AI rappers, digital Blackface and the death of creativity

A.I. Rapper | Soho House

What does the rise and fall of digital artist FN Meka tell us about the future of music and the arts? Kemi-Olivia Alemoru investigates

Wednesday 14 September   by Kemi-Olivia Alemoru

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been putting down roots in the art world for some time. As Jason Allen – who won a prize in Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition with his AI-generated entry – told the New York Times this month: ‘Art is dead, dude. It’s over. AI won. Humans lost.’  

His words came around the same time the world was introduced to FN Meka, the world’s first AI musician to be signed to a major record label. With emerald eyes, a smattering of asymmetric locks and a body covered in tattoos to match his septum piercing and gold grills, the virtual artist is a curious simulacrum of classic Soundcloud rapper aesthetics – and our very first glimpse into a grim future. 

The digital avatar struck a deal with Capitol after blowing up on TikTok with over 10 million followers for songs with lyrics like ‘Nother n*gga talking on fucking internet’ and ‘Boom, police on my back, hot pursuit/ Know that they mad that this AI gettin’ loot’. Other social media posts shared on his accounts have shown him beaten up in jail. When the masterminds behind the creation were revealed to be self-styled ‘next-generation music company’ New Factory creative partners Antony Martini and Brandon Le (a white and an Asian man), widespread criticism followed. 

Two weeks later, FN Meka was dropped by Capitol. It was a laughable yet concerning example of computers replicating the clout-to-cancellation cycle we so often see in pop culture, when someone becomes popular overnight before being cancelled shortly after following the reveal of some unsavory information. 

FN Meka may not be flesh and blood, but he is the product of the key elements behind the death of creativity: capitalism, intellectual property theft, the hunger to profit from Black culture while shortchanging Black people, not to mention social media’s hard-on for trauma porn and the practice of reducing art to content. And while FN Meka may have only just gained his notoriety, this pattern stretches back some time. 

In the weeks that followed the label’s plug-pull and subsequent social media eruption, Martini told the New York Times the avatar was voiced by ‘a Black guy’, after which Kyle the Hooligan did indeed duly reveal himself to have been the voice of the character initially. 

The Atlanta-based rapper added, however, that he was never remunerated for the part he played in that or involved in the potentially lucrative record deal. In fact, he said, the first time he had heard from Factory New since being ghosted by the project leads a couple years ago was when they reached out to him after been called out following the signing, raising further suspicion over who the current voice actually is.

The practice of benefiting from a proximity to Blackness in the digital age without actually having to be Black or hire a Black person has a name: ‘digital Blackface’, a term that harks back to the two-dimensional caricatures seen in the days of minstrel shows. This practice shows how the anonymity and sophistication of tech – and the rapidly developing cultures on social media platforms – serves to obfuscate the race of people behind seemingly Black accounts or characters. And it’s sadly nothing new. 

In 2014 New York-based blog site, The Awl, wrote about social media accounts that used ‘ghetto’ usernames, stereotypical slang and more to gain a following. Then, in 2017, Teen Vogue published an essay that discussed white users adopting AAVE and posting gifs featuring Black people to gain a following and kudos online. 

The following year, there was a rise in CGI Black models, such as Shudu and Nfon, bagging deals with Fenty and Oscar de la Renta. The digital artist and photographer behind them – Cameron-James Wilson (like 80% of the models featured in luxury brand ads – is white. Even conversations around Blackfishing – in which influencers fake tan and groom themselves to be racially ambiguous – fit into this category. 

The techniques may change, but the nature of the beast remains the same. There is an endless appetite online for Black culture and we know that what is popular is lucrative. TikTok’s popularity has been helped by Black creatives who have conceptualised and pushed many of the app's trends in comedy, dance, and music, while the app itself is widely agreed to favour and boost white creators who follow these trends, which leads them to profit more. 

What’s disturbing when you look at FN Meka is the clear lack of sensitivity, as he was not only designed to look Black but tried to gain cultural cachet via the Black struggle. In his latest movie, Nope, director Jordan Peele touches on how trauma is used as a spectacle. The metaphor comes via several of the characters trying to get an Oprah shot of a UFO instead of running away; another sells access to an exhibit that commemorates a brutally violent moment from his childhood. Mostly it shows our modern want to capitalise on publicising – and sometimes cashing in on – misery. 

Black pain performs well online – videos of George Floyd’s last moments amassed 1.4 billion views. Anger is also a driver of engagement. We already know that Facebook was tweaked to prioritise posts that evoked the ‘angry’ emoji reaction, while Twitter and YouTube’s algorithms amplify extreme political rhetoric that is likely to inflame users (whether they are persuaded or disgusted, the reaction itself is what counts). 

All these ingredients were likely to have come into play when Factory New made the decision to use Black oppression as a way to boost engagement with FN Meka. As those reports around algorithms so clearly reveal, even if users disagreed with what he stands for or found it distasteful, the rules of online engagement mean that viewing and sharing the content would contribute to his success either way.  

Meanwhile, all the record company sees is stats, seemingly valuing the figures alone over any arguments about where they fit into the inequity of the online marketplace of ideas. And while no one is arguing that data is useful to understand trends, basing all creative decisions on the desire to go viral eventually sucks all the flair out of art. 

When music is funnelled through corporate spaces, what is obviously very narrow and short-term thinking that degrades the craft is all too easily passed off as an innovative idea by a tech bro who speaks in buzzwords and isn’t scrutinising what is popular and why. 

TikTok’s status as a proven hitmaker means it is the social platform du jour for labels, with some stars publicly complaining about being forced to try and go viral on the platform. FN Meka’s lyrics are a pastiche of what is deemed to be popular within rap; the novelty of him drew an audience. That engagement won over the content of those lyrics or the ethics of signing a 21st-century minstrel to a major label to rap them. Humans took cues from machines, letting their critical thinking take a back seat. Machines are not infallible and alarms have already been raised about the algorithmic biases shown to have been built into machine learning

Last week, FN Meka co-creator Martini said: ‘If you’re mad about the lyrical content because it supposedly was AI, why not be mad about the lyrical content in general?’ At its core level, that comment shows a disdain for rap and for its consumers. The idea that an artform with radical roots, which has given a voice to unheard communities and fought its way to the mainstream, can be boiled down to a two-dimensional package of tropes, slurs and accessories to be sold to the highest bidder is so grotesque it is almost laughable. 

A recent article in The New Yorker investigated the ways in which the digital world is turning us into ‘content machines’; in it, Kyle Chayka paints a picture of how we flatten our experiences into neat likable packages to be seen and sold. Elsewhere, academic Kate Eichhorn suggests in her book, Content, that the more vapid something is, the further it travels. ‘Genre, medium and format are secondary concerns and, in some instances, they seem to disappear entirely,’ she writes. 

FN Meka is art on autopilot, smuggling its way into the roster of one of the music industry’s biggest labels as machine learning trumps purpose or artistic value. But what’s most annoying about this story is that – however ludicrous and widely criticised it has become – it can and probably will happen again.

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