Rhys Halkidis is an odd breed of teenager. The 16-year-old has a massive CD collection—actual purchased compact discs, with the jewel cases, art books, and everything. Among his 60 or so CDs are several albums by Kanye West, one of his favorite artists. Though Halkidis didn’t get into West until “Bound 2” dropped around the time he (brace yourself) started junior high, he’s since internalized all pivotal moments in Kanye lore. So he knows that November 10 marked the 10th anniversary of the death of West’s mother, a devastating event that fundamentally changed the trajectory of the rapper’s life and art. He knows that West’s interminable feud with Taylor Swift now reaches back nearly as long, to 2009. He’s skeptical that the two events are linked—that Swift released her new album Reputation on the anniversary of Donda West’s death as an intentional insult to Kanye—but he doesn’t think it’s impossible.
“I’m not convinced it’s on purpose. A few of my friends think so,” Halkidis tells me between classes at his high school in Sydney, Australia. “I wouldn’t put it beyond her.”
The idea that Taylor Swift is both deeply knowledgeable about Kanye’s darkest moments and cruel enough to exploit them speaks to the way both artists have morphed into cartoonish supervillains in the popular imagination over the years (Swift is just having her Yeezus moment four years late). From the vantage of the mega-fan, though, both West and Swift are superheroes who need support now more than ever as they fight against a tide of unwarranted hate. It was inevitable that this endless war, fought via awards shows and song lyrics and internet-breaking Snap Stories, would eventually ensnare the foot soldiers, as well. So the release day for Reputation also became “Hey Mama” Day, with fans on both sides having a single goal: get their preferred artist to the top of the charts.
Pretty much as soon as Taylor Swift announced the release date of Reputation in August, the conspiracy theory that she was actively trying to offend Kanye spread widely on social media, eventually reaching a Young Thug fan group on Facebook that Halkidis frequents. Group members decided that streaming a single Kanye West song en masse on November 10, so that it attained more spins than anything on Reputation, would be an effective way to fight back against Swift’s alleged messiness. They toyed with using “Famous,” the misogynistic Life of Pablo single that reignited the Ye-Tay feud last year, but instead settled on “Hey Mama,” the Late Registration ode to Donda West that took on greater poignancy after her untimely death (it’s also a clearly superior song). “It just seemed like more a positive effort than being petty and fighting pettiness with pettiness,” Halkidis says.
Days after the Reputation announcement, Halkidis created a Facebook event called “Hey Mama” Day and invited his friends to join. Halkidis and the other event administrators realized that topping the Billboard charts would be a tall order, so they set a more modest goal: beating Swift on the daily Spotify charts. Halkidis did the math—if he could get about 30,000 people to stream “Hey Mama” for 12 hours straight, they’d collectively attain more than 4 million streams. That’d be enough to match Swift’s numbers on August 27 for her lead single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” “Obviously the dream is to be no. 1,” Halkidis told me shortly before the campaign started. “That’s a massive mountain to climb.”
Thanks to some early national press coverage, the “Hey Mama Day” event reached more than 5,000 attendees within a few days of its creation. As November 10 approached, the figure climbed to nearly 7,000. Elsewhere on the internet, from the Kanye West subreddit to the hip-hop fan site KanyeToThe, others were gearing up to participate, as well. On Facebook, Halkidis distributed a 30-hour playlist that alternated between “Hey Mama” and The Life of Pablo’s “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission” hundreds of times. He heard rumors that Spotify might discount streams of a song played on repeat ad nauseam but hoped the intermission would stop the company from suspecting suspicious activity.
Kanye devotees aren’t the first to try to game the charts one stream at a time. This spring, Harry Styles fans around the world used virtual private networks to pretend they were streaming within the United States in order to help his single reach no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. During the summer, some Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj fans formed an unlikely alliance in an attempt to keep Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” from topping the Hot 100. On pop music forums such as ATRL.net and FOTPforums.com, fans regularly organize “streaming parties” for their favorite artists. And just a few weeks ago, Chris Brown posted detailed instructions for his fans to boost his newest album to the top of the charts, urging them to create free Spotify accounts and stream the album on repeat.
These efforts at metrics manipulation are a modern expression of fandom that’s long been core to many types of entertainment. Music fans used to clog radio request lines in order to get their favorite songs played, and obsessives of cult television classics like Firefly would buy multiple DVD box sets to boost a show’s perceived popularity. “It’s not like social media and Tumblr created all of this fandom,” says Paul Booth, a communications professor at DePaul University who studies fan behavior. “This fandom was already there. It was just very hard for it to come together because of geography and time and energy. Now it’s easy and it’s accessible. Everyone can participate and be a fan if they want to.”
The ease of pressing play on a streaming service, combined with the viral power of social media, makes chart-gaming today easier than it’s ever been before. That’s a problem for the companies who want to present music charts as an objective measure of popularity. Billboard and Nielsen, the two companies that collaborate on the Hot 100, have struggled to strike the right balance in equating streaming activity with traditional record sales. In October, Billboard announced that it was revamping its chart formula, granting greater weight to streams from paid subscription services over platforms like YouTube or the free tier of Spotify. The company says its goal is to “accurately portray in an unbiased manner how music performs relative to other music.”
Schemes like “Hey Mama” Day run counter to that mission. “Billboard works very closely with each data provider to ensure both the accuracy and legitimacy of the streaming volumes being reported,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “A system of safeguards exists to identify and exclude any irregular and excessive streaming patterns.” Spotify has also made it clear that it frowns upon chart-gaming. “We have multiple fraud-detection measures in place," a Spotify spokesperson told Rolling Stone in May. “The Spotify Content Operations team regularly monitors consumption on the service to look for fraud and any possible fraudulent activity is investigated and dealt with immediately.”
But it’s hard to imagine chart-gaming becoming less common, as streaming continues to dominate music consumption. It’s an easy way for people to show their passion for a piece of pop culture, connect with like-minded stans, and rub their victories in the faces of their perceived enemies. Isn’t that, in a nutshell, why many of us spend time on the internet? “It’s separate from the music. It’s a celebrity contest, showing that you're a devoted fan and being able to demonstrate that,” says Catherine Moore, a professor of music technology and digital media at the University of Toronto. “It attaches them to that larger, very visible success. … They have something they can screengrab and put on their social media to say, ‘Look, we won.’”
At 12:01 a.m. on November 10, in Wellington, New Zealand, “Hey Mama” Day officially began. Halkidis planned for the streaming marathon to continue until 11:59 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on the same day, to account for every time zone where Spotify might measure its daily charts. In the Facebook event, hundreds of fans around world posted screencaps of their Spotify playlists on their phones and laptops. On Twitter, people posted photos of themselves in the Donda West tall tee that Kanye wore in Saturday Night Live promos last year. On pop forums, Swift fans mocked every attempt to upset Reputation.
The Kanye streamers claimed small victories as the day progressed. “Hey Mama” quickly reached the top of the “Spiking Tracks” list on Last.fm, a music-listening tracking service. Later the song became the most-streamed song in the U.S. on the platform. “Hey Mama” climbed to no. 33 of the iTunes charts in New Zealand and reached the top 100 in Australia, according to screencaps fans posted in the Facebook event.
But the focus quickly shifted from fervently tracking metrics to celebrating the day itself. A DJ offered photo evidence that he was paying “Hey Mama” on a Norwegian radio show. Kanye stans in Armenia, where one attendee said “Hey Mama” reached no. 3 on the iTunes charts, got a shout-out. Wave emoji gushed forth like a tsunami. Multiple fans said that listening to the song again and again had brought them to tears.
By the time the dust had settled on Saturday morning, fans had nudged the “Hey Mama” stream count on Spotify up from 23.6 million to 24.3 million, or about 700,000 spins. That would seemingly be enough to land the song on Spotify’s daily Top 200 list, which bottoms out just below 500,000 streams. But the song never appeared on any Spotify chart, either because the streams weren’t all amassed in a 24-hour window or because Spotify caught onto the scheme. (Spotify declined to comment on how it finds and addresses suspicious streaming activity.)
Was the day a success? The head-to-head with Swift didn’t materialize, since Reputation was kept off of streaming services during its initial launch. Halkidis’s goal of cracking the Spotify charts didn’t happen, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever find out exactly why. Kanye has abandoned social media, so if he heard about the gesture, his fans will probably never know.
But for the people that participated, “Hey Mama” Day still resonated. There’s a thrill to finding out someone else in the world is as dangerously obsessed with the same thing as you. Fandom is most rewarding when it’s shared with others, and sharing has never been easier than it is today. “It’s the power of social media, I guess,” Halkidis says. “A bunch of teenagers from Sydney end up in the middle of something between Kanye and Taylor Swift.”
After the day had come to a close, Halkidis told the Facebook event attendees that they hadn’t landed on Spotify, but he maintained a positive outlook. “The best part of ‘Hey Mama’ Day for me was the way everyone came together almost like a family on the Facebook event and in real life,” he says. “It was pretty amazing seeing people in Armenia and Denmark making an impact, as well as coming to school and seeing everyone streaming the song the entire day with even some teachers getting involved. … Even without considering any of the results, everyone thought this made the day worth it.”
Reputation’s release has come and gone, but “Hey Mama” Day 2018 is already on the books. Five hundred and 13 stans are attending.