Developments in technology over the last 30 years are elevating music rapidly
Music, and making it, has never been more accessible. Notable growths in the industry include VSTs, the progression from analogue to digital recordings (and the endless debates surrounding them), and even the streaming services that we now take for granted.
However, can these evolutions expand to a point of no return? For Capitol Records, the answer is no.
- FN Meka was signed by Capitol Records, making the augmented reality social media star the first AI rapper committed to a major label.
- The AI rapper was then subsequently dropped by CMG for questions of racial insensitivity.
- AI has an established presence in music in the modern world, being used to conceptualise a new Nirvana release, as well as in automated mastering.
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The company’s signing (and eventual dismissal) of AI-generated rapper FN Meka has grown into a convoluted saga, fraught with political, technological, and creative tension.
The 2019 brainchild of VR company Factory New’s Brandon Le and Anthony Martini, FN Meka, an AI rapper recently became the first artist of augmented reality to be signed by a record label.
How he works is quite simple: FN Meka is voiced by a human, Kyle the Hooligan, while his lyrical content and melody are created, in part, by artificial intelligence that takes from popular songs in selected genres. As far as his design, wherein which the controversy lies, the AI rapper is a cyborg that dons bright green hair and eyes, tattoos, and a golden hand. The artificial appearance of the rapper has been likened to that of Tekashi 6ix9ine, Trippie Redd, and Lil Pump, bringing forth claims of cultural appropriation and digital blackface.
— Industry Blackout #IndustryBlackout (@industryblkout) August 23, 2022
Factory New have released four songs under FN Meka, ‘Internet’ and ‘Moonwalking’, which came out in 2019, ‘Speed Demon’ in 2021, and ‘Florida Water’, released this year. The latter was truly the AI rapper’s big break, with features from Fortnite twitch streamer Clix, and Young Stoner Life’s Gunna.
The news of Capitol Records signing the first AI rapper made a splash across the internet, with one of the most influential and powerful record companies globally putting the potential for AI music on notice.
However, a week later, in a culmination of rumblings online about the problematic nature of the AI’s construction, non-profit organisation Industry Blackout penned an open letter to Capitol Records. Industry Blackout focused in on FN Meka as an offensive caricature of black culture, naming it as “a direct insult to the black community and our culture. An amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriative mannerisms that derive from black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics”.
Industry Blackout also referred to the lack of consequences AI artists face with their lyrical content, in contrast to many black artists who have been imprisoned for lines in their songs. One specific example used was an artist featured on one of Meka’s own songs, Gunna, who is currently serving time facing RICO charges for his involvement with Atlanta-based record label Young Stoner Life.
The organisation’s demands were quite simple: a terminated partnership between Capitol Records and FN Meka, a formal apology, the removal of FN Meka from all platforms, and the allocation of funds spent on this project to be donated to charitable organisations that support black youth in arts.
This letter gained traction on social media platforms, and eventually led to a response from Capitol Records themselves. In a statement shared by New York Times journalist, Joe Coscarelli, the company stated that “CMG has severed ties with the FN Meka project, effective immediately”. Capitol Music Group also offered an apology to the Black Community for “insensitivity” and not “asking enough questions”.
breaking: Capitol Records “has severed ties” with the A.I. rapper FN Meka, “effective immediately,” following days of backlash over the caricature
— Joe Coscarelli (@joecoscarelli) August 23, 2022
An official Instagram post receiving major backlash depicted FN Meka being assaulted by a police officer in prison has also resurfaced and has since been deleted. The original caption read: “POLICE BRUTALITY?? What should I do?!?! This guard keeps beating me w/ his BATON because I won’t snitch. I ain’t no RAT. Life in prison is so depressing… I wish I could get out so I could start making music again”.
Further inflaming the issue, the alleged voice behind the artificially created rapper, Kyle the Hooligan, says that FN Meka’s creators have “ghosted” him, without payment for his vocal services.
FN Meka is part of a platform of AI artists under the virtual record label Factory New, with other artists including ‘Lil Bitcoin’, whose debut single was sold as an NFT for 2.3 Ethereum, equivalent to $4,500 USD. There is also FN NXRMAL, who was posed as Meka’s “arch-rival”.
Despite being the first AI rapper signed to a major label, FN Meka is certainly not the first of its kind. Google’s Magenta AI made headlines in early 2021 for its “new” Nirvana song, titled ‘Drowned in the Sun’. Using input data from several of the band’s releases to formulate a melody and chorus, Magenta’s neural network generated lyrics that were then performed by a Nirvana tribute band’s lead singer.
Additionally, AI-involved companies such as iZotope, Aiva Technologies, and Brain.fm now reign supreme as some of the most important influences in the world of music technology today.
The influence of AI is certainly being felt all over the scope of music, from automated mastering, to generating songs for those past and present.
In one of the most bizarre stories involving music to have developed this year, FN Meka represents the ramifications of an increasingly volatile rise in music technology, and the powers of virality.
Find more about AI vocals here.