The rise and fall of a virtual rapper rekindles old questions about art – with a new twist

Depending on who you asked, FN Meka was either the next frontier in music or a death knell for human artists. FN Meka amassed millions of followers on TikTok, and as the hype around him grew, music industry executives took notice. In August, Capitol Records announced that it had signed the virtual character.

A few weeks later, the record label dropped FN Meka from its label after black music industry professionals criticized the project for using reductive stereotypes. Soon the narrative began to unfold. Artist Kyle the Hooligan told VICE that he wrote and voiced FN Meka’s early songs and claimed he still hadn’t been paid. Recently, a co-founder of the company behind FN Meka characterized his previous comments about the use of AI in FN Meka’s music were nothing more than a marketing gimmick.

The questions raised by the FN Meka case therefore do not per se concern the ethics of technology in music. Some experts say instead that technology is just one layer in larger conversations about cultural appropriation, copyright and ownership.

Virtual artists are on the rise

FN Meka’s digital persona – and the extent to which it has been readily embraced by an audience – reflects a cultural shift that is well underway.

From the band Gorillaz to Tupac holographic to Travis Scott’s “Fortnite” concert, artists and engineers have been experimenting with digital alter egos for years. And as the metaverse grows, virtual influencers and avatars are probably not going anywhere.

Lateef Garrett, music director of virtual label Spirit Bomb and industry veteran, says virtual characters open up new creative opportunities for real-life artists. Virtual personas can allow artists to experiment with new musical styles, reach new audiences, and access new revenue streams without necessarily being the face of the music. But he says it’s essential that real-life artists have a stake in developing these characters – something that didn’t seem to be the case for FN Meka.

Kyle the Hooligan, who is black, said he was the original voice of FN Meka and helped shape its sound. He claimed he was promised equity in character, but was ultimately ghosted, telling VICE that “taking me out of it felt like he was basically using me for cultivation.” It was only after he was cut from the project, he said, that he learned of some creative choices that have since come under fire – he also didn’t realize FN Meka had signed a contract. ‘registration.

“You can’t avoid working with black artists by creating a virtual black artist,” says Garrett. “Most importantly, you can’t replicate the black experience or black culture through virtual artists unless black people are involved in creating that character.”

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FN Meka used the stereotypical aesthetic of SoundCloud rappers, used the N-word in the lyrics and simulated the experience of police brutality and incarceration – an outcome that some critics say amounts to “digital blackface”. This also highlights concerns about cultural appropriation when creating virtual characters: is it appropriate for a virtual character to use black hip-hop culture slang and markers if the people behind the character are not themselves impregnated with this culture? In other words, what culture is being extracted and who benefits?

“It’s important that when these virtual artists and AI tech companies are created, those making the decisions about character development and music reflect the community they’re trying to reach,” says Garrett. “I think having a diverse workforce would definitely solve a lot of the issues that we see in this situation.”

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Virtual characters also create distance between creators and their creation, says Gigi Johnson, who leads the Maremel Institute, a think tank focused on the intersections of creativity and technology. At the height of FN Meka’s popularity, there was little clarity on who exactly was behind the character, confusing consumers and making it easier for developers to escape responsibility.

In cases where artificial intelligence actually generates or assists the music, the questions become murkier.

“Who makes the decision to publish or edit?” says Johnson. “Who stands behind this work?

AI still has significant limitations

FN Meka’s music may not have been generated by AI. But for better or worse, artists and researchers have already experimented with AI to try and push music to new heights.

In 2020, the OpenAI company released “deep fake” tracks made to sound like the musical styles of Katy Perry, Frank Sinatra and other well-known artists. The space150 company made the buzz with TravisBott, an artificial neural network that creates original music designed to sound like Travis Scott. Meanwhile, artist Holly Herndon used AI prominently in her 2019 album “Proto“, and has since introduced an instrument which allows users to turn any audio into singer’s voice.
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Even though more and more artists are using it, the music composed by AI is far from perfect. Algorithms are trained to recognize patterns in existing music that have entered computer systems, spitting out a product that is inherently derivative. In other words, AI – for now – is only as good as the data that powers it. Even then, as evidenced by many nonsense lyrics generated by TravisBott, a fair amount of human intervention is required to create cohesive songs.

For these reasons, Nina Eidsheim, professor of musicology at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, sees AI as another tool that musicians can use to create art, not as a replacement for the artist.

“There are going to be glitches, and there are going to be things that we wouldn’t have imagined,” Eidsheim said. “As much as AI technology itself creates, what’s interesting is how we, as human artists, interpret it and maybe integrate it into our own artistic creation – or do we reject it.”

Musician and songwriter Holly Herndon has used AI extensively in her work.
But, as Holly Herndon pointed out to Music Magazine FADER, there are other concerns about ownership and consent regarding the data that feeds these algorithms: what happens when an artist’s work is used without permission to generate music that someone could benefit? How much of this work can be used before infringing intellectual property laws? And what control does this artist have over his own likeness?

Hip-hop has long struggled with such questions when it comes to sampling. But advances in AI are now allowing people to go beyond simply taking a fragment of another person’s work.

“Is it okay to literally taste someone’s personality? Is that okay with us as a company?” Herndon said in the interview with FADER. “And if we’re okay with that, how does that fit into the existing power structures that we already have in society?”

And as more artists are included in the datasets feeding these algorithms, the harder it will become to track which elements were borrowed from whom, Johnson says.

“If you can’t really take the pie apart for its ingredients, who should be paid for the whole thing?” she says.

Technology has long transformed music

Technology has been transforming music, and art more broadly, for generations. And when it comes to AI specifically, other recent efforts force us to tackle deeper questions than FN Meka ever did.

A man won first prize in a state fair fine art competition last month for an artwork of a space opera scene he generated using a AI software, sparking outrage among some artists and reigniting concern that machines are poised to replace humans. Although this image was created using Midjourney software, an application called DALL-E 2 works similarly.

The incident also called into question what, precisely, constitutes art: is there less value in the work if the artist’s only involvement was to create the incentive that generated the image ? When applied to music, does the use of AI diminish the artistic skills once needed to create songs? Or is it harnessing a new set of skills and lowering barriers to entry?

While AI systems have provided close approximations to existing music and can do so on a scale beyond humans, they still depend on real artists to feed and refine the end result. What evolves, then, is who becomes an artist and how artists work.

“Whatever we do, or however we use AI, it won’t stay outside of anything humans do because we’re involved,” Eidsheim said.