The debate surrounding artificial intelligence and the potential dangers they pose has always been in regards to whether or not they would rise against us. Advancements in technology have made our lives easier, and have enabled us to do some amazing things as well. Thanks to these improvements, music has changed completely, and now almost anyone who has a computer that can run production software (or even a basic version of GarageBand) can become a musician. Alongside the increased accessibility of music production, has been the rise of A.I.
Artificial Intelligence isn’t usually associated with making music, rather with doing the menial tasks that humans either don’t want to do, or don’t want to pay someone else to do. More recently, though, there has been a surge in A.I. programs that generate art completely on their own. Take the Dall-E program, for example. Regardless of whatever you type into the engine, the program will be able to generate 9 different images based on the prompt/concept you entered into the engine. Be it a wave of Colossal Titans washing ashore in Coney Island, Jesus performing as a contestant on America’s Got Talent, or Thanos doing the Tango with a T-Rex, the internet has shown off just how much potential this could have for larger creative purposes as well.
Even more recently, A.I. has also been utilized to make music, both the instrumentals and the lyrics. FN Meka is probably a name you’ve heard several times over by now, and although it may sound like it belongs to a young, up and coming rapper, it’s actually just a computer program that raps. At the surface level, it sounds cool, but the ethical issues become more and more apparent as you continue to pull back the layers behind the creation of the “Virtual Rapper”.
Although FN Meka bears a cyber-punk influenced aesthetic, its avatar is also made to appear as a black man. The program makes things worse because it also says the n-word in its songs. Many black rappers do too, but the difference is that they are actual human beings with experiences associated with the word, not a computer program coded by two non-black dudes who are just trying to make some money. This is far from the only problem with FN Meka, though. In a 2019 Instagram post, the virtual rapper is pictured beneath a cop who seems to be restraining him, holding him onto the ground, while raising a baton as well. It’s captioned: "POLICE BRUTALITY?? What Should I Do?!?! This Guard keeps beating me w/ his BATON because I wont snitch. I aint no RAT. Life in Prison is so Depressing.... I wish I could get out so I could start making music again."
If you are questioning why this is an issue, then unfortunately you are a part of the problem. The team behind FN Meka is essentially mocking the experience of a Black person in America who, unlike a combination of one’s and zero’s, is much more likely to be stopped, frisked, or even worse during interactions with police. The year after this post was made saw the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement with protests against police brutality, which were often (ironically) met with even more bouts of police brutality (ie. NYPD officers ramming their cars into protestors).
In 2022, there cannot be any room for people who so blatantly appropriate a culture for their financial gain. When something like FN Meka receives a platform through a record contract, it sends the wrong kind of message. Although it is completely unethical for a computer program to be profiting off of mimicking the Black experience, it is just as unethical for a major record company to be co-signing such an act. It lets people know that if one person or group of people can do it, then others can too. Thanks to mounting pressure on social media led by Industry Blackout, a collective of activists that push for a more inclusive and equitable music industry, Capitol Records realized the errors of their ways and issued an apology for ever having signed the virtual rapper in the first place. Although the apology felt routine, and the whole situation feels like it’s ripped from a comedy sketch, there is no denying that it marks a coming shift in the commercial landscape of the industry. If record labels are willing to sign computer programs instead of living, breathing, creative individuals, what happens to art? Does it lose its integrity since the human element is nowhere to be found, or will labels begin to prefer working with artificial talent as opposed to natural talent?