On Aug. 22, Capitol Records announced its newest signee, FN Meka—the world’s first augmented reality (AR) rapper. Two days later, the label “severed ties” with the rapper, quoting relentless online criticism. “For our company to approve this shows a serious lack of diversity and resounding amount of tone deaf leadership. This is simply unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Capitol Records wrote in a statement.
FN Meka is the first AR rapper to get signed and subsequently dropped from a major label, but this is just the latest venture in the music industry’s string of actions to move into artificial intelligence. FN Meka (and the probable emergence of more characters like him) exacerbates concern about where the music industry is headed, highlighting larger issues of tone deafness, lack of creativity, and the industry’s toxic capitalistic infrastructure.
The lean into AI was, at first, the result of necessity. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, musicians and tech companies partnered to conduct virtual reality concerts in order to counter the loss of live shows. In 2017, CGI influencer and singer Miquela Sousa emerged as one of the industry’s first AR artists. Since her inception, she has released a string of singles with moderate success and even dropped a collaboration with Teyana Taylor in 2020. The use of AR across all avenues within the music industry has always raised eyebrows and garnered largely unfavorable feedback. FN Meka’s poor design has only brought new eyes to and heightened an anxiety about AR technology that has been bubbling for quite some time now.
Gunna, a Black artist… is currently incarcerated for rapping the same type of lyrics this robot mimics.
FN Meka was created by Brandon Le and Anthony Martini of virtual record label Factory New. Since the character emerged in April 2019, he was marketed as a hypebeast cyborg with an extravagant style and internet presence. He looks like a caricature of an internet rapper—a match up of Tekashi 6ix9ine and Lil Pump: tan skin, a green braided mohawk, gaudy jewelry, and a tattoo-covered face. Despite lacking originality, FN Meka garnered a hefty following of his own. To date, the rapper has more than 10 million followers on TikTok and over 200,000 on Instagram, and more than 600,000 listeners on Spotify. He’s already released a handful of songs, too—including “Speed Demon” and “Internet,” which sound like carbon copies of popular songs released by real artists.
Then, on Aug. 12, Meka dropped his most notable track yet: “Florida Water,” a collaboration with YSL’s Gunna. In a statement to Capitol Records, nonprofit organization Industry Blackout highlighted how FN Meka is able to escape the legal ramifications and fate that many Black artists have to endure as a result of their music. “Gunna, a Black artist who is featured on a song with FN Meka, is currently incarcerated for rapping the same type of lyrics this robot mimics,” the statement reads. “The difference is, your artificial rapper will not be subjected to federal charges for such.”
Generally, although FN Meka is artificially created, his mother image and persona speaks to a prevalent issue in rap right now. FN Meka is a mindless creation designed by two non-Black executives that leans into stereotypes that hurt the real Black artists and the Black community as a whole.
In a now-deleted Instagram post, FN Meka egregiously mocked police brutality and social injustice with an image of the character appearing to be beaten by a police officer in a jail cell. “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,” the caption read.
Moreover, many onlookers have pointed out FN Meka’s use of the “N” word in his music. On his 2019 song “Internet,” he used the racial slur seven times. Many believed Meka to be voiced by a white person, but on Aug. 23, a Black artist by the name of Kyle The Hooligan revealed on Instagram that the voice behind the character was allegedly his. In the video, he shared that he was approached by FN company about voicing the rapper, but was later “ghosted.”
“I thought it was going to be some collaboration. They promised me equity into the company, percentages, all this stuff,” he said. “Next thing I know, niggas just ghosted me. Used my voice, used my sound, used the culture, then literally left me high and dry. I didn’t get a dime off of nothing and they got record deals… I wasn’t involved in no meetings.”
Kyle The Hooligan’s video is unfortunate, but not shocking. There is a well-documented history of multi-million dollar companies making money off of the content stolen from Black creators—an unfortunate trend that’s only become easier with the rise of TikTok.
It shouldn’t need to be stated in 2022 that stealing from Black creators is unacceptable—yet here we are. FN Meka, though allegedly voiced by a Black man, is still a racist and disrespectful attempt to market Black art while undermining the culture it’s pulling from. But it is also worth noting that creating any augmented reality artist is a blow to authentic artistry and foreshadows a dark future for the music industry.
Artist and music discovery is in more jeopardy than ever. In a 2021 interview with Music Business Worldwide, Anthony Martini stated that “the old model of finding talent is inefficient and unreliable.” He added, “It requires spending time scouring the internet, traveling to shows, flying to meetings, expending resources all in search of the magic combination of qualities that just might translate into a superstar act.” Of course, social media has already changed how consumers discover and share new talent, but opting in simply design the next star further eliminates the need for social interaction and communication.
Augmented reality-created music also hinders the quality of the music. Martini confirmed there was a human voice performing the rapper’s vocals, saying that they’re “working towards the ability to have a computer come up with and perform its own words – and even collaborate with other computers as co-writers.”
This ultimately hurts the other artists who are fighting for more individuality and less control from music companies.
And FN Meka’s music isn’t quite like other other created artists such as Auxman or virtual band Gorillaz either. Martini also shared that FN Records “developed proprietary AI technology that analyzes certain popular songs of a specified genre and generates recommendations for the various elements of song construction: lyrical content, chords, melody, tempo, sounds, etc. We then combine these elements to create the song.” Essentially, a gross process that promotes repetitive and unimaginative art. Sure, labels have the idea that if something is selling, there’s no need to try something new, but rap doesn’t need more of the same. It would actually benefit from more innovation and experimentation.
In addition to curbing artist discovery and expression, Capitol Records’ eagerness to sign AR musicians raises questions about the music industry’s motives: Does signing an AR artist give the music label more control? Does it remove the potential for disagreements between the artist and label? Who reaps the financial benefits and royalties from this music: the virtual record company or the music label?
On one hand, this can be looked at as a positive: there will be less fallouts and disagreements between the artists and their management. On the other (arguably more significant) hand, it would undermine the human artists who are pushing for a different business model.
In May, several musicians including FKA Twigs, Halsey, and Charli XCX spoke about their labels pressing them to go viral on Tiktok. “I’ve been in this industry for eight years and I’ve sold over 165 million records and my record company is saying that I can’t release it unless they can fake a viral moment on TikTok,” Halsey said at the time. With AR musicians, though, that’s no longer a problem. Instead, their contracts can force them to comply with virtually all of the label’s requests. This does no harm to them (they aren’t real), but ultimately hurts the other artists who are fighting for more individuality and less control from music companies.
Make no mistake: FN Meka may be gone (for now), but he is not the last. FN Meka was a test run that was only pulled because of the public’s negative response and the tone-deaf music his creators made. But, if there’s anything we’ve learned from controversial artists like 6ix9ine, it’s that sometimes controversy only serves as fuel. In a worst case scenario, the controversy may be just what FN Meka needs to succeed independently.
More will come. Another AR rapper with a much more acceptable persona and catchy music will take his place, and if Capitol Records doesn’t jump on him, another label likely will, because what sounds better than an obedient artist that can pump out songs on its computer ten times faster than the average artist? From a marketing and commercial standpoint, the music industry is sitting on a gold mine, and it’ll just take the right company and character to capitalize on this. But at what cost? As we dip our toes further into the AR space, the music industry further loses sight of creativity, originality, quality, and all of the other elements that makes genres like rap so influential and exciting to listen to. It’s a slippery slope that simply isn’t worth it.