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

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

Just weeks later, record label FN Meka was dropped from its trademark after black music industry professionals criticized the project for its use of reductive stereotypes. Soon the narrative began to unravel. Naughty Kyle said vice He wrote and voiced early FN Meka songs, and claimed that he hasn’t been paid yet. Recently, one of the founders of FN Meka Is characterized by His previous comments about the use of artificial intelligence in FN Meka’s music as more than just a marketing gimmick.

The questions raised by the FN Meka case, then, are not inherently related to the ethics of technology in music. Instead, some experts say, technology is just one layer in the larger conversations about cultural appropriation, copyright, and ownership.

Virtual artists are on the rise

FN Meka’s digital personality – and how easily it is embraced by audiences – reflects a cultural shift underway.

From Gorillaz to holographic tupac to me Travis Scott “Fortnite” concertFor years, artists and engineers have experimented with digital alter ego. And with the expansion of the metaverse, it’s possible that virtual influencers and avatars are not going anywhere.
Gorillaz was one of the first people to adopt digital avatars, creating four fictional characters who topped the band.

Latif Garrett, director of music for virtual record company Spirit Bomb and a seasoned expert in the field, says virtual characters open up new creative opportunities for real-life artists. Virtual personalities can allow artists to experiment with new music styles, reach new audiences, and access new revenue streams without necessarily being the face of the music. But he says it’s crucial for real-life artists to have an interest in developing those characters – which was not the case for FN Meka.

Kyle the Hooligan, who is black, said he was the original voice of FN Meka and helped shape his voice. He claimed he got the promise of equality in character but eventually got under the shadows, telling VICE “They took me out of it like they basically used me for the culture.” He said that it wasn’t until after he was cut off from the project that he learned of certain creative choices that have since been criticized – nor did he realize that FN Meka had signed a record deal.

“You can’t work alongside black artists by creating a virtual black artist,” Garrett says. “Importantly, you cannot replicate the experience of black or black culture through virtual artists, unless blacks are involved in creating that character.”

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FN Meka used SoundCloud rapper stereotyped aesthetics, used the N word in the lyrics and imitative Experience and imprison police brutality – an outcome that, according to some critics, amounts to a “digital face”. It also highlights concerns about cultural appropriation when creating virtual characters: is it appropriate for a virtual character to use the slang and labels of black hip-hop culture if the people behind the character are not immersed in that culture themselves? In other words, who is being cultured and who benefits?

“It is important that when building these virtual artists and AI technology companies, those who make decisions about character and music development reflect the community they are trying to reach,” says Garrett. “I definitely think having a diverse workforce would solve a lot of the problems we see in this situation.”

In 2020, Travis Scott performed the song

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 about exactly who was behind the character, confusing consumers and making it easy for developers to evade accountability.

In cases where AI is already generating or assisting music, the questions get even more murky.

“Who makes the decision on whether to repeal or amend this?” Johnson says. “Who is behind this work?”

AI still has significant limitations

FN Meka’s music may not have been created by AI. But through thick and thin, artists and researchers have already experimented with artificial intelligence to try to push music to new heights.

In 2020, OpenAI . released ‘Deepfake’ tracks Made to look like the musical style of Katy Perry, Frank Sinatra, and other famous artists. 150 company space generated uproar with Travispot, an artificial neural network that creates original music made to sound like Travis Scott. Meanwhile, artist Holly Herndon prominently used artificial intelligence on her 2019 album “proto“and since then a tool It allows users to convert any voice into a singer’s voice.
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Even as more artists use it, the music composed by AI is far from perfect. Algorithms are trained to recognize current music patterns fed into computing systems, resulting in an inherently derivative product output. In other words, AI is – for now – only as good as the data that feeds it. Until then, as evidenced by many meaningless words Created by TravisBott, a fair amount of human intervention is needed 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 substitute for the artist.

“There will be some loopholes, and there will be things we didn’t imagine,” says Edsheim. “As much as AI creates itself, what’s interesting is how we as human artists translate it and maybe take it into our own art industry – or reject it.”

Musician and composer Holly Herndon has used artificial intelligence prominently in her work.
But, as Holly Herndon noted for Music Magazine fade awayThere are other concerns about ownership and approval when it comes to the data that supports these algorithms: What happens when an artist’s work is used without permission to create music that someone else can benefit from? How much of this work can be used before it infringes intellectual property laws? What is the extent of this artist’s control over his own form?

Hip-hop has struggled with such questions when it comes to sampling for a long time. But advances in artificial intelligence are now allowing people to go far beyond just taking a piece of someone else’s work.

“Is it okay to literally test someone’s character? Are we okay with that, as a society?” Herndon said in the interview with FADER. “And if we’re okay with that, how is it done within the power structures that we already have in society?”

And as more artists are included in the datasets that feed these algorithms, it will become more difficult to keep track of which items were borrowed from and who, Johnson says.

“If you really can’t put a pie back apart from its ingredients, who should get paid for the whole thing?” Says.

Technology has changed music for a long time

Technology has been transforming music and art on a larger scale for generations. And when it comes to AI specifically, other recent attempts force us to grapple with more in-depth questions than FN Meka has ever done.

Last month, man First prize won In a fine art competition held at the State Gallery for artwork of a space opera scene he created using artificial intelligence software, angering some artists and resurfacing fears that machines will replace humans. Although this image was created with Midjourney software, an app called DALL-E 2 It works in a similar way.

The incident also called into question what, precisely, constitutes art: is there less value in the work if the artist’s only participation is the crafting of the vector who produced the image? When applied to music, does the use of AI reduce the technical skill that was previously essential to songmaking? Or does it take advantage of a new skill set and reduce entry barriers?

While AI systems have come up with rough estimations of current music, and can do so on a scale beyond humans, they still rely on real artists to fuel and fine-tune the bottom line. What develops then is who becomes an artist and how artists work.

“Whatever we make, or how we use AI, it is not going to stand out from any of the things that humans do because we participate in it,” says Edsheim.

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