I watched the kerfuffle around Capitol Records, and its signing of the world’s first artificial intelligence hip-hop artist, FN Meka, with particular interest. Decades ago, I’d been the managing editor of Rap Sheet, a hip-hop newspaper on the West Coast. And since the 1990s, I’d tracked how corporate record companies maximized the exploitation of Black culture, all while enriching hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and Diddy to either billionaire or close to billionaire status. I found it dismaying.
However, to be clear, none of this is new, as this type of cultural and artistic exploitation is essential to capitalism, Black or otherwise. From race records to rock and roll and hip-hop, capitalism in the music industry, like water, seeks its own level ― it must find new cultural horizons to exploit and feed into the maw of consumerism.
That’s the feature, not the flaw.
When Capitol Records worked with a non-Black-owned artificial intelligence music company, Factory New, to create FN Meka, a virtual rapper with over 10 million followers ― and whose “lyrical content, chords, melody, tempo, sounds” was derived in part from artificial intelligence, according to the publication Music Business Worldwide, including dropping a few well placed “N***a” bombs in the lyrics ― well you could predict that the backlash from the Black community, especially the Black artistic community, would be loud and vociferous.
Accusations of “digital Blackface,” “erasure,” and “cultural appropriation” were rightfully lobbed at Capitol Records.
“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,” Industry Blackout, a group devoted to equity in the music business, said in an open letter.
In the face of this collective smoke, Capitol Records dropped FN Meka faster than Nick Cannon impregnates women. As a demand, Industry Blackout asked that Capitol Records distribute any funds earned from the FN Meka character to charities and Black artists on the label.
And that’s when I stopped.
Sure, all of that was true about the issues with FN Meka, but for that transgression, that was the ask? Throwing some coins at the problem? To me, that call to action lacked vision in relation to artificial intelligence, the metaverse, and what Black people should demand of entities that intend upon exploiting Blackness. I have a different POV.
Like in all societal transformations, and this AI and metaverse is a societal transformation, power tends to expand and contract. Revolutionary change means that there’s a variability that threatens our sense of inevitability, regarding who holds power in the end.
Kings and queens rule with absolute power in a feudal society for thousands of years...until they either acquiesce to a representative society or lose their heads. Slavocrisies die in fiery, destructive Civil Wars and the former enslaved are seen as human. Colonialism is deconstructed through peaceful and not-so-peaceful means, and subjects govern themselves instead of being ruled.
Inevitability is an illusion that requires both the powerful and less powerful to agree that society’s structure is immutable except on the margins. It is the stability that lets us sleep at night, even if that sleep is on a sidewalk under a freeway overpass. Yes, even those less powerful often choose inevitability over variability, because revolution is scary. But revolutions change lives, especially in a digital world.
Apple took on IBM. Facebook destroyed MySpace. Google killed every other search engine. Today, each is seen as inevitable, until they, too, are relegated to the dustbins of history.
So what happens when you’re building new alt worlds and you’re Black? Are we replicating the real world with its racism, sexism and homophobia, or are we storming the Bastille and building guillotines for entities like Capitol Records as we envision something different, something in our own control?
For Black folks, there’s an opportunity to not enter this alt world at the margins, but at the center through a wholesale transformation of how we see an AI world, and AI manifestations within that world, whether they be AI hip-hop artists or AI religious figures. But do know, that even new worlds come with caveats.
New worlds can go left, just like in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 classic, “A Clockwork Orange,” where human beings live in a dystopian world of antisocial violence that looks disturbingly close to life in 2022.
Or maybe it can go right, like the Blackety-black Wakanda, where Blackness is not only affirmed, its essence unstained by the deep wound of slavery or the trauma of colonialism. It is a utopian vision that holds a space in the hearts of Black folks, even though it is backed by the decidedly whitey-white Walt Disney corporation, worth over $200 billion in valuation.
Capitalism gonna capitalism. Kanye shrug in Yeezy slides.
Either way, Black folks need new Black-centric philosophies that break with the old real world and adapt to the Brave New World while deconstructing the powerful entities attempting to dictate their Black alt-world future.
For pessimists, particularly Afropessimists, (and before you Afropessimist theorists flip out, know that this isn’t a direct analogy, but go with me on this), FN Meka represented the ultimate “black social death,” a point of view that says the idea of Blackness in this world is a result of our collective history of slavery and anti-Black society that uses violence to strip Black people of their humanity. Blackness is less about cultural identity than something to be brutalized through poverty, subpar education and housing, police brutality, and the entertainment sector.
So to their point, what’s less human and more brutal than a digital “Black” AI hip-hop artist that has no Blackness in the entity, but still has the potential to make oodles of money through capitalism? Devoid of a soul, its Black essence has been ground down to an algorithm of negative stereotypical Black tropes born of the dysfunction of a marginalized Black person in an oppressing white world.
On the other hand, Afrofuturists have always seen a fully human Black identity as part of futuristic science fiction, that to them was less fiction and more science needing to catch-the-hell-up to the Gloryhallastoopid theory of the universe. And as part of the future, intentional Black space designed to foster and nurture Black musical expression was just as important, or even more so than the music itself.
The late, great writer Greg Tate, currently on sabbatical from the Earth and now gigging with Sun Ra and Octavia Butler in the Andromeda Nebula, talked about the importance of free spaces for free expression in a 2015 interview with Capital Bop.
“People are constantly creating what we call ‘maroon spaces’ ― free communities, free platforms for thought and expression. I think that that’s just in the DNA of Black Atlantic culture … There’s always the imperative towards the emancipated space, and music is, of course, a place where you can activate it…”
To me, the answer lies more with Afrofuturism than the Afropessimists. And if I’m making a demand of Capitol Records, it’s not for some bits of silver. For me, my ask of Capitol Records is simple and clear.
I don’t want anything from them nor wish to participate in their capitalistic game of Black cultural exploitation. I’d instead use my own resources to build those “maroon spaces” that Tate imagined, and craft a new economic system that sees humanity in Blackness, Black expression and Black music.
I say nothing because I’d leave the empty, digital, worthless, algorithmic versions of a corporate filtered “Blackness” based on pathologies to Capitol Records. The gears of their capitalistic machine aren’t inevitable, it’s just powerful, and there’s a difference.
And in the short term, Capitol Records will be OK. Because FN Meka may be the first AI digital hip-hop artist, but not the last, by a long shot. And while they hone the code on their next version, I feel secure in knowing that a little Black girl is weaponizing her own code to craft a genuinely free hip-hop artist, truly Black, and honestly about the culture. And that new AI hip-hop artist will live in a metaverse that is in itself free.