How FN Meka Exposed the Problem of Digital Blackface for Virtual Artists
When can an avatar use the N-word? Or face police brutality? The AI rapper's downfall is a futurist's parable for race and digital ethics in Web3.
Rapper FN Meka became an overnight celebrity this week for all the wrong reasons. Following a humiliating series of events that would send even the boldest artist into hiding, for his own sake it’s a good thing he’s a virtual avatar and not a real person — right?
Well, that’s sort of the problem.
After Capitol Records announced it had signed the tatted-up, green-haired rapper on Aug. 12, news slowly spread until it hit a fever pitch on Monday with critics accusing the project’s designers of cultural appropriation and perpetuating Black stereotypes. Spotify’s head of urban music Carl Chery even weighed in, saying, “I never talk about artists negatively. But I’ll flame an artificial intelligence rapper on Twitter” and stating he wouldn’t be adding FN Meka to any playlists. The next day, Capitol Records said it had “severed ties” with the project “effective immediately” and by Thursday music veteran Anthony Martini — one of the key executives behind FN Meka — had done the same.
The problem with FN Meka, as the internet made loud and clear, was not just that he is a virtual artist — but, rather, the kind of artist he is. With two non-Black executives running the company behind the project, Factory New — essentially a record label for avatars — people found FN Meka particularly tone-deaf without Black creators adequately involved and compensated. (Martini has since stated that there are Black creatives involved in the project, including voicing FN Meka’s rapping, all of whom have remained anonymous except an artist called Kyle the Hooligan who claims FN Meka’s team used his voice early on and then reneged on promises of equity.) But FN Meka is not the only virtual artist out there and is unlikely to be the last one to sign a major record deal. As such, the debacle raises important questions about the future of virtual artists and companies interested in building the space.
Digital blackface is an online phenomenon where white and other non-Black people make claims to Black identities and Blackness through profile pictures and the reaction GIFs they share. Often, the images projected perpetuate Black stereotypes, thereby solidifying the views of those who hold anti-Black perspectives, harkening back to minstrel shows and Jim Crow-era racism. Unlike other more overt forms of blackface, however, digital blackface relies on the general anonymity of the internet. As NFT avatars and games like Fortnite and Roblox lay a foundation for the metaverse and influencers can be synthesized based on someone’s perception of cool, the issue of projected racial identity and the ethics around it are complicated.
In the virtual world, being Black is a choice — and one that could be fetishized and made without understanding the culture, the baggage of historical oppression and the very real threats of violence that Black Americans still face every day.
Digital blackface is not new to creative industries. In 2017, dark-skinned Instagram model Shudu Gram gained popularity, only for it to be revealed that she wasn’t a real person but instead created by a 20-something white man using CGI. Shudu’s creator never sought to hide his identity and even shared his process for creating her visage. According to Lauren Michele Jackson in the New Yorker, Shudu takes after other models, including Iman, but much of the inspiration came from a special-edition Princess of South Africa Barbie doll.
The story of Shudu Gram illustrates the complexities of non-Black people creating Black avatars; no matter how intentional you try to be while creating, ultimately the result is an image built on how non-Black people see Black people, often referred to as the white gaze. Further, this can continue to cement our culture’s fascination with Blackness and Black culture without ever requiring them to engage with or empower Black people, similar to how technology platforms seek to maintain a healthy distance from its users. In her book White Negros, Jackson argues, “The tech industry prefers not to think of humans…tech devours any and all signs of human agency: the Bay Area thus transformed into a dystopian refuge for the obscenely wealthy, Silicon Valley at its hellish core. Aside from the handful of white billionaires whose names are conditioned to memory, anonymity is the last word.”
FN Meka was created to entertain, and Capitol Records wanted to monetize the thing that young people were interested in. (FN Meka’s TikTok has over 10 million subscribers and over 130 million likes.) There’s inherently nothing wrong with either of those objectives. Where things went wrong is the failure to understand the centuries of anti-Blackness steeped in our culture. That’s not to say that non-Black people can’t appreciate Blackness and Black culture, quite the opposite as hip-hop has evolved from a niche music genre to a driving cultural force, but questions need to be asked about whether or not actions are perpetuating stereotypes that can cause harm to the Black community. Much like it’s been widely established non-Black music fans shouldn’t sing along to the N-word in lyrics, non-Black executives probably shouldn’t develop a Black artist who raps the word either.
As the very public rise and fall of FN Meka has sent reverberations across the music industry, questions remain about the future of integrating technology into music. Tatiana Cirisano, a music industry analyst with Midia Research, says that this incident could turn people off the idea of virtual artists and using AI in music despite the technology providing positive opportunities for innovation. Programs like Splice, for example, use AI-powered technology to fine-tune search results and help musicians who need inspiration by recommending beats based on what’s already on a track.
“There’s so much opportunity here and it’s a shame that many people’s first encounter with a virtual artist is going to be this,” says Cirisano, a former Billboard reporter. She highlights Gorillaz as a successful project that blends music, art and storytelling — similar aspects, in concept, to what FN Meka was projecting on social media.
“But Web3 and music is a bit messy right now,” Cirisano continues, “so mistakes are going to be made. People need to do their due diligence because there aren’t as many checks and balances in Web3.”