Music industry

How could a racist rap robot be the music industry’s great new hope?

L

Last month, an AI rapper called FN Meka was dropped by Capitol Records, just ten days after signing. The project had launched in 2019, amassing 1 billion views on Tik Tok and half a million Spotify subscribers – key lures for labels.

It was created by Factory New and its co-founders Anthony Martini and Brandon Le. Capitol prepared the usual publicity for the signing. But there was a problem – the whole thing was, at best, rather racially insensitive.

FN Meka had used the N-word in his music, which has now been removed from Spotify. Factory New claimed the AI ​​was voiced by an “anonymous black male”. Nevertheless, the program writes the lyrics.

Not only that, but on Instagram, FN Meka had posted an eerie image of herself in jail being beaten by what looked like a white police officer (as opposed to a prison guard).

It was cheap racial stereotyping like marketing, crudely deploying the more strained elements of race relations to sell computer-generated music.

This prompted the black activist group Industry Blackout to send a open letter who deemed FN Meka “offensive” and “a direct insult to the black community and our culture”. He then demanded a public apology and demanded that all proceeds generated go to charities supporting black youth in the arts, as well as black musicians signed to CMG.

There are several remarkable things in this episode. First, the fact that FN Meka was signed to a major record label. That means it went through the endless layers (and meetings) of A&R, marketing, business and legal affairs – at that ultra-sensitive time – and no one raised an objection. I let you imagine the type of corporate culture in which this is possible.

Second, the very fact that the AI ​​used this language proves that it is not intelligence at all. It’s a program, regurgitating the datasets that have been fed to it. There is no thinking involved, much less a sense of ethics.

But for me, the most shocking element is contained in a 2021 statement from co-creator Anthony Martini: “The old talent search model is unreliable. It requires spending time scouring the internet, traveling to trade shows, flying to meetings, spending resources… The success rate is a pitiful 1%. Now we can literally create bespoke artists using elements that have been proven to work.

Too bad for the poor A&R labels. I’ve written here before about the effects major label cynicism can have on the economics of the wider music industry. Do we want a world where they can spawn AI artists and stop paying the real ones? Developing an artist is the hardest part, the dirty work that labels will cut out if given half a chance.

In my opinion, the three words “anonymous black man” are probably the most damning. Atlanta-based rapper Kyle The Hooligan has since claimed he was the voice behind FN Meka, saying in an Instagram video that he was “ghosted” by Factory New after being promised fairness.

“Used me for my voice, likeness and culture got 10 million TikTok followers and a big recording deal on what I created then ghosted me…” he wrote under -captioned an Instagram video posted to his personal account on August 25.

He has since told TMZ Hip Hop that he has taken legal action seeking compensation from Brandon Le and Factory New. Kyle’s attorney, Andrew Orcutt, told the publication: “Despite multiple requests, we have not received a response or been put in contact with legal representatives for Factory New or Brandon Le, and we have not received no formal offer of compensation. We continue to evaluate our options and hope for a quick and fair resolution to this matter.

Meanwhile, in a statement to Rolling Stone, a representative for Capitol Records wrote, “We sincerely apologize to the black community for our insensitivity in signing on to this project without asking enough questions about fairness and the creative process. which underlies it.

“We thank those who provided us with constructive feedback over the past two days – your input was invaluable when we made the decision to end our association with the project.”

Martini told The New York Times on Aug. 23 that he expected the deal to be called off, citing “blogs that latched onto a clickbait headline and created this narrative.”

FN Meka was not, according to him, “this malevolent plan of the white executives. It’s literally no different than managing a human artist, except it’s digital.

The team behind FN Meka, he continued, was “in fact one of the most diverse teams you can get – I’m the only white person involved”.

If Kyle The Hooligan’s claims are true, what’s alleged here is about as bad as it gets in terms of the treatment of artists. Why wasn’t the human talent that enabled AI paid for fairly? Why, if he is good enough to express this caricature, was he not good enough to be signed on his own? Should black men be ‘anonymized’ to make money?

It’s easy to sound like a luddite for this sort of thing. I know there are people who find new technologies inherently appealing and cool. But it’s also easy to inadvertently fund snake oil.

And it’s hard to find positives about FN Meka. It’s a time when cheap music software and digital distribution have created a glut of music whose quality is struggling to emerge. Artists are already concerned about streaming service payments. Do we really want some of them to go to a computer program or to the tech company that owns it? Wouldn’t we rather that investment was made in a real rapper?

I don’t like to cancel things too much – I prefer to let them sink in or swim in the so-called marketplace of ideas. But I think ultimately it’s a reassuring story, because FN Meka proves two things: if you play with racial stereotypes as a marketing ploy, you get burned. And virtual artists are far from competing with the real ones.