Meka was briefly billed as the first augmented reality artist to sign to a major label, until Capitol cut ties with his creators for repeated use of the N-word and making light of police brutality
We’ve come a long way since Gorillaz became the cartoon face of the music industry – long enough to make us nostalgic for that simpler time, when digital avatars were uncomplicated, two-dimensional, and unambiguously divorced from reality. In the last few years, though, the trend for digital influencers has been taken a step further, spawning multi-hyphenate influencers such as Lil Miquela, as well as musicians who “create” their own art, independent from the people who created them.
Just a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like FN Meka was poised to become the next big star in this line of artificially-intelligent (and always-controversial) performers. Having racked up more than 10 million followers on TikTok and hundreds of thousands of monthly listens on Spotify, the self-proclaimed “robot rapper” signed a deal with Capitol Records on August 14, dubbed “the world’s first AR [augmented reality] artist to sign with a major label”. To celebrate, he also dropped a new single featuring Gunna and pro gamer Clix. Things were looking up, especially if you’re into Fortnite montages soundtracked by AI-generated mumble rap (no really).
Just days after FN Meka’s big break, however, the virtual rapper got some bad news. Capitol announced that it was severing all ties, effective immediately, following accusations of digital blackface, and the trivialisation of police brutality, against Meka’s creators.
“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,” wrote Capitol in a statement, shared via the New York Times. “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.”
What does this mean for FN Meka, and for AI- or AR-powered “creatives” going forward? Below, we’ve unpacked everything you need to know about FN Meka, to help navigate the music industry’s murky new horizons.
WHAT IS FN MEKA, EXACTLY?
According to his Instagram bio, Meka is a “robot rapper not accepted by this world” (this description has, admittedly, taken on a more literal meaning since he was dropped on August 23). More accurately, though, he’s a digital avatar with a half-shaved head and green braids, voiced by a real, anonymous human being.
Where FN Meka differs from the other virtual musicians and TikTok influencers out there, is that AI is used to build most of the elements that underpin his music, from the tempo and chords used in his beats, to his… divisive lyrics. “We’ve developed a proprietary AI technology that analyses certain popular songs of a specified genre and generates recommendations for the various elements of song construction: lyrical content, chords, melody, tempo, sounds, etc,” explained one of FN Meka’s creators in a 2021 interview with Music Business Worldwide. “We then combine these elements to create the song.”
WHO’S PULLING THE STRINGS, THOUGH?
This is the main source of the recent controversy. FN Meka was originally “signed” as the first artist on the roster of a record label named Factory New. Founded by Anthony Martini and Brandon Le – neither of whom are Black by the way, more on this later – Factory New specialises in “virtual beings” such as Meka or his labelmate, Lil Bitcoin.
Building on Martini and Le’s respective backgrounds in artist management and video game skin design, this company is basically trying to usher in the death of the artist while selling as many tracks, and hawking as many NFTs as humanly (or transhumanly) possible. Or maybe it’s breaking new ground in the experimental field of non-human artists. That’s for you to decide. Now, back to the racial controversy.
WHY DID CAPITOL CUT TIES WITH THEIR ‘WORLDS-FIRST’ AI PROJECT?
Basically, the FN Meka project pioneered by Martini and Le (again, two men who are not Black), has been called out for repeatedly using the N-word in its music. In “Florida Water”, for instance, Meka raps: “N****s can’t compete, I’m out out they bracket, uh (Florida water).” To add fuel to the fire, an image shared to the robot rapper’s Instagram also showed him being beaten by police, in what’s been described as a trivialisation of police violence.
Just before Capitol officially announced that it was cutting ties with Meka, the activist organisation Industry Blackout posted an open letter to the record label, drawing attention to these controversies.
“While we applaud innovation in tech that connects listeners to music and enhances the experience, we find fault in the lack of awareness in how offensive this caricature is,” reads the letter. “It is 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.”
WHAT DOES FACTORY NEW SAY ABOUT THE CLAIMS OF DIGITAL BLACKFACE?
In part, Martini has defended the project by stressing that, behind FN Meka’s smooth, computer-generated face is a team of diverse creatives, pointing to the fact that the anonymous rapper that voices him is “a Black guy”. “[It’s] not this malicious plan of white executives,” Martini tells the New York Times amid the fallout. “It’s literally no different from managing a human artist, except that it’s digital.” Houston rapper Kyle the Hooligan alleges that he was one of a couple of IRL rappers involved, and still hasn’t received payment.
Then, there’s the problem with the lyrics. Anyone with a basic knowledge of AI knows that the technology tends to reinforce existing stereotypes in the datasets it uses to gather information, and even supposedly “moral” AIs can quickly turn racist without human intervention. Besides, does the fact that the lyrics were scraped from the internet make it any more acceptable for a white guy to curate them, and effectively exploit the N-word for profit?
Add to this the fact that Gunna is currently serving time in jail alongside Young Thug, following a case in which the kind of lyrics mimicked by FN Meka were cited as damning evidence, and it’s clear to see why Industry Blackout calls “this digital effigy [...] a careless abomination and disrespectful to real people who face real consequences in real life”. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Silicon Valley startups are literally using AI to alter the voices of call centre workers outside the US, illustrating how accents and affectations are only adopted when they’re considered profitable or “cool”.
SO WHAT NOW?
Honestly? It’s hard to say what will happen to FN Meka next. Given his adjacency to gamers and crypto bros – communities that aren’t exactly known for their sense of social justice – he’d probably bounce back just fine if Factory New decided to continue the project without Capitol. After all, he’d already managed to attract a massive following as an independent, Auto-Tune-wielding avatar.
In Industry Blackout’s open letter, the organisation does outline the steps they wish Capitol Records to take since FN Meka blew up in a bad way. “We demand this partnership be terminated, a formal public apology be issued, FN Meka removed from all platforms,” the letter says. (So far so good: Meka has had his partnership terminated, and Capitol has apologised, although the rapper’s social media accounts and music videos remain active, albeit set to private.) “Furthermore, all monies spent by Capitol Records and Factory New for this project will be allocated to charitable organisation that directly support Black youth in the arts,” the letter adds, “as well as marketing budgets for Black artists signed to Capitol Records.”
Whether Capitol do end up making reparations, or simply leave the Black music community with their “deepest apologies”, remains to be seen. Either way, FN Meka’s firing by the record company is an undeniable warning shot for any creators looking to put a controversial virtual face to their music in the future.