In February 2022, Grammy-winning R&B singer-songwriter India.Arie pulled her music from Spotify in protest, after the audio streaming platform paid podcaster Joe Rogan 200 million dollars despite his years of using anti-Black language on his show. (Rogan would later apologize for his comments.) More than that, however, Arie was unsatisfied with the way Spotify was treating artists at large – and Black artists specifically – leading her to keep her music off the service for a year.
Recently, however, she announced via Instagram that she has decided to put her music back on the platform. She shared a series of posts, including a video explaining why she initially took her music down from Spotify, and what motivated her to put it back up. ”People thought I was in a public battle with Joe Rogan,” she said. “I was not. I was in a public battle with Spotify.”
Arie also hopes to clear up what she feels are misconceptions that the public has developed about her in the year since her Spotify protest. One is that India.Arie is her birth name, and not a stage name. Another is that, despite online trolls suggesting that she is an “under the radar” artist or a “never was,” she has released multiple RIAA-certified platinum albums (including acclaimed 2001 breakout Acoustic Soul), and received industry accolades including BET Awards, NAACP Awards and Grammys, with an influence that can still be felt in artists today ranging from H.E.R. to Ariana Grande.
“I was a big player and I was very successful, which is why I could still have conversations like this,” she says. “‘Cause you have to have a big success for people to still be wanting to talk to you 23 years later.”
Below, Arie speaks to Billboard about her decision to put her music back on Spotify, her feelings about the Grammys and her legacy as an artist. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you explain why you decided to pull your music off of Spotify?
I pulled it off in the name of my own dignity.
It was in protest. I’ve been in the music industry for 24 years. I signed my record deal in 1999, and I know too much about how racism functions in the music industry to be comfortable with what I saw. And so knowing that Black music sells most of the music, and just how important Black people are in the [music industry], and in the creation of music, period – we all know. Spotify said it to me: Someone called me after I took my music down and said, “You know, Black music does the most streams.” I’m like, “I know that.”
And so knowing that Black music does the most streams [and how] streaming has deeply affected people’s ability to make a living as songwriters, and then they just throw it in our face that they’re given this man who uses racist language $200 million — for me, my dignity could not stand it.
I did not think that anybody was gonna care, ‘cause I’ve spoken out about things in the past. There again is the concept of race showing up, ‘cause people didn’t care until there was this white man involved — which, you know, welcome to the world, is no surprise.
How were songwriters impacted by streaming that you saw and were concerned about?
Well, it’s not just what I see, it’s what we have all experienced. So before streaming, the way that royalties were paid out had to do with CD sales and also radio play. And so when CD sales go away… ‘cause you know, who buys albums anymore at all? We all buy everything digitally. It was a revolution.
And so when this revolution happened, the record labels and the streaming platforms came together. The record labels had to partner with the streaming platforms or they were gonna lose, too. So they formed this partnership, and they decided how much people would be paid. I don’t know why they came up with these numbers, but it was like, “This is what it’s worth now. So forget what you were getting.” ‘Cause I put out albums before streaming and after, and so did many of my friends who wrote songs on my albums, and I watched people’s checks dry up. This is not a theory – this is what we have experienced.
A lot of us feel like these numbers are random. The labels and the streaming platforms feel like it’s worth a fraction of a penny, 0.333% of a penny. Take it or leave it. What the average person thinks is that they pay $10 a month to Spotify or whoever for access to all this music, and that portion of that goes to the artist that they’re buying – and that’s not what that is. All the money goes to the labels, then a smaller portion goes to Spotify, and a person then is paid for whatever the labels and the streaming platforms together deemed the value of a stream. I don’t know where the number came from. I don’t know anybody who knows.
Were there any artists reaching out to you with moral support behind the scenes?
There was a little. I had more people tell me, “No, I don’t wanna talk about this.” I’ll be like, “You wanna talk? No? OK…” One artist who shall remain nameless told me, “I think you should just shut up.” And I was like, “Well, enjoy all of your success. I’m over here fighting for us who have regular careers still.”
But some people did reach out, and they just wanted to talk about it… not a lot, but those two people who reached out, they were like, “Well, you know, I’m still with the label.” I’m like, “I get it.” I remember those days when they could just hold anything over your head. Anything you did – if you chose a different album cover than what they wanted, they would say, “Well, maybe we won’t put it out.” Or if you didn’t do the remix, or use the artist they wanted … they would hold anything over your head. I know those days very well. And so those two artists who wanted to just talk it through, I knew exactly what they were talking about, about the punishment that can come.
But there were only those two. And some other people were saying, ”Oh yeah, that’s cool. I see you. I see you on your activist s–t…” But there was no, “If you need anything, or you need to talk…” There was very little of that. Not one artist that I reached out to was like, “I’ll do it with you.”
I did find out later through a very prominent attorney that some of his clients were talking about it behind the scenes, and asked him to go to Spotify and speak on their behalf and show their distaste – which I think also had something to do with Spotify [coming to understand] the nuclear nature of the N-word, why some Black people have a zero-tolerance policy around it. And so I know that people spoke out behind [the scenes], because I was told. But there was not a lot of [public] moral support.
Why did you decide to put your music back on Spotify?
Something big did change for me where I started getting these royalties payments. I’ll be getting my first ones this year. But also, [NMPA president/CEO] David Israelite won the lawsuit where [the royalty rate for songwriters will be increased from 10.5% to 15.1% over the course of stream payments from the years 2018 to 2022], which is huge when you’re getting a fraction of a penny.
So when those two things shifted, I put my music back up. Cause I want my checks. And not only do I want my checks, I deserve my checks. There’s still not gonna be enough. And there’s still so much that needs to be changed in the music industry for it to be humane, really. But I stood up for myself and I got some shift, and I want my checks, period.
Do you own your masters?
Not yet. But I’m coming up on the time when I would, just because I’ve been in the industry so long. That would be a natural reversion. But owning my masters is one of my big prayers.
Is your relationship with Spotify and your conversation with them about how they can help Black artists an ongoing one?
No. They invited me into the conversation in the beginning, and then I would reach out to them and no one would reach back. And so in the very beginning, they asked, “What do you think we can do?”
But then none of them would ever answer my calls again. I didn’t try it a million times, but I did call a few times through my lawyer, and they never wanted to talk to me again. I reached out to them again towards the end of last year and they were like, “Well, that’s behind us. We don’t wanna talk about it.” When they started making some of the shifts that we saw, like taking some 70 episodes of Joe Rogan’s podcast down – also, they agreed to pledge 100 million dollars towards podcasters of color. That was their language. I wanted it to [specifically] be Black podcasters, ‘cause there’s a difference. And so I tried to reach out to them about that. They didn’t wanna talk about it. Nobody ever called back.
And then I called again this summer around August to ask if they would be willing to give a public apology to their artists of color. Just simple to me – that would make you look good – but they said “no.” They answered that. They said, “No, that’s behind us.” So, no, it’s not an ongoing relationship. But it’s not because of me – because I definitely have things I’d love to say and initiatives I’d love to be a part of.
Pivoting a bit: There was the infamous Grammys night of 2002 when you lost all seven awards you were nominated for (five to Alicia Keys, one to U2 and one to the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack). There are still a lot of conversations about racism with the Grammys, especially in regards to an artist like Beyoncé not receiving the bigger awards. Have your feelings changed about awards at large and the Grammys specifically?
Yes. I mean, of course. I went into that night thinking, “This is a night where the industry votes,” and all this stuff that they tell you – that this is about your peers, and they listened to the music. I believed all that. And then I left understanding the politics of race in the industry. I was very clear on that after that night. And so when Beyoncé didn’t win [in 2017] for Lemonade, I was watching it with some friends and I was like, “I told y’all, it’s all drawn along lines of race – even when you’re Beyoncé.”
With this last Grammy [Awards], I didn’t even watch this one. And it wasn’t even in protest – it wasn’t even on my radar. That’s how I feel about award shows at this point. It means nothing.
But the last time I went [at the 2020 awards], I went down the red carpet. I told myself that first of all, I was gonna look amazing – which I did, and the photographs of that night went viral several times on Twitter and Instagram. And then I told myself I was gonna tell the truth, the exact full truth to any question they asked me on the red carpet. And I did. And I had a video from that [night] that went viral from USA today. And so I feel like that was the night that I set myself free from any expectations of [The Grammys] or the ability for it to hurt my feelings. And now this last one came and went.
It’s been 22 years since your debut album Acoustic Soul came out. Could you reflect on how that album has changed your life, and your relationship to it now?
Well, of course, Acoustic Soul changed my life completely. I went from being a college student playing under a tree to opening for Sade on 50 tour dates. And then after the tour was over, the seven Grammy nominations came through, and, you know, my life was never the same. In good ways and challenging ways as well.
I have other conversations too about the enduring impact of the aesthetic of Acoustic Soul in different artists – not just that album, but my aesthetic overall. I hear it. And I think that at the age when I released Acoustic Soul, my biggest wish was that I would be an artist who made a generational impact. ‘Cause to me, Stevie Wonder is the ideal for everything music. And so, [multiple] generations of people listening to my music, people getting married to my music, people having it as their birthing playlist — that was all I wanted, was to make music that was a part of people’s lives. I didn’t think about influencing anyone. To me that felt so far-fetched.