Last week saw the fallout of Capitol records “signing,” and subsequently dropping a “virtual” rapper by the name of FN Meka. The project was announced amid growing interest in the metaverse, as well as in artificial intelligence. The digital artist was said to be powered by AI, and appeared as a racially ambiguous 3-D avatar complete with face tattoos and green hair. Shortly after the Capitol deal was announced, clips from early FN Meka videos and images, where the wildly materialistic “robot” raps the N-word and is depicted as a victim of “police brutality” while being jailed for “not snitching,” started circulating online. The online civil rights group Industry Blackout condemned FN Meka on Instagram and called on Capitol Records to shut the project down for perpetuating “gross stereotypes” about Black culture and appropriating mannerisms derived from Black artists. Hours later, the label said it had “severed ties” with FN Meka “effective immediately.”
As concerns about the racial equity and politics behind FN Meka surfaced, so did Kyle the Hooligan, a Black, Houston-based rapper who says he created the character’s first three songs and hadn’t been paid for his work. “They promised me equity and a percentage into the character,” Kyle told Vice. “Them cutting me out of it was like they basically used me for the culture. I didn’t know about none of this Capitol [Records] stuff going on, the deals, or anything. This was all news to me, because I thought it was over with. I’m seeing all of this stuff, and I never even got compensated.” Recently, Kyle told TMZ that his attorneys had begun to pursue legal action so that he would be. As of this writing, FN Meka’s music and videos, save for one short clip, have been wiped from his TikTok page, which has amassed over 10 million followers.
That Kyle wrote those songs seemed to contradict a report from last year, in which Factory New, a company that says it specializes in propping up virtual artists, including FN Meka, described the character’s music as generated by artificial intelligence technology. “It wasn’t no AI—it was my voice, pitched up,” Kyle continued.
“No AI is going to spontaneously write a song — it has to be ‘seeded’ or prompted somehow by humans to do so,” Colin Allen, a University of Pittsburgh professor specializing in the philosophy of biology and artificial intelligence told Rolling Stone. “And exactly how that happens is going to depend on the underlying technology.”
Anthony Martini, the co-founder of Factory New, acknowledged the confusion his prior descriptions of FN Meka created. “Those quotes […] were meant to create intrigue and provide cover for songs at the time which weren’t ready for scrutiny,” Martini wrote in a statement. “FN Meka’s vocals have always been written and performed by humans, which in this case, have been black voices.”
The FN Meka project is part of a larger gold rush in the world of “virtual” musicians. In February of 2020, a creative studio claimed to have fed Travis Scott songs into an artificial intelligence software and was able to create a creepily convincing replica from it. By April of the same year, Travis Scott would himself perform in the virtual world of Fortnite. Jay-Z’s Roc Nation LLC apparently filed a complaint with YouTube that same year over a parody account making videos with a deep fake audio version of his voice. Kendrick Lamar’s music video for “The Heart Part 5,” released just before this year’s Mr. Morale & the Steppers, used deepfake technology to transform the rapper into a number of notable figures, including Kanye West and Will Smith.
The FN Meka controversy seemed to tap into a growing discomfort with the pace of AI development, and the implications it can have in the real world. Allen explains that the ethical issues around FN Meka and similar uses of AI are shared by both the creators of the technology and its users. “It all depends on the extent to which the problems that emerge could have or should have been predicted by designers and users, who typically will have different kinds of knowledge about the system,” Allen says.
In Capitol’s case, FN Meka opened up deep-rooted issues within the music industry, particularly when it comes to hip-hop. Part of the digital emcee’s rollout was a new single featuring Gunna, who is currently (still!) incarcerated and awaiting trial alongside Young Thug and a number of popular artists on their YSL label. One piece of evidence being used against the rappers is their own lyrics. FN Meka unintentionally made an ugly reality clear. In the world we currently live in, a “virtual” rapper can gain clout from a Black rapper that’s entangled in America’s criminal justice system thanks in part to lyrics that garnered record labels millions of dollars.
“We offer our deepest apologies to the Black community for our insensitivity in signing this project without asking enough questions about equity and the creative process behind it,” a representative for Capitol Records wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone last week. “We thank those who have reached out to us with constructive feedback in the past couple of days — your input was invaluable as we came to the decision to end our association with the project.”
Martini still believes that “Virtual characters have the potential to be a true equalizer and the next frontier in representation in the arts. That is how virtual avatars can and should enable MORE artists to have a platform, not fewer.” He cites opportunities that some artists miss out on, either out of “prejudice” or “not feeling comfortable with the body they were born in.” He and other artificial intelligence evangelists in the music industry appear to have an admirably optimistic point of view. If the saga of FN Meka is any indication, virtual reality could be just as rife with injustice as the real world.
Additional reporting by Jeff Ihaza