After 28-year-old Sandra Bland died in a jail cell in 2015, three days after she recorded a confrontation with a state trooper in Texas, Spotify’s head of R&B and soul Mjeema Pickett assembled her sad and angry playlist team. As a healing exercise, they did what they do every day: blurted out song titles. This time, their list included James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud — Part 1,” Killer Mike’s “Don’t Die,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Jill Scott’s “My Petition.” “We were just in the office talking about our experiences, and just hurting and emotional,” she says. “We felt like, if it touched us, it would touch other people.” Pickett’s team launched the Black Lives Matter playlist as a way to express their feelings.
After the nation began mourning yet another killing of an unarmed black person, George Floyd, this time hitting the streets in worldwide protests against police brutality, the team quickly updated the playlist, adding tracks like Meek Mill’s new “Otherside of America.” When the music industry shut down for “Blackout Tuesday” on June 2, Spotify showcased the playlist on its front page to remarkable success. That day, the playlist racked up nearly 6 million users, and its follower count jumped over two days from 40,000 to 450,000. (At publishing, the playlist has more than 800,000 subscribers.)
Pickett and her colleagues continue to update the playlist, which now has 65 songs, swinging between old and new, topical and timeless, strident and soothing. “It was therapeutic for us to put it together,” Pickett says. “People are finally understanding and getting it.”
(Despite its growth, Spotify did not sell ads for its free tier users specifically targeting the playlist.)
On June 2, Spotify also blacked out the imagery on its top playlists and posted a symbolic, eight-minutes-and-46-seconds silent track on various podcasts and playlists, representing the length of time a Minneapolis police officer fatally pinned Floyd to the ground with his knee on his neck. (The track eventually racked up more than 4,000 streams — Spotify counts streams when a user listens to a song for more than 30 seconds.)
Spotify wasn’t the only streaming service to redesign itself for Blackout Tuesday: Apple Music’s #TheShowMustBePaused stream emphasized black music in lieu of regular Beats 1 radio programming. Amazon Music’s music curator for hip-hop and R&B, Rochelle Baloqun, organized a playlist in an hour the day before Blackout Tuesday, adapting her team’s work since March on a Black Music Month feature. The team’s topical mix included Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie” and Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black.” “As a black woman, I have difficulty finding words to express my pain and disbelief. When the words fail, the music can speak for you,” she says. “I tried to inject that energy into this playlist.”
Although Spotify’s Black Lives Matter followers leveled off by the second week in June, it helped bump African-American artists’ streaming prominence during the week of Blackout Tuesday. The opening track, “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud — Part 1,” jumped from 2,000 streams on May 26 to 375,000 on June 2; “Alright” went from 131,000 to 1.162 million; and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” hit 1.826 million streams after just 273,000 the previous week. Both Killer Mike’s “Don’t Die” and Vic Mensa’s “16 Shots,” a 2016 track about Laquan McDonald’s shooting death at the hands of the police, hit Spotify’s U.S. Viral 50 chart.
Released in early May, “Kings” began its rise on radio when a Chicago DJ invited Kosine on the air for an interview. The song’s healing tone, particularly the line “blessed are those who make it home,” seemed to fit the moment of national pain and activism. Then Spotify picked it up for its Black Lives Matter playlist, and the track had what the service calls a “huge spike,” rising from No. 3 to No. 1 on the Viral 50 chart and nearing almost 1 million plays. “I owed that to that playlist,” says Kosine, half of the hit production duo Da Internz. “What stood out the most is how long people have been singing about this — about freedom — and how long this has been interwoven into our art. It didn’t just start in 2020. May the list go on and on, man.”