AI expert Charles L. Isbell, Jr. spoke with us about the ethics behind FN Meka, and how AI rappers — and AI artists in general — are going to become more prevalent as technology evolves.
In less than two weeks, Capitol Records signed — and subsequently dropped — FN Meka, the ”world’s first” AI-powered rapper, following backlash around the artist’s stereotypical nature and appropriation (aka digital blackface). On August 23, the music company issued a public statement to announce it “severed ties” with the rapper, as well as offered its “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.”
If you caught the height of FN Meka’s controversy, much happened during his brief time as a major label signee. Clips that have since been scrubbed from the “robot” rapper’s TikTok page (his Instagram profile is private) showed him rapping lyrics with the N-word, and mocking police brutality in posts some social media users found incredibly offensive. His caricature appearance — face tattoos, gaudy jewelry, a green braided mohawk, and tan skin — that mimics that of a cliché internet rapper was also met with outrage, overshadowing the very small catalog of songs he released up until the backlash (including a song with rap star Gunna called “Florida Water“).
The viral commotion compelled online activist group Industry Blackout to slam Capitol Records and demand its partnership with Factory New — the company that created FN Meka in 2019 — be “terminated.” But according to Charles L. Isbell, Jr., dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech and a professor with a background in AI research, the ethics behind FN Meka are far more complex than a short-lived marketing ploy.
“The whole idea [of FN Meka], it’s worth separating at least three things,” Isbell Jr. said. “One is just a generic and abstract concept of, can you use AI to generate interesting lyrics, an interesting personality? Then there are the specifics of what does it mean to do such a thing for profit? Does it even make sense to sign an entity like this? And the third has to do with the specifics of the cultural stuff, including the relationship of the creators to the presented face of FN Meka.”
FN Meka isn’t the music industry’s first attempt at integrating artificial intelligence into the mainstream, nor is he the only virtual music artist out there. Music has been moved by technology for decades, but FN Meka’s fallout helped move the needle toward a larger discourse about AI and music — a dialogue likely to caution creators and record labels if they choose to introduce more AI artists in the near future.
We recently spoke to Isbell Jr. about AI ethics in the industry, and what FN Meka’s quick rise and fall signals for music’s future technological advancements. The contents of our conversation have been lightly edited for clarity.
What were your initial thoughts when you read the reports about the controversy surrounding FN Meka?
Charles L. Isbell, Jr.: I had a few different reactions. Was this an interesting idea? Is this something that one might want to do? The answer is yes. The AI field has been doing this kind of thing for a long time — not specifically with hip-hop or in this context — but I have to believe that it’s at least an interesting thing worth doing. Now, in regards to what does it mean to create something like that and put it out there in the world? In this particular context, I’m a little more skeptical. I think there were a bunch of unfortunate, unforced errors around what it would mean to release an almost purely cultural product in the world like this.
FN Meka currently has over 10 million TikTok followers. How does this kind of AI rapper, or AI artist in general, amass such a large audience on social media?
Things become popular because things become popular. Once they get in the network, people either decide that they’re amazingly interesting and then it explodes and goes viral, or they don’t. I’m unsurprised that an AI artist like FN Meka did in this particular case. But I think a more interesting question would be, of those 10 million followers, what are the reasons why they bothered to follow this thing?
In your expert opinion, did Capitol Records’ marketing of FN Meka go against AI ethics?
The way I would put it is, if it didn’t, it’s certainly on the edge. But it’s also a case that I think lacked responsibility. Whether or not you’re going to say that it violated AI ethics as a concept of what’s the proper use of it, it certainly was irresponsible and thoughtless. Ask yourself, what’s the smallest amount of change you would’ve had to make in order to make this not feel offensive, too over the top, to not go too far?
Let’s step back from the Grand Theft Auto feel of it and the specifics of the visuals. You could go back and find books by people like Paul Beatty. He’s Black and wrote The White Boy Shuffle, and a lot of the characters in his book were caricatures, but they were in the context of trying to say something serious, trying to illuminate something. You can imagine that in the hands of a thoughtful person with the right kind of background, you would’ve been able to create almost exactly the same kind of character in the same way with FN Meka, and people would’ve understood it completely differently. They would’ve understood it as a commentary on the place of rappers in a world where they’re exploiting their own suburbanites, who pretend that they grew up in the hood in order to get street cred or become a big famous rapper. Or, as a comment about the way people feel the need to create a persona that is different from who they are, in order to win fame and so on and so forth.
Because of that, it’s very difficult to come to the conclusion that doing anything like this is in and of itself unethical, even with AI. I think it’s a question of what is the intent and how careful and thoughtful are you about the way that you deploy the technology. The difference between being unethical or irresponsible, offensive versus inoffensive, and even thoughtful and insightful, are actually razor-thin.
What do AI rappers like FN Meka signal for the future of the music industry if the artists that listeners engage with are avatars versus real people?
Insofar as we can do creative things that people find interesting or entertaining, we can do it relatively cheaply. In fact, we can do it in a way that — now that we’ve got a social network and several billion people that can connect to one another — you can throw things out there at no cost, see what people react to, and then make it better and better and better. Or, make more and more of it and let it win and then take off from there. You could still use this sort of automatic stuff to generate buzz, find out what people are going to be reacting to for the next few years, and use that to create an artist who reflects that.
It’s not that far from where we currently are. It’s all artificial and it’s all created, and I don’t mean that in a cynical way. People want to be entertained in a particular way, but we don’t always understand what it is. It takes change constantly. We have to put things out there. When things are a hit, everybody does them until they burn themselves out and then you look for the next thing. Why not computerize that? Why not automate that? I don’t see anything more wrong with that than the current system that music companies have for generating the next big hit or artist.
In the aftermath of FN Meka getting dropped from Capitol Records, has a lesson been learned about how companies can better their marketing tactics to avoid another incident in the future?
That remains to be seen, but I do think there are two lessons that I take away from this. One is to do due diligence and actually pay attention to what you’re getting and what you’re not getting. It’s not a surprise that FN Meka came to this end. It could have been easily foreseen, and Capitol Records might have been able to do something about it. What they should have done, probably, is not sign the artist, but instead buy the technology and then develop something with it.
The second thing is, which is where a lot of people found it deeply offensive, making certain the right people are in the room when you are making these kinds of decisions. Make certain that there are people who might be sensitive to different aspects of what you’re pretending to create — like the fiction of police brutality or taking someone who’s clearly meant to present as a person of color — and think about what that might mean to someone else who isn’t you. When I read about this incident, it felt to me like a bunch of people were really excited to do something — including make money — and they didn’t think it through because there weren’t enough people in the room.
There’s a thing I like to say a lot and I think it applies here. We treat invisibility as if you’re standing in front of me and I don’t see you, but the real invisibility is that you aren’t in the room and I don’t notice your absence. That’s what really causes so many of the problems that we have. Capitol Records didn’t have the right people in the room and that never occurred to them, and then they did something stupid.
Did this incident raise more awareness about AI artists and how the music industry will continue to introduce them in the future?
This was always inevitable, and now it’s just been accelerated because more people are aware. I can guarantee you, one thing that’s different is there are now a bunch of AI researchers who are aware of this, who weren’t thinking about it before, and they’re going to start generating pieces of art and turn it into this. You’re going to see more technology going faster and better to generate real artists that are able to do things FN Meka was supposed to be able to do, but from a technological point of view. And eventually, it’s going to be good enough that people really are going to be able to generate real, authentic stuff from it.
Njera Perkins is an Assistant Editor at POPSUGAR who covers celebrity and entertainment news. Her work has been featured in AfroTech, Shadow and Act, Ebony, Dazed, and Bitch.