneous interview with a company executive stating that R. Kelly — who has been accused multiple times but not convicted of sexual misconduct against young women and has since been jailed on those charges — would be the first artist to be banned from the streaming giant’s official playlists and other promotional efforts, although his albums and singles remain available on the platform.

Due to its ill-defined parameters, the policy met with immediate backlash from the media, artists, legal experts and even, according to sources, several senior Spotify executives. Within hours XXXTentacion, accused but not convicted of assaulting his pregnant girlfriend and other serious allegations, had been added to the list, and Texas rapper Tay-K, who has since been convicted of murder, was apparently added to the policy shortly afterward.

The company walked back the policy after several weeks of controversy, acknowledging that it had been poorly defined and articulated, and said that it would be “moving away from implementing a policy around artist conduct,” although it retained the policy against content “whose principal purpose is to incite hatred or violence against people because of their race, religion, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”

However, some version of the policy clearly remains in effect, as witnessed by Wallen’s quick removal from the top country playlists. Likewise, Kelly’s music and songs credited to the late producer Phil Spector (convicted of murder in 2009) are not present on official Spotify playlists, although some of those artists’ music is available on user-generated playlists ones; songs written or produced by Kelly or Spector but not specifically credited to them are featured on official playlists as well.

But songs by Marilyn Manson, accused of sexual misconduct earlier this week by former girlfriend Evan Rachel Wood and other women, are featured on a handful of official playlists, as are songs by XXXTentacion, who died in 2018. The music of Michael Jackson, also accused but not convicted of sexual misconduct, is available on multiple official Spotify playlists.

A rep for the company declined comment but pointed to a line in the 2018 statement that reads, “Our playlist editors are deeply rooted in their respective cultures, and their decisions focus on what music will positively resonate with their listeners,” which at least outwardly shifts the decision onto the playlist editors.

To be fair, such policies are extremely difficult to define and Spotify’s playlist-editor-discretion approach seems the most workable one. The complexities are visible on the platform’s playlists. To cite just one example, Derek & the Dominos’ song “Layla,” the 1970 rock classic written by Eric Clapton and drummer Jim Gordon is featured on multiple official playlists. Clapton made a strongly racist statement onstage in 1976, and Gordon was convicted of murdering his mother in 1983; he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and remains incarcerated at a medical facility. Complicating the matter further, Gordon also performed on hundreds of songs in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a session drummer, although Spotify does not commonly list musician credits on its platform.

And sometimes the ban does not come from Spotify. The decision whether or not to post music on the platform also lies with the rights-holder. Lady Gaga officially removed her 2013 collaboration with Kelly, “Do What U Want,” from the platform in 2019; the group Pwr Bttm, one of whose members was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017, had its then-new album removed from the service by the label that owned the rights.

The morality around art is a complex and ever-shifting situation, and while Spotify’s approach leaves much to the discretion of its users, clearly, at times it feels curation is necessary.